What Is Faith?

Kuan-Ting (also known as Chang-an) was the 2nd patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, although some sources cite him as the 5th. In his introduction of the Mo Ho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), the monumental work compiled from the teachings of the de facto founder of the T’ien-t’ai sect, Chih-i, he says,

What is Perfect Faith? It is the conviction that all entities are empty, that they are nevertheless provisionally existent, and that they are the middle between these extremes. Though ultimately there are not three separate views, provisionally there are three. To say separately they do not exist forestalls the interpretation that there are three, while to say there are three illuminates the truth in each of them. yet in the absence of either forestalling or illuminating the difference between them, one has conviction that all entities are alike, ultimate, pure and unimpeded. When hearing of the profundity and the vastness, not to fear or doubt; and when hearing of the shallow and the narrow, to still have courage in one’s mind – this is what is called having perfect faith.”

In the text of the MHCK itself, Chih-i says,

It is like talking about burning a candle: it is not beginning, yet not apart from the beginning, not final, yet not apart from ending. If knowledge and faith are complete, when one hears that a single instant is it [bodhicitta: the thought of awakening], by virtue of faith one does not repudiate it, and by virtue of knowledge one does not fear it. beginning and end are both right, both it.

If one has no faith, one will elevate it to the sphere of sages and think one has no knowledge of it. If one has no knowledge, one will become conceited and think one is equal to Buddha. Then beginning and end are both wrong, both not it.

In one of the footnotes of Neal Donner’s translation of the MHCK, he quotes from the Kogi, a Japanese commentary on the MHCK by Chiku (1780-1862):

Faith means to accept the teaching directly without superimposing one’s personal opinions.”

Chinese characters for Xinxin or "faith."

And, of course, Seng-ts’an in his poem Xinxin Ming (“Verses on Faith in Mind”) wrote,

To understand the mystery of this One-essence
is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally
the timeless Self-essence is reached.
No comparisons or analogies are possible
in this causeless, relationless state.
Consider motion in stillness
and stillness in motion;
both movement and stillness disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist
Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality
no law or description applies.

For the unified mind in accord with the Way
all self-centered striving ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish
and life in true faith is possible.”

Kuan-Ting translation by Neal Donner; Chih-i translation by Thomas Cleary


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.


A Postcript on Faith

Hsin, the Chinese character for "faith" does not imply mere belief, but confidence that comes from firsthand experience.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no question that Dogen is one of the premier Buddhist teachers from the past. Not everyone has the same opinion, but that’s their problem.

One thing that I always find rather puzzling, though, is that even within the school Dogen founded, Soto Zen, it seems there is some resistance to, or exception taken with his notion that “just sitting” is the path to awakening, equal to enlightenment. I can’t believe that he meant it to be taken literally, but then I am no expert on Dogen’s teachings, and I’m not even a Zen Buddhist, so I may not know what I am talking about.

But I do know that early in his life, Dogen pondered this question: if one undertakes Buddhist practice with the hope of attaining enlightenment, then after one has achieved that goal why is it necessary to continue to practice? The answer he arrived at was that practice (zazen or meditation) and enlightenment were identical (shusho ichinyo, literally “practice and enlightenment are one’).

In the Introduction to “Moon in a Dewdrop”, a collection of Dogen’s writings, Kazuaki Tanahashi says,

There is a tendency to view enlightenment as separate from practice and to seek some splendid insight as the goal of Zen practice. Dogen teaches that this is an illusion. One must fully understand the wholeness of practice and enlightenment. Dogen describes this understanding as mastery of Buddhism or the “true dharma eye.” It is freedom from a dualistic frame of mind.

Enlightenment as actualization of buddha nature through practice is Dogen’s fundamental teaching. All his discourses are intended to help students “understand” the meaning of this practice-enlightenment. But understanding is not the final goal; continuous everyday practice is the ultimate goal.

Dogen was a Tendai priest so it is certainly reasonable to assume that the teachings of T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i had some influence on his thinking. In the  Fa-hua Hsuan-i or “Hidden Meaning of The Lotus Sutra”, Chih-i is quoted as saying, “No affairs of life or work are in any way apart from the ultimate reality.” He, in turn, was influenced by Nagarjuna, who wrote in the Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra, “The ultimately real nature of the knowledge of all forms (sarvakarajnata), the ultimately real nature of the tathagata, all this is one reality, not two, not divided. When the bodhisattva realizes this reality (tatha) he is called the Tathagata.”

Tathagata is an epithet for the Buddha, meaning “one who has thus gone.” Tatha refers to “suchness” which is “the undifferentiated whole of things, the ultimate reality, it is the nature of all things.” (Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms) A tathagata then is someone who has entered deeply into the realization of  ultimate nature. There is no separation between this reality and the individual or any activity carried out by any individual, and you can carry that to say that everything is enlightenment or as the Diamond Sutra says, “Everything is Buddha.”

Because reality does not exist in separate parts but is actually a cohesive whole, Dogen said that practice is enlightenment, and I think he well understood, as I mentioned previously, that enlightenment is not a destination,  it’s a process, a path itself. Dogen “repeatedly emphasizes the interpenetration of practice and enlightenment. ‘Practice’ here means ongoing daily activity centered in [meditation]. ‘Enlightenment’ is actualization of buddha nature through practice.” (Tanahashi)

How else can one actualize buddha nature if not by practice? Since it is an intuitive process, you can’t do it by reading a book, watching a video, listening to a podcast or even thinking about it.

In reference to yesterday’s post, we could say that, within Buddhism, faith is practice. This kind of faith is not a passive thing, it’s dynamic. “Just sitting” is not just sitting, for meditation is dynamic. For instance, if the results of the study I blogged about last week are to be believed, meditation changes our brain structures. That’s not just squatting on a cushion.

Going further, faith is enlightenment, if by faith we mean the trust and confidence that helps us maintain continuous everyday practice.  Unfortunately, words like faith come with a lot of baggage, which is why I am often inclined to use the Asian words for these terms. If we talk about shraddha, the Indian word, or the Chinese hsin (Jp.: shin), these are word-sounds that are new to our ears and not loaded with a lot of images that only fog up our minds and make it difficult to grasp a new understanding for an old word.

Buddhahood may seem to be a grand ideal or a goal far off on the horizon of the future, however, faith in Buddhism means understanding that it is only a mirage. Buddhahood exists nowhere else except where we are right now. Putting one’s “faith” into action means practicing, through which we uncover the awakened nature that we have always had, and through our continuous practice we are continually becoming Buddhas.


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)