Faith VII

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, June 16, 2011

Wielding Faith I

We live in a world of overwhelming uncertainty, and at the same time we need to live our lives, set goals, act in the world. There are some things we know, or pretty reliably know, from direct experience, but really not very much. The rest of what we have to go on is this guesswork we call faith. This world is pregnant with possibilities, and indeed of two kinds: First there are all the propositions that might turn out to be true or to be false. How do we choose? Second, as active agents we have a degree of creative control over the world, there are things we can will to be true or false. What do we value? As we all know we can make some really dumb choices on both counts. This is why we must learn the skill of faith.

One of the first things we can do is extend the range of the known by relying on others, but that requires putting our faith in someone else. We all do this. Faith in others occurs in all areas of human interest. What news sources do we put your faith in? Which friends are reliable sources of information about movies to watch? In the corner of our world of possibilities we have science, concerned at an expert level with expanding the range of the known. Do we have faith in those guys?

Even upon expanding the range of the known in this way, we do not have enough information to act in the world. What is worth doing? We do have basic instinctual drives, for instance for nourishment, procreation, and so on, that are wired into us. I don’t suspect most animals need to think about what are the worthwhile things to do in the world (“Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly …”), and many people are the essentially the same (“… and I gotta love one man ’til I diiiiee”). But humans can question these motivations on the one hand, and look for higher or more satisfactory motivations on the other. Buddhism does this all over the place. At this level the realm faith becomes an adventure, inviting exploration, pregnant with possibilities.

So we populate our worlds with values, with what is worthy, or unworthy, of our attention. Scientists value solving mysteries, discovering truth; this is part of their faith and they allow that to inform their life’s activities. Christians value obeying God’s will. Others value sensual pleasures. The U.S. Marine Corps values courage and honor (according to some billboards I’ve seen), whereas the Army seems to value being all that you can be. Many of the Burmese I know who live in America express surprise at American values, “Everyone seems to just care about money.” As we choose values, we are still in the realm of uncertainty but with creative control, however still unable to predict the consequences of acting according to those values, along with the beliefs or working assumptions we’ve acquired. Our values get us into a lot of trouble, and conflict with each other, when we try to manifest them. There is a world of possibilities to explore.

The Buddha took great care to ensure that Buddhist faith is skillful. Faith at the most fundamental level is placed, as we have seen in the Kalama Sutta, in the value welfare and happiness and the avoidance harm and suffering, for all beings. (Buddhism is about virtue to the core.) The rest of faith must support this value. We have seen that this places a strong constraint on faith that protects us from its abuses. It is also important to put our faith in the wise and then have faith in what they seem to know, and he provides criteria for recognizing the wise.

Additionally the Buddha asks us to put as much reason and discernment behind faith as possible, so that faith comes for the most part in little hops rather than in great leaps, to see for yourself, and if your vision is blurry now to keep trying so that you will see in the future. In the Inquirer Sutta (MN 47) he even provides the example of faith in his own enlightenment and walks through what direct evidence the disciple can discern to support this hop of faith. Eventually reason and discernment should replace Buddhist faith entirely as these develop. Although the Buddha accepts that before that point we need to work with working assumptions on faith, he asks us to be clear that we don’t confuse faith with discernment, that we know where we stand. He also accepts that working assumptions have a practical value independent of whether they are actually true or not. In the Incontrovertible Teaching Sutta (MN 60) he explores the value of the working assumption in more detail than we have here.

If you walk around the monastery where I live in Texas you will find various cottages (kutis) for retreatants, each one named after a Buddhist value. There is Metta (kindness), Karuna (compassion, that is where I dwell), Mudita (joy in the good fortune of others), Uppekha (equanimity), Sila (virtue), Pannya (wisdom), Samadhi (concentration), Sacca (truth), Khema (security), Dana (generosity) and Satipatthana (establishment of mindfulness). These are all personal qualities that are encouraged in practice. We will someday have about fifty cottages, but will not run out of Buddhist values and will probably at some point have a cottage named Saddha (faith).

Faith is on many of the Buddhist lists, such as the Five Faculties and the Five Strengths. Faith is also said to become unshakable when one attains stream-entry. Faith is a condition leading through ease, joy, serenity, and concentration. The opposite of faith, doubt (vicikiccha) is likewise on the lists of Five Hindrances and Ten Fetters. However, according to our discussion so far, faith as a value might seem a bit out of place. First, faith as a general component of human reasoning is as likely, maybe more likely, to be unskillful as skillful; it often gets us in a peck of trouble. Second, including it as a value among values would seem redundant, like including “Obey all rules” as a rule among rules. So why do we value faith?

Saddha in Buddhism is generally taken in the sense of skillful faith, specifically the Buddhist take on faith. Moreover faith is a personal quality subject to cultivation and development in itself, one that has an energy, an emotive property of its own. I’ve described faith as opening up a world of possibilities for us to explore.

In brief, faith in Buddhism is the explorer’s mindset, with these properties:

Faith is bold. It carries discernment as far as it can, wide open to the possibilities, then makes its decision and plunges forth.

Faith is resolute. It sticks with its decision as if it were certain, unless it discerns a serious blunder.

Faith is secure. It relaxes into its resolution, does not waffle or argue with itself, it is a refuge.

Doubt, on the other hand, is the home-body’s mindset. It is wimpy, wishy-washy and nervous. It falters in an uncertain world. This is why in Buddhism faith is a virtue and doubt a hidrance. As states of mind faith and doubt are subject to Right Effort, we try to ensure the arising of faith that has not yet arisen and the maintenance of faith that has already arisen. We try to guard against the arising of doubt that has not yet arisen and to remove the doubt that has already arisen. Devotional practices aid us in the effort.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu in his essay “Faith in Awakening” describes what is at stake:

As in science, faith in the Buddha’s Awakening acts like a working hypothesis, but the test of that hypothesis requires an honesty deeper and more radical than anything science requires. You have to commit yourself — every variation of who you feel you are — totally to the test. Only when you take apart all clinging to your inner and outer senses can you prove whether the activity of clinging is what hides the deathless.

The Buddha also spoke (AN 4.34):

Those who have joyous faith in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs.

In our next and final week I want to take up the psychology of faith in a bit more detail, and in fact to discuss these three properties of being bold, resolute and secure, why these properties are important and how they play out in Buddhist practice.

10 Responses to “Faith VII”

  1. Kim Says:

    One of the first things we can do is extend the range of the known be relying on others,

    You mean “by relying…”


  2. don Says:

    I have experienced Faith as bold and resolute. I have serious problems when it come to Faith is secure. I bring my own interpretation of whatever path I study. It does not matter if I were told 1000’s of times to be careful or aware of this or that. I am very selective in my hearing. So I dash myself against rocks again and again. I am not very skilful.

    I assume that faith allows us to take a step towards a goal. Which brings me to my continual problem.
    I am very attracted to dogs. A couple of times I have really gone out of my way to help dogs I know that are suffering or on the verge of being killed and have suffered. However each time has not ended in the result I wished for. The results I feel were ended in the worst possible way, death or continued abuse.
    I end up being very attached to the idea of how much they suffered and how terrible it is I could not show them love or be of help. There is no need to read between the lines (I know lots of this is ego driven). But I think there is a part of me that genuinely is concerned and wants to help.
    The problem is I become depressed and I focus on the life and suffering these dogs had to go through. I feel the answer to this must be faith but how does one apply it when all the love and help I can offer fails?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Don, Thanks for your example. I will elaborate on bold, resolute and secure faith in the coming posting that might bring some clarity of what I am talking about, but let me comment on your example.
      First, faith alone is not enough to eliminate all suffering; it is a necessary foundation of Buddhist practice but we have many layers and types of suffering and insecurity and many specific practices that address these issues. Faith provides one level of security that works well with the rest of Buddhist practice.
      Now a lot of distress is arising in your mind concerning the suffering of animals, and you will observe that that distress is largely spinning of wheels, it really does not help the animals, until you make a vow:” This is what I am going to do to help.” That vow should be well-informed; it should not be ignorant of the other commitments you have made in your life, nor of your own level of energy. It should be grounded in compassion, but be level-headed, not motivated by desperation, which will inevitably include a lot of delusive ideas. Once you make the vow, which can be bold and resolute, then you can become effective in helping.
      Now, what happens to your distress around this issue? It is probably still there, but it is not fed by the thoughts, Am I doing enough? Maybe I should be doing something different. You have made your vow, you can put those thoughts aside. The distress you still feel around the issue is entirely wheel spinning. With your vow in hand the distress does not provide any useful motivation, and in fact simply saps the energy you could be using to fulfill your vow. The distress is unskillful, unwholesome, and can be addressed through Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration; you are already practicing Right Resolve and Virtue.
      In short, the vow provides a secure foothold, a refuge. As you settle into the vow as your motivator you are in a position to let go of the emotional distress as useless wheel-spinning. In fact your good works the become joyful and your energy will be up to the task.
      Does that make sense?


  3. don Says:

    Venerable Cintita,

    Yes it makes lots of sense. There is a part I get stuck on, perhaps it is a lack of planning on my part. However life experience seems to be a rearview mirror. So the lessen is learned after the experience has happened. Even then many times after the fact I still dont understand what the point of my actions were.

    Here is an example:

    My latest effort was to pull a dog that was going to be put to sleep.
    It was an old dog, suffering from spine and hip problems. The shelter had his history and it was not good. He had been chained all of his live and lived out in the open, through the cold winters, rainy seasons and hot summers. It is not a fabrication when i say this dog was in a lot of pain. This is the information coming from the shelter itself. The dog was growling at everyone and was going to be put down because the shelter deemed him to be vicious. .( This dog was 10 minutes away from the needle but a kind official stepped in at the last minute) It broke my heart. After emails to officials and signing papers that I would not sue anyone if I were bitten I picked up the dog. He was in bad shape and not very friendly. I think due to the pain and not because he was vicious.
    I took him straight to the vet and we got some pain killers in him, took xrays and gave him medication for the arthritus and inflamation. He stayed at the vets and the next day he was able to walk. he was still not friendly but allowed the staff to walk him and pet him even though he growled at them. Then he made it to sunday, collapsed and lay on the floor. He tried to get up and could not move. He stopped eating and he was in tremendous pain again. His energy was going and you could see he had given up. The vet said that recovery for him would be highly unlikely and the most humane thing would be to let him go and so I gave permission for him to be put to sleep. Now I tell you this story not to show I tried to do a good thing but to ask how do I apply faith to a situation like this. In my mind there was not one good thing that was done for this dog. He never got to realize a good loving home. I actually prolonged his pain by traveling with him and not letting the shelter put him down. I spent a lot of money that may have been put to better use for a dog that did not have health problems. The whole thing failed. How do I have faith that I did the right thing and how do I have faith that even though no suffering was relieved that it was still a good thing for this dog? Or am I right and it was a total failure?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      OK, here is my version of the narrative. In a situation where others wanted to give up on this dog, the faith arose in you, motivated by compassion and the best of your discernment, “I can save this dog.” This step was bold and resolute, and from that point that faith informed your actions; you acted in complete conviction, as if certain. Now faith is a strategy for dealing with uncertainty, not for eliminating it. In fact in this case what you had faith turned out to be false, and the dog may have suffered even more as a consequence.

      Security is found in running with it without waffling. In fact this is generally the only way to find out if what you have faith in is true. Security is found in knowing that you are doing the compassionate thing and to the best of your discernment the beneficial thing, the karmically most positive thing, which is to say, traces of your actions will stay with you forever in the form of a stronger character leaning more toward compassion and bold and resolute faith.

      In this case the results were not as hoped. You seem to be dealing with some remorse; your practice is to let go of that, you did the very best you could, remorse will not help you do better in the future, it is unskillful and vexing. The important question for you now is, “Was my discernment faulty upon which my faith was based?” or “Under similar future circumstances will I act in the same way?” Discernment is a skill, faith is a skill, skills always need refining, this is learning.


  4. rockjdog Says:

    Venerable Cintita,

    You have hit everything dead center, nailed it right square on the head. Just a little dialog with you has helped a lot. Thank you very much.

    One of the things that I think westerners have is more fellowship. It can be very helpful for guidence. The problem I have with our teachings is that Jesus will do everything for us, forgive us, clothe us, give us jobs etc. I do believe everything Jesus said is true but he was speaking as an enlightened being. Something that each of us must reach and work toward. The big failure of western religion ( for me) is they fail to see is there is no magic pill and we each must do the work of unfolding.

    I believe everything that Buddha said is true also. The problem I find it is hard to find that fellowship like we have in a church. It is so helpful to bounce our struggles off Buddhist clergy. Thank you again.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      I would be interested in knowing about your experience with fellowship in a Buddhist organization. The typical American model of Buddhist community is generally quite a bit different from the Asian; I often view it as a combination of Protestant church and yoga studio.


  5. don Says:

    Dear Venerable Cintita,

    As you may remember you and I met in Westchester, NY. My wife practices pure land. There is no temple here so she does her chanting at home. I have been to a couple of temples in flushing but it seems to be allot of chanting. Most of the monks do not speak English so it is hard to converse. I search online for temples in my area but when I find something I am interested in hearing about I find the weekly class is cancelled. I am not really into chanting which seems to be a big part of these temples.

    I know from going to church as a kid there were youth Counsellors that would take spend time with us. We would go on outings. They did not so much preach to us but acted as good examples of behaviour and they would explain things about life and listen to our questions and give us advice. It was great to have an adult (other then parents) that could relate to us.

    When I got older I followed a study called the infinite way. That particular study is not organized but there are teachers to be found. It was important to practise what I was learning but even more important was being able to connect with someone that had more experience and knowledge. Like a teacher or mentor. Others in the group were great too because we could help and support each other.

    I can read books and practise what I read but I have found that to really grow: human contact with those that are in authority really makes applying what I am learning more tangible.
    I guess what I envisioned as far as going to a temple is there would be a monk that would speak on a topic. Some meditation after words, some fellowship and then opportunities to form a relationship with a monk. By relationship I mean establishing trust and an openness to discuss how I work my Buddhism principles, problems I may have, things I don’t understand and so on.

    I have not been able to find such a place yet and perhaps that is just not how it works.


  6. don Says:

    PS I am also Rockjdog. For some reason that account came up when I posted once. Rockjdog is my handle I use when posting about animals on other blogs. Darn cookies!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: