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Buddha’s Words: The Basis of Buddhist Faith

August 2, 2012

‘faith’ by jeck_crow via

In the third chapter of his book, In the Buddha’s Words, Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses how Buddhists should approach the Dhamma.  Is it a universal doctrine applicable to all peoples in all times?  Is it relative to its particular time and place?  Can we pick and choose from among the teachings?  Must we wholeheartedly believe the entire cannon?  What should we suspect or disbelieve?  How do we know what questions are important and relevant?  What goals are worth pursuing?  How do you tell a swindler from a guru?  What role does faith play in Buddhist practice?

It is this last question I’d like to address in particular.  “Faith” is a loaded word in certain contexts, particularly for Americans raised in a Judeo-Christian culture.  Among evangelical Protestants, who have a somewhat less nuanced presentation of faith and doubt than other religious groups, faith can seem like an absolute proposition.  Belief is the primary vehicle through which humans achieve salvation – unwavering belief in God and Jesus Christ.  Loosing one’s faith can be a traumatic experience because it means, in many ways, stepping out of the culture and community in which we’ve been raised.  The word itself becomes sour on our tongues.

I’ve written several times before, once recently, about my own approach to “faith.”  At one time I would have said faith played no role in my life whatsoever, but I’ve come to understand that is not precisely true.  Mostly this is because my definition of faith has changed from my childish all-or-nothing understanding, to a more subtle adult reconciliation of faith with doubt, experience, and belief.  That being said, when I say “faith,” I do not mean it in the way your average theist does.  My idea of faith is more akin to trust, and to quote Ronald Reagan for a moment, trust but verify.  This, I believe, is the kind of faith with which Bhikkhu Bodhi advises us to approach the Dhamma.

The Buddha’s teaching has many sides, and thus, from certain angles, it can be directly evaluated against our concern for our present well-being and happiness.  Once we see that the practice of the teaching does indeed bring peace, joy, and inner security in this very life, this will inspire our trust and confidence in the Dhamma as a whole, including those aspects that lie beyond our present capacity for personal verification. (p. 85)

Bhikkhu Bodhi includes among those aspects reincarnation, kamma (karma), and the nature of enlightenment.  He does not claim we must accept these things on faith alone.  Indeed, we can verify them for ourselves through direct experience, but he never claims that will be easy.  He says, “This does not mean that an ordinary person can fully validate the Buddha’s doctrine by direct experience without special effort.” (p. 83, emphasis mine)  He goes on,

However, in sharp contrast to revealed religion [monotheism], the Buddha does not demand that we begin our spiritual quest by placing faith in doctrines that lie beyond the range of our immediate experience.  (p. 83, emphasis original)

Instead, the Buddha presents many teachings that are relevant to our lives in this present moment.  He provides as motivation for trust our own desire for happiness and to avoid suffering.  In other words, believing in reincarnation right now probably won’t help us deal with the stress of today’s staff meeting or tonight’s crying baby.  But equanimity and loving-kindness might.  We can start by cultivating those through meditation, use our own experiences to judge their validity, and decide whether or not to continue trusting the Dhamma on other matters.

All the while, we should never stop using our discerning minds.  In fact, the Buddha sets forth more criteria for doubt than he does for faith.  When asked by the Kalama people what to make of all these sages who came to their town declaring the one true way, the Buddha gave this teaching:

It is fitting for you to be perplexed, O Kalamas, it is fitting for you to be in doubt.  Doubt has arisen in you about a perplexing matter.  Come, Kalamas.  Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘This ascetic is our teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves, ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things if undertaken and practiced lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should abandon them. (p. 89, AN 3:65; I 188-93)

The Buddha continues, in the repetitive nature of the suttas, to use the same formula for discerning which things are wholesome, free from blame, praised by the wise, lead to happiness and peace, and should be undertaken.  The person who can do this will become a “noble disciple,” her mind pervaded by loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity (the Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Abodes).  Yet even this noble disciple may not fully know the truth of life and death, nor does she (or he, in the suttas) need to:

When, Kalamas, this noble disciple has thus made his mind free of enmity, free of ill will, uncorrupted and pure, he has won four assurances.

The first assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is another world, and if good and bad deeds bear fruit and yield results, it is possible that with the breakup of this body, after death, I shall arise in a good destination, in a heavenly world.’

The second assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is no other world, and if good and bad deeds do not bear fruit and yield results, still right here, in this very life, I live happily, free of enmity and ill will.’

The third assurance he has won is this: ‘Suppose evil befalls the evil-doer.  Then, as I do not intend evil for anyone, how can suffering afflict me, one who does no evil deed?’

The fourth assurance he has won is this: ‘Suppose evil does not befall the evil-doer.  Then right here I see myself purified in both respects.’ (p. 91, AN 3:65; I 188-93)

So even if the doctrines of reincarnation and kamma are nothing more than smoke and mirrors, we have not harmed ourselves or others through the practice of the Dhamma and have instead brought about present happiness for ourselves and others.  For even if evil befalls us, the good person, we can meet it with equanimity and compassion, thereby not redoubling its effect for ourselves or others.

In some Buddhist traditions, the above teachings have been used to endorse an almost apophatic doctrine.  That is, an almost complete rejections of views, beliefs, teachings, and suttas/sutras.  However, in practice these Buddhist traditions remain surprisingly similar to their cataphatic cousins despite their negating rhetoric.

We must remember, however, that Bhikkhu Bodhi is writing from the Theravada tradition and teaching about the Pali Cannon, which is perhaps the most strict or orthodox of all the Buddhist traditions.  In many ways, I greatly admire the Theravadan teachings, although I cannot always endorse their practices (such as not ordaining women).  Despite the growth and division of the Dhamma since the Buddha’s time, these teachings remain the foundation of all Buddhist traditions.  The most hard-core Chan meditation master would recognize them as Dhamma, even if he spent his whole life in the meditation hall to the complete neglect of the library.

While Buddhist faith is not the faith of a monotheist, we do nonetheless place our faith or trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha to guide us and aid us in our practice.  We simply do it while nourishing the seed of doubt which keeps our mind sharp and our feet firmly on the right path.

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