The Buddha taught that faith is one of five spiritual faculties that work together to free the mind from attachment and suffering. Dharma teacher Shaila Catherine points out how the other spiritual faculties of effort, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom reinforce the development of faith. Balanced by wisdom and refined by mindfulness, faith leads to wise effort and not only motivates our initial inspiration to practice meditation but also sustains us through difficult periods.
Faith is the subject of a poem in William Stafford’s collection called The Way It Is (1998):
There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die;
And you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
The thread is our faith that the universe is unfolding as it should. In order to develop faith, we must explore the darkness of our suffering. Some of us are accustomed to thinking of faith as the unquestioning acceptance of a belief or doctrine, simply because it is dictated by a religious authority. But faith is different from mindless beliefs or rigid adherence to creeds or doctrines, which can lead to an illusion of separation or superiority.
An excerpt from the writings of Unitarian Universalist Earl Holt reminds us of the human capacity for rebirth amidst the direst of circumstances:
Resurrection is not a long ago, unique, unlikely event,
But is potentially present in all human life.
Death threatens us not only at the end of our lives,
But in every moment, the thousand little deaths of the spirit,
The grievances we carry, the sorrows that weigh us down,
The sense of frustration or futility that darken our days….
The Buddha viewed such forms of dukkha or suffering as universal aspects of human life. He taught that at any moment it is possible to awaken, to let go of clinging and attachments, and to accept reality just as it is. Whether we speak in terms of resurrection or awakening, faith is part of the process. No matter what our religious or philosophical tradition may be, true faith and confidence come from learning to trust our own inner experiences.
During the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha was visited by Mara, the Demon of Delusion, who used all his powers to distract, tempt and scare him away from achieving the goal of liberating the mind. In the face of pleasant visions, horrible nightmares, and confusing fantasies, the Buddha was steadfast. All night long, he sat calmly without succumbing to doubts, sleepiness or restlessness. As dawn broke, he placed a hand on the ground and asked the earth to bear witness to his right to awaken. At that moment his mind became completely free of all hindrances, and, in a rage, Mara disappeared, vanquished by the Buddha’s staunch faith.
In the ancient Pali language, the word for faith is “saddha,” which means to “place your heart upon.” Sharon Salzberg notes that faith opens us to what lies beyond our usual, limited self-centered concerns. She reminds us that in
Buddhist philosophy there are three stages of faith, starting with “bright faith,” transforming into “verified faith,” and culminating in “unshakable or abiding faith.”
At the first level, bright faith develops from an outside source, usually from an inspirational encounter or experience. Initially, when we encounter the Dharma path, we may feel relief and recognize that there is a saner way to live that entails less suffering. In 1988, when I attended my first ten-day retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, I had a distinct feeling of coming home spiritually. That year, I met my principle meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, and resonated deeply with his way of applying the Buddha’s wisdom to daily life.
Inspired by a teacher or a friend, we can develop bright faith, which gives us an incentive to practice meditation. But reliance on outer authority is usually not sufficient to sustain ongoing, dedicated practice. And bright faith is neither wise nor clear enough to sustain us through times of crisis.
Sharon Salzberg cites a classic Buddhist text called The Questions of King Milinda about a group of people gathered at the edge of a flooding stream. Paralyzed with fear, they gaze longingly at the far shore. A wise person comes along, assesses the situation, takes a running leap, and jumps to the other side. Witnessing this courageous act, the others jump to freedom and prove for themselves that it can be done. In this story, the near shore symbolizes our usual confused condition, and the far shore represents the awakened mind.
On his peregrinations through northern India, the Buddha visited the village of people called the Kalamas. He found them upset and confused about contradictory lessons by various spiritual masters who had extolled their own teachings while disparaging those of others. The Kalamas asked the Buddha, “Which of these venerable Brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”
His sage response was, “Now, Kalamas, 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 qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness,’ then you should enter and remain in them.”
To serve us in an ongoing way, bright faith must be transformed into the second stage—verified faith, which entails careful investigation and deep reflection. Verified faith comes from direct knowledge that is informed by our personal experience and that changes our perception. We learn for ourselves that everything is impermanent, and we question our conditioned tendency to grasp what is ungraspable.
Recently I encountered a friend whom I had not seen in several years. Without drama or self-pity, she told me about accompanying both her sister and her husband through the process of dying. She was in the midst of selling her large home and moving to an apartment. I was impressed with my friend’s equanimity. Through facing impermanence and loss with dignity, she has built faith in her ability to flow with life however it unfolds.
Each time we let go of wanting life to conform to our expectations, we experience a moment of freedom. Gradually, our conviction grows stronger that we have the capacity to liberate ourselves from habitual suffering.
This is a mature faith, based in our own awareness of the nature of mind and body.
We move beyond an intellectual appreciation of Buddhist teachings and begin to have confidence that it is possible for us to awaken. In our dharma practice, we discover for ourselves the truth of what the Buddha taught: Practicing mindfulness meditation really does cultivate skillful thoughts, words and actions, just as wise speech actually does facilitate our interpersonal relationships. It’s true that attachment to people, material things, or places causes us suffering. And letting go of things that we’ve been grasping certainly does alleviate our suffering.
Faith adds flavor to meditating when it seems dry or boring and sustains my practice throughout month-long retreats. With verified faith, doubts and worries are not so threatening. Instead, I am motivated to turn towards them to investigate underlying emotions and stories. By releasing imaginary concerns and fearful fantasies about the future, I can take refuge in the present moment, noticing what feels pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
We need wisdom and mindfulness to guide our faith. Over the past year, several of my friends have parted ways with a spiritual leader who preached about high ethical standards that he himself did not follow. During their crisis of faith, my friends had an opportunity to develop a stronger and more durable faith, with increased confidence in their own intuition and a greater capacity to distinguish between what is wholesome and unwholesome. In the process, they internalized precepts that were previously imposed by outer authorities and recognized that ethical behavior is essential for a healthy sangha.
Little by little, verified faith can evolve into the final stage of faith: abiding faith. In Buddhist lore, this level is associated with the image of a magical gem that purifies water, representing the power of pure faith to clear away impediments. When we reach this point, we have enough understanding and wisdom to incorporate the values of the dharma into our words and actions—to “walk our talk.” As the philospher Paul Tillich says, we become “aligned with our ultimate concern.” Steadfast faith comes from knowing that our only real security stems from conscious attention to the present moment.