Faith In Awakening

I have heard some say that there is no faith in Buddhism, that Buddhism is a completely rational philosophy.  I think many times when we hear this we need to take a step back.  Buddhism does not ask for the blind faith of many religions, at the same time faith is an integral part of practice. In the Pure Land tradition this is embraced.  Here is a good meditation on the role of faith and practice. Enjoy.

from Tricycle Magazine –  Thanissaro Bhikkhu

THE BUDDHA NEVER PLACED unconditional demands on anyone’s faith. For people from a culture where the dominant religions do make such demands, this is one of Buddhism’s most attractive features. It’s especially appealing to those who—in reaction to the demands of organized religion—embrace the view of scientific empiricism that nothing deserves our trust unless it can be measured against physical data. In this light, the Buddha’s famous instructions to the Kalamas are often read as an invitation to believe, or not, whatever we like.

Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that “these mental qualities are skillful; these mental qualities are blameless; these mental qualities are praised by the wise; these mental qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness”—then you should enter and remain in them. (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65)

Pointing to this passage, many modern writers have gone so far as to say that faith has no place in the Buddhist tradition, that the proper Buddhist attitude is one of skepticism. But even though the Buddha recommends tolerance and a healthy skepticism toward matters of faith, he also notes a conditional imperative: if you sincerely want to put an end to suffering (that’s the condition) you should take certain things on faith, as working hypotheses, and then test them by following his path of practice. The advice to the Kalamas, in fact, contains the crucial caveat that you must take into account what wise people value.

This caveat gives balance to the Buddha’s advice: just as you shouldn’t give unreserved trust to outside authority, you can’t give unreserved trust to your own logic and feelings if they go against experience and the genuine wisdom of others. As other early discourses make clear, wise people can be recognized by their words and behavior as measured against standards set by the Buddha and his awakened disciples. The proper attitude toward those who meet these standards is faith:

For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher’s message and lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this: “The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I.” (Majjhima Nikaya 70)

Repeatedly the Buddha stated that faith in a teacher is what leads you to learn from that teacher. Faith in the Buddha’s own awakening is a requisite strength for anyone else who wants to attain awakening. As it fosters persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, this faith can take you all the way to the deathless.

So there’s a tension in the Buddha’s recommendations about faith and empiricism. Few Asian Buddhists I know find the tension uncomfortable, but Western Buddhists—raised in a culture where religion and faith have long been at war with science and empiricism—find it very disconcerting. In my discussions with them, they often try to resolve it in the same ways in which, historically, the tension between Christian faith and scientific empiricism has been resolved in our own culture. Three general positions stand out because they are both common and clearly Western. Consciously or not, they attempt to understand the Buddha’s position on faith and empiricism in a way that can be easily mapped onto the modern Western battle lines between religion and science.

The first interpretation has its roots in the side of Western culture that totally rejects the legitimacy of faith. In this view, the Buddha embodies the Victorian ideal of the heroic agnostic, one who eschewed the childish consolations of faith in favor of a purely scientific method for strengthening one’s own mind. Because his method focused entirely on the present moment, questions of past and future were totally irrelevant to his message. Thus any references to faith in such issues as past karma, future rebirth, or an unconditioned happiness separate from the the senses are later interpolations in the texts, which Buddhist agnostics, following the Buddha’s example, should do their best to reject. The second interpretation has roots in the side of Western culture that has rejected either the specifics of Christian faith or the authority of any organized religion, but has appreciated faith as an essential requirement for mental health. This view presents the Buddha as a hero from the Romantic era, appreciating the subjective value of faith in establishing a sense of wholeness within and interconnectedness without, regardless of what the object of that faith might be. In other words, it doesn’t matter where faith is directed, as long as it’s deeply felt and personally nourishing. Faith in the Buddha’s awakening, in this view, means simply believing that he found what worked for himself, which carries no implications for what will work for you. If you find the teaching on karma and rebirth comforting, fine: believe it. If not, don’t. What’s important is that you relate to your faith in a way that’s emotionally healing, nourishing, and empowering.

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