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The Role of Faith in Buddhism

The Dharma of the Buddha is not a religion of blind faith. It is far more demanding than that. It is a religion of experience; of exploration and discovery. The Buddha said that his teaching was " ehipassiko " which means "come and see." Few of the great teachers in history have made such a bold and confident claim. His teachings not only withstand methodical examination, they demand it.

Because of this, the role of the faith faculty in Buddhism may be difficult to grasp. We should clarify that by "faith" I mean the enlightenment factor and spiritual faculty of "saddha." This is often translated "confidence" or "conviction" and both of these words are very good, but I still prefer the straightforward "faith" precisely because it is a loaded word which challenges us to deal with the implications.

Faith is a key factor in the list of wholesome states. It is one of the uplifting enlightenment factors, together with the related states of joy and energy. It is also one of the spiritual faculties, to be balanced with discriminating wisdom. Without wisdom, faith becomes superstition just as without faith wisdom is only a low cunning which justifies the defilements.

If I might make a purely personal observation, having lived in one kind of practice situation or another for twenty years and been involved in teaching others for the last few, I can't help noticing that some meditators make great progress quickly and some struggle for years with little or no results. I've been putting some serious thought into what might be the common factor which determines the difference, and it seems to me that the strength or weakness of the faith faculty is perhaps the one key element.

The question naturally arises, "faith in what exactly?" I would like to suggest three things we ought to have faith in. Looking at this question strictly from the practical viewpoint of progress in meditation, the yogi must first of all have faith in the practice. Without this confidence, you will get nowhere. In an actual retreat situation this also implies faith in the teacher and his instructions. If you can't feel complete confidence in the teacher, then find another teacher. You won't get anywhere if you question the meditation instructions all the time. For the duration of the retreat, just surrender and do it.

It shouldn't need to be pointed out that faith in the teacher is not guru worship, which has no place in Theravada Buddhism. Faith here is not a helpless dependence on another, nor is a blind belief that the teacher is flawless. It is, or ought to be, a feeling of trust and confidence in the Dhamma presented by the teacher, as something valuable and worth heeding. During a practice session, it should be the courage and discipline to follow the instructions instead of the whisperings of monkey mind.

The second thing that the Buddhist must have faith in to succeed is the Third Noble Truth, that there IS an end to suffering. This is, I think, the only metaphysical belief that is absolutely essential. Indeed, it may very well be the only one that is not actually a hindrance. It is not something susceptible to logical proof, only to the confirmation of direct realization. Before this point, you can only have faith that it is there to be found. If you don't believe this, then you are not doing meditation in the Buddhist sense at all, at least not Vipassana, but only self-psychotherapy. There is no point to speculation about what the end of suffering implies, it can't be arrived at by reason anyway. And until you actually glimpse it for yourself, you have to go on faith.

The third and final element of essential faith is for many of us the most difficult. It is one I struggled with myself for many years. You must somehow find faith in yourself. Many people can happily believe that the Buddha or Ajahn Chah or Krishnamurti was enlightened, but that they could never do it. We need to recognize that this is a form of egoism. Who do you think you are anyway to be the only sentient being in the universe without the seed of Buddhahood?

The reason that this arises is alienation, and the key to overcoming it lies in understanding that. You belong to the universe, you are part of the earth and the stars. In one sense, you are nothing special; you are made of the same elements and mental factors as all other beings and are an integral part of the pattern. Another angle on the same theme is to realize that you are very special indeed, because your innermost mind is absolute light, clear voidness and bliss. Learn never to doubt this and you are more than halfway there.

Besides these three things, there is really nothing else to be believed. In fact a lot of the work of insight meditation is disbelieving. It is very difficult to acquire the knack of seeing the arising phenomena fully and honestly without imposing an imaginary matrix of mental proliferation. In the depths of meditation, you must be ruthlessly honest and radically skeptical.

But this skepticism is far more profound and cuts far deeper than the niggling cynicism that usually passes for the word. It is not the chattering of doubt, which is one of the defilements, but the bold clarity of direct seeing, from which alone can arise the quality of Knowledge and Vision of Things as They Are. May we all find the faith to be so radically skeptical.

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