by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Religious belief relies, to varying levels, on faith, the initial acceptance that what is being taught is real. Some religions teach that a practitioner must continue to believe what is not, or cannot be proven . . . that they ‘take it on faith’. This can lead to an overzealous faith that suffocates intelligent exploration and questioning. People who believe without any attempt to prove will likely find themselves mired in dogma rather than accruing knowledge of themselves and the world around them. There is a great disservice to the individual and society if faith replaces the motivation to investigate and to experience personally the efficacy of any teaching or knowledge.
Buddhism in its many traditions is practiced as a religion and so faith plays a role, but with particular views not shared with other religions. To highlight the difference in intent Siddhartha used a synonym for faith; he used the word confidence. The same intent from a different arising. Faith, arises as the acceptance that what is being taught is reality without the expectation of or means of verification . . . or too often the desire to verify.
Confidence arises as a result of knowledge, practice and experience proving the effectiveness of tenets and practices . . . it is verifiable faith. Knowledge that Siddhartha was human and that each of us are human gives us confidence (faith) that we can experience awakened moments. Engaging in practices such as generosity of spirit we experience that the good we do matters for ourselves and our society. Buddhisms’ is a verified faith (confidence). In the Nandiya Sutra, Siddhartha teaches the ideal of ‘verified confidence’.
“There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’
“Furthermore, the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’ Content with that verified confidence in the Dhamma, he does not exert himself further in solitude by day or seclusion by night.
“Furthermore, the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well… who have practiced straight-forwardly… who have practiced methodically… who have practiced masterfully — in other words, the four types of noble disciples when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’ Content with that verified confidence in the Sangha, he does not exert himself further in solitude by day or seclusion by night.
Confidence in the Buddha doesn’t arise because HE IS THE BUDDHA. It arises due to the evidence of Siddhartha’s life, and the evidence of how his life affected others . . . including most importantly our own lives. It is verified confidence.
Confidence in the Dhamma doesn’t arise because they are texts of the WORDS OF THE BUDDHA. It arises due to the evidence of Siddhartha’s life, and the evidence that each practitioner gathers as they engage the Dhamma in life and experience the results. It is verified confidence.
Confidence in the Sangha doesn’t arise because the members are ALL ON THE SAME PATH. It arises due to the evidence of 2600+ years of Buddhists gathering together, and the evidence each of us experience when we sit together. It is verified confidence.
There is the concept of faith (sraddha) in Buddhist practice. Nagarjuna said, “When one’s mind is grounded in faith, one escapes doubt and regret. Then the power of faith is strong, one can seize and espouse the dharma; and this is called dharmaksanti: tolerance of the dharma, patient acceptance of the teachings about the nature of reality even though they are not yet within your grasp.” This also points to confidence. Though there are aspects of the dharma that aren’t immediately experienced the practitioner has ‘faith’ that they will eventual come to full realization.
The Buddha’s teachings do not begin with a leap of faith to affirm a metaphysical doctrine or theory but draw our attention to something we care deeply about: we don’t want to suffer. The Buddha’s teachings don’t ask us to solely believe, or have faith. Trust in the dharma, in the form of faith or confidence, is useful allowing the practitioners to continue practicing, studying, thinking and meditating even when one hasn’t yet realized how worthwhile the effort is. A mature practice goes beyond faith in the Buddha’s teachings to confidence in the practitioner’s own experience gained from mindful practice and awareness. Buddhist practice doesn’t ask you to just accept anything, even the reality of suffering. It offers teachings about the nature of reality while also offering ways that you can verify it for yourself.
Doubt and regret can arise at any level of Buddhist practice, the feeling that you just aren’t getting it; that you’re not seeing results. Meditation practice is where this is likely to first manifest. You meditate each day for twenty minutes and don’t recognize any benefit. You don’t feel more aware, it doesn’t feel like that part of your brain is getting bigger. You recognize the arising of emotions but still don’t seem able to control them. Everything else might be impermanent but you still feel like the same old you. There is doubt that what you are doing is of value and you develop a sense of regret that practice is wasted effort.
A sense of confidence enables you the patience necessary to come to the realization that ideals like impermanence, not-self and suffering are real. That those same realizations can lead to a more positive personal character. Acting with compassion and selflessness may not have immediate recognizable positive results, faith allows you the time to develop the encompassing awareness to realize them.
For some people the concept of faith in Buddhism is not complete with touching on the metaphysical ideals and practices in some Buddhist traditions. Faith in rebirth and karma as they relate to reincarnation, that some Zen Masters gain the ability to move instantaneously from one place to another, that a Vajrayana lama can control the weather, or the legendary birth stories of Siddhartha Guatama is up to the individual practitioner. For others an agnostic approach to the metaphysical may have more value. Setting those concepts aside they focus on those practices that have practical moment-to-moment value while remaining open to the possibility of altering their view through direct experience.
Will you choose to put your faith in the hands of others, or take confidence firmly in hand and turn it into a useful tool in your Life Toolbox? Actualizing confidence that allows the arising of patience and endurance works as a tool in the Life Toolbox. It can be the clamp that holds you together while the glue dries.