Faith IX

Uposatha Day, New Moon, June 30, 2011

Summary and Conclusion

Modern Buddhist commentators have not settled on an English translation for the Pali word “saddha,” often choosing a word like “confidence” or “conviction” to disassociate Buddhist faith from faith as it is uncomfortably understood in Western religion, and particularly from blind faith. I have chosen to use the word “faith” because I want to underscore that there is a commonality here, and in fact one that underlies virtually all human reasoning, religious or otherwise. Faith is what we need to deal with uncertainty, when we need to know more than we in fact do. Faith is the stuff of assumptions and beliefs, but also of values and aspirations. In an uncertain world, faith is not only a prominent part of human cognition, but an essential part of human cognition, necessary for getting out of bed in the morning, brushing your teeth, selecting a bottle of fine wine, applying for a job, watching a movie or becoming a Buddhist practitioner. There is not much difference in kind, for instance, between religious faith and political opinion, and in fact blind faith is quite alive in current popular political, social and economic thought.

However, Buddhist faith distinguishes itself within the whole realm of religious and non-religious faith. It has some affinity with scientific faith in working in close collaboration with discernment or knowing. As faith it jumps beyond what we know, but hopping rather than leaping is encouraged. Accordingly our faith will be limited as we start Buddhist practice, but it will grow as we begin to verify teachings in out own experience and begin to recognize in the Dhamma a very good track record. We are also encouraged to keep track of what we know as opposed to what we accept on faith, all the while investigating and challenging what we accept on faith to better ground it in knowing. This is why Sariputta could respond as he does in the following:

The Buddha asked Sariputta, “Do you take it on faith that these five strengths — faith, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment— lead to the deathless?”

Sariputta answered, “No, I don’t take it on faith. I know.”

As our practice reaches higher levels of attainment, and we verify more and more of the Dhamma in our own experience, knowing will replace faith. In contrast to science, however, the primary criterion that we place on faith is not, “Is it true?” but rather, “Is it of benefit.” (History has shown that science might have done well to keep the same question in mind.)

Discernment alone is sterile, has no zeal or values, it belongs to an impoverished world extending no further than our front porch. Faith alone is a bit whimsical, off the wall and often dangerous. Balancing the two entails living and acting resolutely in faith, while actively examining and trying to understand what we have faith in with a discerning mind. Doubt is a disruption of this balance when discernment eats away at resolution without offering anything better to replace our faith with. Buddhist faith is a skillful mental faculty which requires care in cultivation and development as a part of practice. In Buddhism we need to explore deep into our own minds, often into uncharted territory, including dark areas that we may have intentionally ignored. Accordingly, our faith requires an explorer’s boldness and resolution. Vow and devotion are primary manifestations of this that embrace what we choose to regard as valuable and meaningful.

Skillful faith brings with it a delight, a sense of certitude, as the we relax into our informed choices. Our perspective flips as our values and aspirations are no longer pursued for some originating motive, but for themselves. Sir Edmund Hilary when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest could only answer, “Because it’s there!” He might of answered, “So I can get famous,” “So I can write books, give lectures and make a lot of money,” or “So I can get a date,” but he didn’t. Instead he has what it Buddhism is a noble motive, doing something for its own sake with no personal stake in the outcome. Selfless devotion, also common among hobbyists such as birdwatchers and people who make ferris wheels out of toothpicks, faith at its best, creates strong marriages and serene and unwavering Buddhist practitioners.


This concludes the series on faith. After much response to my request for topics I have chosen to take up “Lay Buddhist Practice” next. I will keep the other suggestions in mind, but this important topic seems to be most stimulating of thoughts right now.


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