Faith in Buddhism

Faith is a complicated subject in Buddhism as there are a variety of meanings and expressions of this concept. The word “faith” (Pali: saddha, Skt: sraddha) is used in many different contexts, and even in the case of great masters like Nagarjuna and Dogen, the term with is used with various shades of meaning, and there is further variation in the interpretation of their import. I think faith is whatever it means to each individual. There can be no one authoritative definition.  Which makes sense, because how could there just be one kind of faith for many kinds of people?

So, whenever I am asked what faith in Buddhism is, I usually tell the truth and say I’m not sure. I will point out that Buddhist faith should not be blind faith or trust in anything outside of one’s life. Here, I think we should be guided by our general sense of what the historical Buddha taught. He did not point his followers in any direction external to their own lives. Nor did he ask them to throw away reason or logic or suspend critical thinking.

Of course, there are forms of Buddhism that do not seem to follow that. However, I feel that when a teaching goes out of bounds in either direction, then perhaps it’s not Buddhism any more.

At the same time, I suspect that “faith” is a concept that was layered onto the teachings after the Buddha’s passing. I am doubtful that the Buddha talked about faith in any sense. Just because the word appears in the Pali Canon, which is considered to be the more or less verbatim record of the Buddha’s teachings, doesn’t necessarily mean he actually taught it. It’s said that the Buddha levitated over the Ganges River and I have my doubts about that too.

By the same token, while I may see things in the early teachings that support my supposition, they may not be “verbatim” either.

But the Buddha was not a religious teacher, not in the sense that we understand that role today. He was a mendicant philosopher, a meditation teacher. In the Majjhima Nikaya or “Middle-length Discourses”, the Buddha says, “I am an analyst, not a dogmatist.” According to Prof. Trevor Ling in The Buddha,

By dogmatist he meant one who made categorical statements which were to be accepted simply on the authority of the one who made them. The Buddha insisted that all propositions must be tested, including his own. The testing of these had to take the form of the living out of the disciplined life of morality, meditation and the systematic cultivation of insight.

This would seem to rule out the most commonly accepted uses of the word faith, definitions of which, according to Merriam-Webster, include belief and trust in and loyalty to God; belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion; and firm belief in something for which there is no proof

There’s no revelations in the Buddha’s story. No burning bushes, voices in a cave or from on high. Everything the Buddha taught was based on his personal experience, and the core teachings of nearly all of the great teachers who followed were based on their experience. This is why the Buddha refused to answer questions about the beginning of the universe or whether it was finite or infinite, and so on. It would be mere speculation. The Buddha was solely concerned with what he saw in the world around him: suffering. His answer to the problem of suffering was not to offer belief, but to provide a verifiable way to transcend it.

So if there was something to have confidence and trust in, it was the Buddhist way of life, the practice of morality and meditation. This would have to be based on tangible results, on one’s progress along the path, and it would culminate with the acquisition of wisdom. Faith in that sense is consistent with the overall tone of the Buddha’s teachings and with the “religious” milieu on the Indian sub-continent during his time.

Ultimately, if Buddhism holds up a lamp of faith, its light comes from within. For the Buddha’s last words are said to have been, “Be a lamp unto yourself. Work out your liberation with diligence.”

The Buddha once asked Sariputta, “Do you believe what I have explained?” Sariputta replied, “Yes, I see that it is so.” The Buddha asked him, “Do you take it merely out of faith in me, the teacher?” Sariputta answered, “No, I do not take it out faith in the Blessed One, but because I have known, seen, penetrated, realized, and attained it by means of discernment. I have no doubt or uncertainty, because I clearly see for myself that it is so.”

Pubbakotthaka Sutta (paraphrased)

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3 thoughts on “Faith in Buddhism

  1. Thank you for posting on this important part of our practice. The topic of faith gets a little complicated in western expressions of Zen where I think many have rejected blind faith (in God, in Jesus, or the pulpit, for example) in favor of the experiential foundation of Buddhism. So faith sometimes seems foreign to western Buddhist practitioners. But we Buddhists do have faith. A Buddhist has to have at least a nominal faith that enlightenment is possible or else practice is pointless. By extension, we have to have faith that we can transform ourselves. Also, we have to have faith that our sensory impressions, though obviously limited, are essential reliable. I think eventually, after many years of practice, our faith resolves itself into an abiding trust and acceptance.

    Again, thanks for posting this.

    1. You’re welcome and thank’s for your comment.

      I’m not sure that faith seems foreign to Western Buddhists, but since many have rejected the idea of blind faith, as you mention, they are on guard against any hint of it. Because of that they might see it where it doesn’t really exist, but they also have legitimate concerns with some forms of Buddhism that do indeed present a sort of blind faith scenario. The kind of rational, mature kind of faith that you and I are talking about seems a bit too subtle for some folks to grasp. Maybe it’s better to simply call it confidence and/or trust and not use the “F” word.

      You also make a very good point about how to resolve the question. It takes time to develop abiding trust and acceptance. Maturity, especially spiritual maturity in Buddhism, is not a matter of weeks or months but rather years, perhaps even decades. A lot of people don’t want to hear that and in today’s world they are just too impatient, so they have a tendency to prejudge and be dismissive about certain ideas before those notions have had a chance to maturate. I know of some Asian Buddhist teachers who would consider anyone who has practiced less than 10 years as a beginner.

  2. What to do when you don’t see the Buddha, when your doctor tells you that you have advanced stomach cancer or the promises of your teachings or teacher seem remote or detached from your reality as a human being? Faith or lack of faith at these crucial moments is what determines your state of life. Mustering an unshakeable faith is the goal of Buddhism.

    It is often extremely difficult to see Pure and Perfect Enlightenment throughout the many harsh realities of life. That is why perfect examples of our faith too is necessary. Faith in Shakyamuni Buddha’s Enlightenment and his behavior through a myriad of vicissitudes and Nichiren Daishonin’s faith in and practice of the Daimoku of the Lotus Sutra in overcoming an even harsher reality can be indispensible. Never having met nor observed Shakyamuni Buddha and Nichiren Daishonin, sometimes and depending on our circumstances, blind faith serves as a lifeline.

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