In general, we can define two difference approaches to faith in Buddhism. The first is a sort of strong belief in the efficacy of a Buddha-figure, super-mentor or cosmic dharma without any empirical evidence to support such a belief. Most forms of Buddhism that promote this kind of faith believe that we live in a degenerate age where the minds of the people are so polluted that they cannot rely on their own power to attain liberation, so “faith” in some other-power alone can save.
There is no tangible evidence that supports the theory of a degenerate age, nor for any Buddhas living in pure lands beyond this world, or for the belief that Buddhist dharma has morphed into a “mystic law.” Nagarjuna called this the easy way of faith, and despite how that statement has been used as an endorsement of such beliefs, I think it is literally true. And, I’m not convinced that Nagarjuna didn’t mean that way, either.
The second kind of Buddhist faith is more along the lines of having trust and confidence in the teachings based on personal experience and a rational understanding of the underlying concepts. In this kind of faith, there is room for doubt. Questioning that leads to an open-minded investigation should be considered part of the path. When it is merely questioning because of preferences, however, then we can run into trouble.
There are some who criticize an approach based on empiricism and try to dismiss it as a wrong-headed Western method. Yet, that is exactly the kind of faith the Buddha taught. His teachings were not based on blind belief but rather his personal experience. Had he not experienced awakening beneath the Bodhi tree, he could never have taught it. The Buddha didn’t pull his ideas on suffering and awakening out of the air. They weren’t revealed to him by some mystical supreme being. He experienced both suffering and awakening, and so he was able to offer teachings on them. What’s more, he invited folks to test his theories, discover for themselves if they were valid or not.
At the same time, some Western Buddhists can allow the search for actual proof to trip them up.
At the beginning of the Ratnavali or “Precious Garland”, Nagarjuna says,
One who does not discount the dharma
Through desire, anger, fear, or confusion,
Should be known as one with faith –
A supreme vessel of the highest good.
A wise person is one who having accurately
Analyzed actions of body, speech, and mind
Always acts for the benefit of self and others.
In these verses, “faith” equates to having an open mind. It means having a seeking mind and having the willingness to try the practice even though we may not comprehend it fully. Without this sort of openness, there is no possibility of acquiring wisdom. This is far from blind faith, however, which Nagarjuna defines as a flawed approach.
At some point, it is necessary to put aside questions and reservations, and just walk the path. Our mind has a natural tendency to put up roadblocks, and if we stop and ponder each one of them, we will never get anywhere. Within faith, there is an element of surrender. We have to put down our conceptual arms long enough to make some sort of peace with Buddhist concepts. But it’s not a complete surrender. There is no requirement to just give up our desire to have the teachings make sense for us, or to adopt an unthinking, uncritical mind, which is also an impediment to the acquisition of wisdom. But we have to learn how to control that impulse long enough to give the teachings a fair shot.
Last week I wrote about the American monk who told me that I had too many questions. In a way, he was right. Not in the context of that situation, but in a different way. There was a point where my questions became a hindrance. When it led to some unfortunate arguments, I decided to go a full year without being critical, without questioning (everything), and without expecting all that I heard to make immediate and complete sense. I just accepted. Trusted. Practiced faith. Went with the flow.
The result was that at the end, I had a clearer mind. It wasn’t about giving over control of my thoughts to anyone or anything. It was about learning how to control myself. Empiricism does have an important role to play in Buddhist faith. So too, does a certain amount of acceptance, or willingness to practice the teachings without analyzing and rationalizing everything to death.
From the Xinxin Ming or “Inscribed Verses on Faith” by Seng-ts’an (Sengcan):
One thing, all things;
move among and intermingle,
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is