21st Century Faith

The Dalai Lama is currently in Karnataka, India giving teachings on the Commentary on the Five Stages by Nagarjuna at Gyudmed Tantric University. According to the Tibet Post he told the audience that one should strive to become a 21st century Buddhist with both traditional values and a modern education.

He also commented on the subject of faith, saying

I always say that study and practice are both very important, but they must go hand in hand. “Not merely belief – faith alone is not sufficient . . . Faith needs to be supported by reason. Whatever we learn from study we need to apply sincerely in our daily lives.”

Xinxin, the Chinese characters for "faith"

The Post reports that he pointed out that the Buddha’s teachings should not only be the object of prayer and prostration, but that we should also pursue study and analysis of the teachings, as opposed to simply relying on faith.

Buddhists had different ideas regarding faith. Personally, I reject the notion that faith in Buddhism is akin to the Western notion, which Merriam-Webster’s defines in part as “allegiance to duty or a person; belief and trust in and loyalty to God; firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”

I do believe that Buddhist faith involves trust – trust in the teachings (after some study and critical analysis) and that it is “something that is believed especially with strong conviction.” Without some trust and conviction in the teachings, and without a determination to put the teachings into practice, what would be the point?

Now, from what I understand the Commentary on the Five Stages by Nagarjuna was written by Panchen Lobsang Choegyan and that the Nagarjuna in question is not the one we all know and love but rather the “Siddha N?g?rjuna,” a Tantric master and holder of the Mahamudra-Lineage. The two have often been confused.

The original Nagarjuna (assuming he was an actual historical person) wrote:

Because one has faith, one partakes of the dharma;
Because one has wisdom, one truly understands.
Of these two, wisdom is foremost,
But faith is the one that must come first.

So this kind of trust, this sort of conviction or confidence that there is something in the teachings which is extremely valuable and powerful, this kind of belief in the possibilities of the dharma, is a prerequisite. In the long run, though, as the Dalai Lama has noted, in commenting of the above verse, faith in Buddhism is not blind faith:

[A] flawed way is where you approach the path or practice purely on the basis of blind faith. You understand nothing, it’s just simple faith that is totally blind. It is again a flawed way of pursuing the path. By drawing contrast to these four wrong ways of going about one’s practice, [Nagarjuna] defines what is the true sense of faith.

Here Nagarjuna defines that someone who’s faith in the path . . . is grounded in a personal understanding and knowledge—such a person is someone who is said to possess the right kind of faith, the right kind of competence to engage in the path.

The kind of understanding that is referred to here, upon which one must ground one’s faith, is a fundamental understanding [the Buddha’s teachings] . . .  and though this understanding one can develop a deep conviction . . . Thus one will be able to engage in a dharmic life, and live according to a life-style that is with the bounds of an ethical and disciplined way of life. Such a person, whose faith and conviction in dharma is grounded in such an understanding, is said to be the ideal practitioner.


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