When we hear the word faith, many of us lean towards of the concept of “blind faith” presented to us by exposure to organized religion. While many folks’ previous experience with this version of faith has buoyed their confidence, by providing them with a sense of internal support and life direction, others speak of the damage and guilt they were beset with after being subjected to prior doctrinal systems.
The traditional definition of faith is “having belief in something without evidence”. Although the Buddhist presentation of faith has some similarities, I will present the ways that it is quite different, as well as provide you with some suggestions you can use to strengthen and use faith to further motivate and nurture your spiritual practice.
With an ever-growing emphasis on education and diversity, people in western cultures appear to be becoming more skeptical as many question the efficacy of spiritual systems, in general. Many such people have more faith in evidence and the scientific method. This may be why greater numbers of Westerners are attracted to Buddhism. Why? Allow me to explain…. At the beginning of his spiritual quest, the Buddha was also quite a wave maker, in that he tried and then questioned many spiritual systems that promised happiness and freedom. Although by practicing different spiritual leader’s suggested approaches, he experienced moments of greater happiness and peace, he was disillusioned to discover that none of these practices relieved him from the existential dilemma of human suffering. Using what he had already learned along with trial and error, the Buddha developed and fine-tuned a spiritual practice that finally led him to reaching Nibbana – nirvana, enlightenment, internal peace, or true freedom from suffering.
When the Buddha set out to teach his methodology of achieving this internal peace to others, he did not tell people to believe him or follow him. In fact, he did not support blind faith. Instead, he told people to try the methods he would teach them and discover for themselves whether these methods reaped positive benefits. In other words, “do the practice and see for yourself”. In one of his teachings, the Buddha was purported to have told the Kalama people in India to never believe what any self-proclaimed wise person says just because he or she claims to have some superior knowledge. Instead, he suggested that the Kalama people use their own powers of discernment. He told them that if one’s teachings lead them to greed, hatred or delusion, then discard those teachings. On the other hand, he suggested the Kalamas embrace and apply teachings that led them to more peace, love and freedom. True to his own personality, the Buddha wanted people to use their minds to investigate, apply and then re-investigate.
So how does the Buddha and faith fit into all of this? The Buddha taught that the proximate cause for faith is suffering. In other words, when one is the recipient of intense suffering, this suffering tends to propel this person on a path in search for truth, or a path that will actually lessen one’s suffering. This was definitely my experience, when at 25 years of age, I was hiding out from some dangerous people, and in fear for my life. It was during this time of great fear and turmoil that I began a spiritual quest which led me to instituting a daily meditation practice.
The Buddha did iterate that it appeared that the more faith one had that the practices he taught would lead one to freedom, the greater one’s progress would be. In other words, he saw that the belief and faith a practitioner had in this practice actually served as a propeller of one’s progress. This makes total sense on many levels. For instance, the more faith one has in the results this practice could reap, the more likely he or she would be to apply these practices more diligently and thus, get positive results faster. On the other hand, when one is constantly plagued by doubt of the Buddha’s proclamations, or his prescribed meditation and moral practices, the less apt he or she would be to put the time, energy, and devotion into his or her practice and thus not progress.
The Buddha taught that faith (along with energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom) was one of the five spiritual faculties he said would subdue troubling mental disabilities, as well as support inner harmony and balance in the practitioner’s mind – which in turn, supports the eventual breakthrough to final enlightenment.
It is important to recognize that a certain amount of faith is needed to start down this path. One needs to, at the very least, be intrigued by the Buddha’s assertion that his prescribed practice (which includes mindfulness meditation) is great at reducing internal turmoil and promoting more inner peace. It is even easier to have more faith now that modern science is finally confirming that mindfulness meditation does indeed promote a happier, healthier, more peaceful mind and body.
But there is no proof like getting personal results. After I began practicing mindfulness meditation and applying the Buddha’s moral practices, and then began to reap positive results (like feeling calmer, happier, more patient, less judgmental, and more compassionate), my faith in this practice strengthened exponentially. It’s at this point that you will notice a wonderful reciprocal feedback loop beginning, in that as your practice ripens even deeper, the resulting faith that develops helps you to further open up to and be more fully present with whatever arises. Thus, a deep confidence and trusting in the moment-to-moment unfolding process emerges. In this way, faith actually clarifies your mind, the way a water purifier purifies water.
I wish I could say that during our practice, we would never experience unpleasant difficulties, but that would be untrue. Suffering happens! But, when practice gets really difficult, faith acts like a flotation device that holds you up above water, helping you get through these difficult moments. Once you successfully navigate such difficulties, you develop even more faith that you can handle anything. Then, difficulties become less difficult, after all.
The opposite of faith is doubt, which the Buddha referred to as one of the five hindrances that clouds our minds, leading us to confusion, no energy, lack of devotion, and stops our meditation practice – cold! The stronger our faith, the less doubt we have. So, if you find yourself plagued by a strong dose of doubt, this is an indication that your faith is weak. Here are some faith-strengthening suggestions:
- Meditate more often, in fact – daily. The more you practice, with intelligence and consistency, the greater your results will be, and the more faith you will develop;
- Don’t listen to your head. Your mind will tell you that meditation is boring, or not for you, or that you suck at this and can’t do it. Like anything else, one improves gradually over time and with regular practice;
- Hire a skillful teacher, with whom you can work regularly. A good teacher will help you navigate the many different internal territories. It’s better than searching for a light switch in a dark castle;
- Reading and learning about other enlightened masters who have existed on earth before or presently is a great way to quell one’s doubts and enhance faith. Some practitioners strengthen their faith by imagining themselves as the Buddha or as a fully enlightened being.
Something to look forward to: doubt is completely eliminated when you reach the First Level of Enlightenment, and become a Stream Enterer. But until then, be wary of surrendering to any dogma that demands “blind faith” without proof. Instead, using intelligent investigation, practice, apply, and continue to learn from your spiritual practices and personal experiences while on this on-going spiritual journey. Finally, keep the faith that you can and already are walking your true path.
Like the Buddha reaching down to touch the earth while sitting under the bodhi tree, unwavering faith knows to call upon the trustworthy earth of our own true nature. This is where we discover the most essential, enduring elements of our lives – the truths about ourselves that join us to all others, the truths that echo throughout time, the truths that free us from dependence on the roiling world. – Sharon Salzberg