Monday, May 14, 2007

Interfaith Blog Event #6: Role of Faith

Welcome to the sixth Interfaith Blog Event! In each installment of this series, which we're hoping to do on a monthly basis, we'll explore a single topic across three different religious traditions. I am writing from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective, and Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn, will be writing from a Pagan/UU perspective. And as a special treat, we've added two new bloggers to our event! Jeff joins us from Druid Journal, and Matt joins us from Journeys In Between. Jeff, as I'm sure you can tell from the title of his blog, writes from a Druidic perspective, while Matt has the following to say about his perspective (copied from his blog): "[I am an] Evangelical Christian asking what I can learn from esoteric movements like Wicca, NeoGnosticism, Yoga and Zen - and what spirited wisdom Jesus may have to offer in response."

The topic we'll be discussing today is the following:
What is your view regarding the meaning and the role of faith? What importance does it play in your community and in your daily life?
(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay] [Jeff's Essay] [Matt's Essay]

The English language is a curious thing. In this question, what do we mean by “faith?” We can speak of faith as a noun, as a synonym for religion itself. We can also consider this question in terms of the verb faith, as in “to have faith” in something. I am going to focus on the verb interpretation, and will touch on aspects of the noun interpretation.

Faith has a mixed reputation in Buddhism. It is common for Western Buddhists to eschew faith, to say that Buddhism transcends faith through critical analysis, direct observation, and testing. In the East, however, many Buddhists are falling into the same trap as many Western Christians, that of relying 100% on faith for their beliefs. Stated another way, many Eastern Buddhists (and Western Christians) are raised by their parents in a certain religion, and they are remaining in that religion throughout their lives without ever actually critically examining the beliefs that they have been effectively brainwashed with in their youth.

I argue, however, that these Eastern Buddhists have fallen away from the Buddha's true message, and that these Western Buddhists are trying to separate themselves so completely from their predominantly Christian roots that they have overshot the Buddha's true teaching and landed at the extreme of faithlessness. Buddhism truly does incorporate faith in its practice, but it is a particular kind of “deserved” faith that the Buddha taught.

The Buddha's primary teaching on faith was presented in the Kalama Sutra. In this Sutra, the Buddha said to the Kalamas, the residents of the town of Kesaputta:
So, as I said, 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 unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" -- then you should abandon them.'

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 & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.

Without understanding the context of the Buddha's teaching, it is easy to see how Western Buddhists can interpret this teaching as an endorsement of faithlessness. However, as I've stated many times in my essays, the Buddha always taught through the use of “Skillful Means,” meaning that he did not “preach” the exact truth (which is actually an impossible act given the conceptual nature of words and thoughts), but rather taught such that his message could be understood and implemented by his specific audience, bringing them closer to true realization. As an example, it would have been pointless to discuss the deeper nature of Dependent Arising when his audience did not yet understand or skillfully practice fundamental mindfulness. So in order to put the Buddha's teachings into context, we have to understand the Kalamas. In this Sutra, the Kalamas ask the Buddha:
Lord, there are some priests & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other priests & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable priests & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?

The Kalamas have been told too many “truths” and are confused as to who to believe and what to follow. Therefore, given their particular situation, the exact teaching they require to help them on the Buddhist path is to emphasize the role of personal testing of all such teachings.

In other Sutras, the Buddha spoke of the Five Spiritual Faculties, which are the primary virtues that arise as spiritual training is undertaken: faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Given the well-known importance Buddhism places on mindfulness and wisdom, to put faith in the same list as these two “powerhouse” virtues really emphasizes its importance in Buddhist training.

Ultimately, what this tells us is that faith is an important practice in Buddhism, but for it to have any value, it must be applied skillfully, in conjunction with constant testing and questioning, and not unskillfully as in blind faith. All this being said, what is a skillful use of faith?

Let's consider the first Paramita (Perfection) of generosity. There are many examples of the Buddha's emphasis on the value of generosity. However, in Buddhism, one should not take these teachings as Gospel. Instead, one should initially have enough faith in the Dharma to undertake the practice of generosity for oneself. Here is where the unique approach of Buddhism really shines. If one had had complete faith in the Buddha as some divine, infallible deity, then he would be biased in his interpretation of the results of his practice of generosity, and he could never learn for himself whether generosity was truly beneficial or detrimental. But if he approaches the practice of generosity with a Beginner's Mind, open to all experiences without reservation or bias, then he can critically examine the causes and results of generosity, and can come to his own direct experience of the wisdom of generosity on the Buddhist path. At this point, faith is no longer required, as one knows for oneself the truth of the matter.

Let's take another example--the Precept (ethic) of not lying. Again, this is not a teaching we should take as infallible truth as uttered by the Awakened One. Instead, we have enough faith to test the precept for ourselves. If we had treated such a teaching as Gospel, we would be unable to see the true causes, conditions, and results of lying, due to our blind faith. Is this bad? Yes, it is, because with such faith, we will be blind to the situation in which lying is actually the least harmful, most skillful response. But in our unskewed, critical examination (approached with Beginner's Mind), we will be open to the conditions surrounding this precept, and will be better able to apply our wisdom in life situations.

I've discussed faith as an “early prerequisite” of practice, but does faith play any other role in Buddhism? Yes, it does.

Consider that Buddhism is a complete system of total life training. Particularly in our earlier stages of training, we are incapable of attending to all aspects of the path at once. Faith thus plays an important role in the aspects of the path in which we have not yet accumulated enough wisdom to act naturally out of love, compassion, and nonviolence.

As an example, you wake up one morning, walk into your living room, and notice a spider on the wall. To your eye, that's one BIG spider, and you're scared. You start to panic--you need to get that spider out of your home, fast! Your first instinct is to kill the spider. As this is your first instinct, you likely have not yet awakened to the wisdom in the Buddhist practice of nonaggression and not harming other beings. But before you smash it with your shoe, you recall the first Precept: “Do not harm, but cherish all life.” Here faith comes into play. You haven't yet attained a level of wisdom through testing that tells you in your heart that killing this creature would be an unskillful response. However, your faith in the Buddha's teaching gives you the strength to “try out” his teaching and follow his advice of non-harm, even though you don't truly know for yourself that this is the better course of action. So you capture the spider in a cup and release him outside in the grass.

In this example, faith has led you to a skillful response in a situation in which you were not yet able to foresee the best course of action for yourself. Ultimately, the purpose of Buddhist training is to point toward your true nature, and the true nature of everyone and everything around you. When you waver, Buddhist training gently guides you back onto the path of practice. Blind faith has no value in Buddhism, as it harms your practice by dulling your testing, questioning mind. Skillful faith, however, helps guide you along the path and gives you the strength to test and question and observe.


Erik said...

Hi Mike,
I came here via DruidJournal. Thanks for an interesting exploration of faith! Just curious whether you read Clark Strand's "Born Again Buddhist" article in the Fall '06 issue of Tricycle? I just read it last night, and then today I read your essay - the contrast is fascinating.

Mike said...

Hi Erik,
Thanks for stopping by! I unfortunately have not read that article. The Tricycle website appears to be down right now, but I plan on seeing if they have it online. I'm curious to see what it has to say.

dizzyfatplonka said...

Good blog, interesting group of individuals you have brought together, its my belief all these faiths have common grounds that are seperated only by mere dogmas of institutionalized religions.