Faith in Buddhism

1. Faith

Few notions elicit more debate and vague associations than the family of concepts associated with the word faith and its various approximate synonyms (e.g., belief).

Needless to say, the English faith has no exact equivalent in the languages of Asia:

The word means many things in English and in other Western languages as well, and the proximate Asian equivalents also have many meanings in their Asian contexts.

This is not to say that faith cannot be used as a descriptive or analytical tool to understand Buddhist ideas and practices, yet one must be aware of the cultural and polemic environments that shaped Buddhist notions of faith.

2. Semantic range

The most common English theological meanings are the ones that have the most questionable similarity to historical Buddhist belief and practice:

acceptance of and secure belief in the existence of a personal creator deity (“belief in”),

acceptance of such deity as a unique person with a distinctive name, the unquestioned acceptance of this deity’s will, and the adoption of the articles of dogma believed to express the deity’s will.

Buddhist notions tend to occupy a different centre in the semantic field:

serene trust, confident belief that the practice of the dharma will bear the promised fruit, and joyful surrender to the presence or vision of one or many “ideal beings” (Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, etc.).

The articles of belief and systems of practice that constitute the Buddhist Path are seldom set up explicitly as direct objects of faith,

but confessions of trust and declarations of commitment to various aspects of the path are common ritual practices (taking the Refuges, taking vows, etc.).

The objects of faith can be all, any, or only one among the multiple Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and deities of Buddhism.

Nevertheless, Buddhists often confess their total trust in a particular deity or Buddha or Bodhisattva identified by a unique name and by personal attributes that are considered distinctive and superior to those of any other deity (e.g., the cult of Amitābha or of Avalokiteśvara).

A sense of the range of Buddhist conceptions of “faith” can be derived from a glance at some of the classical Asian terms that are rendered into English as faith:

The term śraddhā (Pāli, saddhā), for instance, may signify belief, but generally refers more to trust and commitment.

It is sometimes glossed as “trust or reliance on someone else” (para pratyaya, Abhidharmakośa VI. 29),

but, etymologically, it derives from an old Indo-European verb meaning “to place one’s heart on (a desire, goal, object, or person),” which appears in Latin in the verb credo, and subsequently in English as creed, credence, and so on.

A connection between this mental state and other positive states is suggested in a variety of ways:

For instance, in the Abhidharma literature the word śraddhā refers to one of the mental factors that are always present in good thoughts (kuśala mahābhūmika, Abhidharmakośa II. 23-25).

Already in the sūtra/sutta literature, śraddhā is one of the 5 mental faculties necessary for a good practice (the 5 Indriyas or 5 balas), which include Mindfulness and Persevering Courage.

These meanings are associated also with the idea of conviction, committed and steadfast practice, or commitment as active engagement, a range of concepts expressed with the term adhimukti or adhimokṣa (Pāli, adhimutti or adhimokkha):

The attitude or cognitive-affective state expressed by this word is characteristic of the preliminary stage in a Bodhisattva’s career: the stage of acting (caryā) on one’s commitment (adhimukti), or adhimukti-caryā-bhūmi.

Examined from the perspective suggested by the above range of usages, faith would be a unique psychological state, an extension of the ability to trust or rely on someone or something.

In this aspect of the denotation of śraddhā, and adhimokṣa,

faith is also a virtue necessary for concentrated Meditation, and is closely related to, if not synonymous with, the disciple’s ardent desire for self-cultivation or the zeal required for such cultivation.

In this context, faith is also the opposite of, or an antidote against, the sluggishness, dejection, and discouragement that can arise during long hours of meditation practice.

However, such monastic or contemplative definitions of faith do not exhaust the Buddhist repertoire:

As noted previously, Buddhist concepts of faith include as well affective states associated with the attachment and trust of devotion. Such states are sometimes subsumed under the category of prasāda:

This term has a long history in the religious traditions of India; it means etymologically “settling down,” and evokes meanings of “serenity, calm, aplomb,” as well as conviction and trust.

Furthermore, among its many usages, it expresses both the “favour” of the powerful (their serene largess, their grace) and the acceptance or recognition of this favourable disposition on the part of the weaker participant in the relationship (serene trust, confident acceptance).

The latter feeling is not only serene trust in the wisdom of a teacher or in the truth of the teachings, but the joyful acceptance of the benevolent power and benediction of sacred objects and holy persons.

Thus the proper state of mind when performing a ritual of devotion is a prasanna-citta: a mind in the state of prasāda, that is, calmly secure, trusting, devoted, content, and loyal.

3. East Asian usages

These Indian concepts were usually rendered in Chinese with a term denoting trust, xin, where the accent is on confidence, rather than on a surrender of one’s discursive judgment.

Nonetheless, xin also could denote surrender and unquestioned acceptance, absolute trust, and a believing mind and will. The later meanings played a major role in both non-literate practice and the theologies of faith of some of the literate schools:

The first element in this polarity (faith that does not exclude knowledge or direct apprehension of religious truths) is seen, for instance, in the classical Chan School notion of xinxin: “trusting the mind.” This refers to the conviction that the searching mind is the object of its own search—that is, Buddha-nature.

Such conviction is understood as a non-mediated, non-reasoned confidence born of the immediate apprehension of a presence:

Expressed in terms of a process or a practice, this faith is the experience of the mind when one is not manipulating or organizing its contents with discursive thoughts. The trusting mind itself becomes the object of trust.

This is the theme of the Xinxinming (Stanzas on Trusting the Mind), a poem attributed to the “Third Patriarch” of Chan Buddhism, Jianzhi Sengcan (d. ca. 606 C.E.), in which “mind” or “thought” is the perfect goal of the religious aspiration that is the act of faith:

It is “perfect like vast empty space, lacking nothing, having nothing in excess.” What keeps us from experiencing the mind in this way is our penchant for “selecting and rejecting.”

By contrast, “the trusting mind does not split things into twos”; not splitting things into twos is the meaning of “trusting the mind” (or “the trusting mind” xinxin).

The idea of faith (xin) also appears in a formulation attributed to Gaofeng Yuanmiao (1238-1295), who describes 3 essential aspects of meditation practice (chan yao). These are:

a) the faculty of faith, b) persevering commitment, and c) Doubt.

Faith is “the great faculty of trusting” (daxingen), which links the idea to the earlier Abhidharmic notions of trust and faith as a natural faculty.

It is clear that this trust precedes full knowledge or understanding because the other 2 aspects of practice are great tenacity of purpose or persevering commitment (dafenzhi) and a great feeling of doubt or intensely felt doubt (dayiqing).

This use of the term xin is ostensibly different from the meanings accepted by other important strands of the East Asian tradition in which we find an opposition between examined trust and the surrender of self-knowledge:

The Pure Land Schools (Chinese, jingtu; Japanese, Jōdo) in particular understood that the prasanna-citta of the Indian tradition implied a surrender of the will to pursue a life of holiness or the desire to attain awakening by one’s own efforts.

However, even among the most radical formulations of the Pure Land traditions, where the trusting practitioners are clearly separated from the object of their faith and are incapable of achieving holiness on their own,

the desired state of mind has the distinct marks of Buddhist notions of mind and faith.

Thus, in some of the more radical Jōdo Shinshū formulations the devotee’s surrender is not so much an act of belief as an acceptance of grace:

One surrenders one’s own capacity to discriminate and believe, and one accepts the Buddha’s own believing mind (shinjin),

so that one’s faith is in fact adopting, as it were, the Buddha’s own trustworthy mind (shinjin)—sharing the merits, wisdom, and compassion of the very object of faith.

Affectively, this theological view is linked with the ideal of joyful trust (shingyo), the joy and bliss of trusting, which ultimately, or eschatologically, may be said to be synonymous with the joy of seeing the Buddha Amitābha face to face (at the time of death or in the Pure Land).

4. Summary Interpretation

Ideals of non-discursive apprehension straddle the dividing line between faith and knowledge, humble surrender and recognition of a state of liberation that cannot be acquired by the individual’s will.

In some ways the tradition seems to assume that one has faith in that which one respects and trusts, but also in that which one wishes to attain, and that which one imagines oneself to be or able to become.