In many circles, religious faith is regarded as the evil justifier for every imaginable horror that humans could inflict upon each other. Faith and reason are seen as opposite ends of the spectrum of knowledge. Correct faith, however, should not be rejected. When its object is valid, faith is a necessary foundation for the acquisition of knowledge in every field of enquiry. Without faith, it would be difficult to find relative happiness in life, not to mention the more distant goals of spiritual aspiration.
Buddhist texts on logic describe faith as a state of trust and respect in a valid person or in a correct idea that is not yet proven to oneself but cannot be contradicted by direct experience or by logic and has no self-contradiction. Thus, a proper object of religious faith is necessarily something that is correct and reliable in terms of being able to afford protection from suffering and guidance towards happiness. The final object of Buddhist faith is the wisdom seeing reality that opposes self-centred ignorance, the root cause of suffering. The Buddhist path is focussed upon generating this wisdom within one’s own mind. Belief in an incorrect idea, or trust in an unreliable person, is not proper faith, it is blind-faith. It is blindfaith that has given correct faith such a bad name by causing so much anguish in human history.
Having faith does not mean we should never doubt. Buddha himself said, “Do not accept my teachings out of respect alone; investigate them thoroughly as a jeweller would investigate gold before purchase.” The key words, “investigate thoroughly,” are the means by which we establish whether the object of faith is valid or not. Christopher Columbus had faith in the correct idea that he would not fall off the edge of the world by sailing westwards. If he had been wrong, he would still be falling, and we would not call it faith: we would call
Every day we invest a little faith in the objects around us. When we board a plane we have faith that it will not crash; when we deposit money in the bank we have faith that we can withdraw it again. Ordinary objects such as planes and banks, however, can never be completely trusted to protect us from disaster. The essential quality of the three objects of faith in Buddhism is that they are completely trustworthy protectors and guides to the cessation of all disasters, including the sufferings of sickness, ageing, death, and the terrible states of rebirth. They are reliable because they explain the root causes of suffering – ignorance and karma – and possess the method by which we can oppose and eliminate these causes.
The first object of faith is Buddha, such as the historic Buddha Shakyamuni, a person whose mind is unified wisdom and compassion. Buddhas are beings who have gained total freedom from fear and suffering by eliminating the causes of suffering from their minds. They are trustworthy because they have impartial compassion for every living being, their minds understand everything, and they have extremely skilful methods for putting compassion into action.
The main way in which Buddhas help others is by explaining the nature of the mind and its role in causing happiness and suffering. Then they show how to work on one’s mind and follow the path to freedom that they themselves have followed. These teachings are called Dharma, the second object of faith. Literally, Dharma means “that which supports one (from suffering).” For each individual, the actual Dharma that protects is the wisdom in their own mind that opposes ignorance, anger, desire, pride, and so on.
The third object of faith is the Sangha, the community of practitioners who have realised Dharma within their own minds and who teach and guide others on the path to buddhahood. The best guide is one who has been there before; the Sangha have overcome the obstacles to realisation and are thus fully qualified to help others achieve the same result. The external Buddha and Sangha assist us to develop Dharma within our own minds. Then we in turn become objects of faith for others because we become Buddhas in our own right. Thus the ultimate manifestation of faith in Buddhism is courage and determination to follow the path, and self-confidence in one’s own ability to attain perfection. Faith is the foundation of all virtue and progress on the path to enlightenment.
If Buddha was correct, and we owe it to ourselves to find out, one day we will all make the decision to enter this path. What is there other than faith that could lead to such a decision? We cannot know the result of the path — the cessation of suffering — until we experience it, and therefore faith, as opposed to direct knowledge, is necessary. Such faith is based upon clear recognition of the true and admirable qualities of the Buddha, his teachings, and those who put the teachings into action.
Faith has three aspects:
- Admiring faith is a clear state of mind that regards the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha with delight. It is induced by knowledge gained through listening to the teachings and observing the behaviour of the Buddha and the Sangha.
- Believing faith is conviction and certainty in the truth of the Dharma, induced by contemplating the meaning of the teachings with logic and comparing them to one’s own experiences in life.
- Aspiring faith is the wish to attain the stages of the path to enlightenment. It arises as a result of
gaining knowledge from contemplation and meditation on the teachings and seeing that it is
possible to achieve those goals.
As the three aspects of faith in Buddhism are based upon three levels of understanding, the knowledges of listening, thinking, and meditating, they cannot be called “blind.” Also, as the essence of the Buddhist path is compassion, they cannot cause harm. On the other hand, cynical rejection of religious faith, and trust in science and technology alone to provide relief from suffering, truly deserves the label “blind.” Without removing the obstacles to happiness from our own minds through wisdom and compassion, we can never achieve our goals of peace and freedom from suffering.
During my recent camping trip through the Mongolian steppe, I was deeply moved by the people who, despite seventy years of harsh repression and a limited knowledge of the teachings, still have profound faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. At every ger I was treated with respect, and the people asked me to bless them and their homes. Although their faith is mostly at the level of admiring faith, it remains the very strength and soul of Mongolia. Mongolian Buddhism preserved not as an exhibit in a museum but as a warm vitality in the hearts of the Mongols is a national treasure, a precious resource for the entire world.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “my religion is compassion.” His proposal to turn Tibet into a zone of peace for the world was turned down by the Chinese, but it may be possible for that ideal to be realised here in Mongolia. Without faith in virtue there is no basis for morality. There is nothing to restrain the impulses of desire, anger, and selfishness, and there is a possibility that the Mongolian people may succumb to the sense of hopelessness that we see in the West where affluence and material comforts have not brought mental peace. It would be a great tragedy if the faith of the Mongolian people were to be usurped by Western values and beliefs that propagate ignorance rather than destroy it.