Monday, September 21, 2009


Buddhist Faith, Believing in the Seen and See-able

We tend to think of faith as belief in something that cannot be proven. This type of faith is a conviction in the absence of evidence. We commonly call this “blind faith,” though more accurately it is “cognitive” faith.

If we look closely at the idea of faith, we can differentiate between “cognitive” and “affective” faith. To have faith in the cognitive sense is to believe something is true without being able to verify it. For example, tenets of cognitive faith might be a belief that the plagues of the Exodus stories actually occurred ancient Egypt, or a belief that the physical resurrection of Jesus actually happened as a historical event.

Interestingly, cognitive faith is generally rejected in Buddhism as not conducive to spiritual awakening. This is seen most emphatically in the often quoted Kalama Sutra AN 3.65    where the Buddha explains how to decide the veracity of a spiritual belief system.

Affective faith, on the other hand, refers to faith that arises from observation and reflection, to a sense of confidence and trust in a practice or a person or a certain set of values. This kind of faith is more experiential, or intuitive, than intellectual.

In Western Buddhism today faith (saddha) is understood in the affective sense, as confidence in the Buddha as a symbol of the potential of his beliefs; in his teachings, the Dharma; and in the spiritual community, the Sangha.

Why affective and not cognitive becomes somewhat clearer when we realize that the Buddha claimed to have discovered that certain thoughts, actions and practices lead to the cessation of suffering. Rather than having invented reality either speculatively or miraculously, and then exacting from us blind faith as payment for his revelation,  Buddha discovered something about reality, requiring nothing of us other than a willingness to do what he did and discover it ourselves. And as we see that the general principles work, we develop trust that the more subtle aspects of the teachings will also work.

In my life, faith in the Buddha, Dharma,  and Sangha (the Triple Gem) is the natural consequence of the practice. In other words, mine is affective faith, which comes from an examination, both on and off the cushion, of my experience with suffering.  I suggest you use your practice to do the same.  Generate faith in the practice from your practice by becoming aware of experience with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in reducing and ending your suffering. See if your dukkha is weaker than it was. Is it fading away? Therein is the source of the faith that will sustain your practice.

When I saw, dramatically and profoundly how the practice had brought peace and happiness to my life, when I realized that the tools it gave me really did work to reduce dukkha, I understood the great value of the Sangha. It is the monastic sangha who are dedicating their lives to preserving the teachings for us all. And as I realized deeply that my own true nature already is enlightenment, I began to develop a reverence and appreciation for the Triple Gem from an unshakeable place inside my practice.

Without faith, I suggest, we cannot get to the other shore. For while the teachings can be secularized, and can be useful when pulled out of context and used, for example, to help us with an anxiety disorder, when we use the teachings simply to get what we want, rather than to end our suffering in the spiritual sense, we are using the teachings unwisely.  When our actions are not informed by wisdom, the raft stays securely anchored on the samsara shore. It is faith that allows us to lift the anchor and paddle our way to liberation on the other shore.

Being faith is so important, eventually we must ask, how can we strengthen our faith? I see two avenues for strengthening faith. The first is through meditation. The second is through developing a contemplative practice, starting with a contemplation of the four noble truths and then continuing with a contemplative study of key texts and sutras.

Graphically, it looks like this.

Practice: In a blog, all that can reasonably be said about anyone’s practice, especially as it relates to faith, is that it should neither be too loose nor too tight, as the Buddha suggested to the monk Sona in the Sona Sutta. And that the practitioner needs to meditate, as conditions permit, as energetically and diligently and effectively as his or her karma allows. Both of these suggestions will increase faith.

Contemplation: As to contemplation, a contemplative understanding of the four noble truths is always beneficial if faith is to be strengthened, as well as some study of dharma texts and sutras. But it isn’t possible in the context of a blog to suggest specific texts or scriptures for study. For advice on your meditation practice or on appropriate texts or teachings or sutras for contemplation, I suggest asking a capital “T” Buddhist Teacher. Strengthening faith strengthens and builds our intention for and our attention to our practice, giving us the critical tools needed to progress along the spiritual path.

EXERCISE: Consider where you are in your practice now in terms of (1) the strength of your faith, the amount of time and the materials in your contemplative practice, and (3) how much meditation you do and the type and effectiveness of your meditation. Place a dot inside the triangle to indicate where you are. Is that where you belong in terms of your understanding of your spiritual journey, in terms of your spiritual needs and growth, in terms of your karma? Do you need to develop or differently emphasize one or more of these three aspects? Discuss this with a Buddhist Teacher or spiritual friend, if possible, to see what might be most beneficial for you.