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Faith, Doubt and Buddhism

Don't Call Me a "Person of Faith"

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Woman Burning Incense

Offering incense.

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The word "faith" often is used as a synonym for religion; people say "What is your faith?" to mean "What is your religion?" In recent years it's become popular to call a religious individual a "person of faith." But what do we mean by "faith," and what part does faith play in Buddhism?

As a Buddhist I call myself religious but not a "person of faith." It seems to me "faith" has been dumbed down to mean nothing but rigid and uncritical acceptance of dogma, which is not what Buddhism is about. "Faith" also is used to mean uncritical belief in divine beings, miracles, heaven and hell, and other phenomena that cannot be proved. Or, as crusading atheist Richard Dawkins defines it in his book The God Delusion, "Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

Why does this understanding of "faith" not work with Buddhism? As recorded in the Kalama Sutta, the historical Buddha taught us not to accept even his teachings uncritically, but to apply our own experience and reason to determine for ourselves what is true and and what isn't. This is not "faith" as the word is commonly used.

Some schools of Buddhism appear to be more "faith-based" than others. Pure Land Buddhists look to Amitabha Buddha for rebirth in the Pure Land, for example. The Pure Land sometimes is understood to be a transcendent state of being, but some also think of it is a place, not unlike the way many people conceptualize Heaven.

However, in Pure Land the point is not to worship Amitabha but to practice and actualize the Buddha's teachings in the world. This sort of faith can be a powerful upaya, or skillful means, to help the practitioner find a center, or focus, for practice.

The Zen of Faith

On the other end of the spectrum is Zen, which stubbornly resists belief in anything supernatural. As Master Bankei said, "My miracle is that when I'm hungry, I eat, and when I am tired, I sleep." Even so, a Zen proverb says that a Zen student must have great faith, great doubt, and great determination. A related Ch'an saying says the four prerequisites for practice are great faith, great doubt, great vow, and great vigor.

Common understanding of the words "faith" and "doubt" renders these sayings nonsensical. We define "faith" as an absence of doubt, and "doubt" as an absence of faith. We assume that, like air and water, they cannot occupy the same space. Yet a Zen student is encouraged to cultivate both.

Sensei Sevan Ross, director of the Chicago Zen Center, explained how faith and doubt work together in a dharma talk called "The Distance Between Faith and Doubt." Here's just a bit:

"Great Faith and Great Doubt are two ends of a spiritual walking stick. We grip one end with the grasp given to us by our Great Determination. We poke into the underbrush in the dark on our spiritual journey. This act is real spiritual practice -- gripping the Faith end and poking ahead with the Doubt end of the stick. If we have no Faith, we have no Doubt. If we have no Determination, we never pick up the stick in the first place."

Faith and Doubt

Faith and doubt are supposed to be opposites, but the Sensei says "if we have no faith, we have no doubt." I would say, also, that true faith requires true doubt; without doubt, faith is not faith.

This kind of faith is not the same thing as certainty; it is more like trust (shraddha). This kind of doubt is not about denial and disbelief. And you can find this same understanding of faith and doubt in the writing of scholars and mystics of other religions if you look for it, even though these days we mostly hear from absolutists and dogmatists.

Faith and doubt in the religious sense are both about openness. Faith is about living in an open-hearted and courageous way and not a closed up, self-protecting way. Faith helps us overcome our fear of pain, grief and disappointment and stay open to new experience and understanding. The other kind of faith, which is a head filled up with certainty, is closed.

Pema Chodron said, "We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice." Faith is being open to what scares us.

Doubt in the religious sense acknowledges what is not understood. While it actively seeks understanding, it also accepts that understanding will never be perfect. Some Christian theologians use the word "humility" to mean about the same thing. The other kind of doubt, which causes us to fold our arms and declare that all religion is bunk, is closed.

Zen teachers talk about "beginner's mind" and "don't know mind" to describe a mind that is receptive to realization. This is the mind of faith and doubt. If we have no doubt, we have no faith. If we have no faith, we have no doubt.

Leaps in the Dark

Above, I said that rigid and uncritical acceptance of dogma is not what Buddhism is about. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says, "Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."

But although they are not absolute truth, Buddhist systems of thought are wonderful guiding means. The faith in Amitabha of Pure Land Buddhism, the faith in the Lotus Sutra of Nichiren Buddhism, and the faith in deities of Tibetan tantra are like this also. Ultimately these divine beings and sutras are upaya, skillful means, to guide our leaps in the dark, and ultimately they are us. Just believing in them or worshiping them is not the point.

I found a saying attributed to Buddhism, "Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Take one leap after another in the darkness until the light shines." That's good. But the guidance of the teachings and the support of the sangha give our leaping in the dark some direction.

Open or Closed

I think the dogmatic approach to religion, the one that demands unquestioning loyalty to an absolute belief system, is a faithless one. This approach causes people to cling to dogmas rather than follow a path. When taken to extremes, the dogmatist can be lost within the fantasy edifice of fanaticism.

Which takes us back to speaking of religion as "faith." In my experience Buddhists rarely speak of Buddhism as a "faith." Instead, it's a practice. Faith is part of the practice, but so is doubt.

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