A Buddhist Creed – Part 0: Talking About Faith
Hello everyone, I know it’s been a while since I’ve added a new Red Mahayana post. Both life, and the Sutryana Program I’m doing are keeping me a bit busy, but I thought I’d take a moment to start a brief series of articles on “faith” in Buddhism. The articles are a loosely commentary on a verse in the Abhidharmakosha by Vasubandhu, one of the great early Buddhist scholars:
“If it is asked, what is faith? Faith is full confidence in cause and effect (Karma), the Four Noble Truths, and the Three Jewels; it is also an aspiration for spiritual attainment and clear-minded appreciation of truth”
Without further ado …
Part 0:Faith in Buddhism
Before we get into talking about “faith” and “creed” let’s take a moment to talk about the meaning of these words in a Buddhist sense. The normal connotation of the word “faith” and “creed” in our culture is quite different. For those from Christian backgrounds, you might recall that the connotation of faith there is “the evidence of things unseen”. “Creed” is also defined as a set of principles that define somewhat rigid guidelines or boundaries of Christian belief. Some are relatively simple, others are more complex. Talking about “faith” in Buddhism always tends to present a sticky wicket that requires explanation, because Buddhism, at its core is a philosophy grounded in things experienced and things seen, but yet, the great Buddhist masters talk about “faith”, so, what is a conscientious practitioner to do to reconcile these two seemingly different interpretations of the same word?
As Buddhists, we do not believe that external entities can intervene and deliver our “salvation”, “enlightenment”, whatever you want to call it. Buddhism is very stronglyhumanistic in that the Dharma teaches us that only we can do the hard work of working with our own minds. So how does faith play in a humanistic context? First let me say that: in Buddhism, faith is earned, never expected. The Buddha taught:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” – Kalama Sutra, Anuguttara Nikaya
So, in Buddhism, Faith is a matter of trust in and reliance on the teachings as the method. Upon practicing the teachings, if we find that we have received some manner of benefit, we then begin to have faith(trust) in the teachings, and we accept them and live up to them.
This understanding of the nature and meaning of faith is key to embarking on Buddhist practice in a meaningful way. For folks who are looking to use the mindfulness teachings of the Buddha for the purposes of relieving stress, coping with various life situations, etc., this understanding of faith assures these practitioners that using the teachings and following them does not conflict with loyalties they may have with their faith or cultural institutions. On the other side, for folks who are Buddhists (that is who have taken Buddhism as their main spiritual path), this understanding of faith is essential to working with the mind and opening up one’s perception. Buddhism is about working with our view. Indeed, in the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, we already possess enlightenment, but due to a fundamentally incorrect view, we cannot recognize our own enlightenment.
So, for Buddhists then, faith is not a matter of hope or fear. We don’t hope that we will be enlightened. From the benefits we have experienced from trying and experimenting with our practice, we know through practice we will grow and can be of benefit not only to ourselves, but also to others. We don’t fear divine punishment or “Buddha’s wrath”, because there is no punishment and no wrath. Buddhism imparts to us insights about our mind and how we perpetuate our own suffering, and how to break that cycle (which we’ll talk about in the coming weeks).
To set up for the coming parts, Vasubandhu outlines three kinds of faith in his verse which are as follows:
1. Faith (confidence in) the teachings of the Dharma, namely: Karma, the Four Noble Truths, and the Three Jewels.
2. An aspiration (knowledge) that we can attain and realize enlightenment.
3. A clear-minded appreciation of the truth and power of the Buddhist path.
These three kinds of faith help the practitioner of the Buddhadharma to stay undistracted on the path. It is not hope or fear. Rather, it is confidence in the fact that the teachings are the way for us to overcome the pervasive suffering we and other sentient beings experience.