Introduction to Faith & Confidence


The mean­ing, role, and impor­tance of faith (sad­dhā) in the Bud­dhist teach­ings is as follows:

Faith here does not mean hand­ing over com­plete respon­si­bil­i­ty to some­thing or some­one with­out apply­ing rea­soned judge­ment. On the con­trary. To do that would be an expres­sion of sim­ple emotionality.

Faith is mere­ly one stage—and the first stage—in the devel­op­ment of wis­dom. Cor­rect faith is con­nect­ed to rea­soned analy­sis: it must lead to and be val­i­dat­ed by wis­dom. It is the oppo­site to hand­ing over com­plete respon­si­bil­i­ty or to a total entrust­ing one­self to some­thing or some­one else with­out apply­ing rea­soned judge­ment, which is an expres­sion of sim­ple emo­tion­al­i­ty (āve­ga) and leads peo­ple to stop mak­ing inquiries. Faith based sim­ply on emo­tion is a form of gulli­bil­i­ty; it should be amend­ed and ulti­mate­ly elim­i­nat­ed. Grant­ed, the emo­tion stem­ming from a cor­rect kind of faith can prove use­ful at ear­ly stages of Dham­ma prac­tice, but in the end it is replaced by wisdom.

The faith includ­ed in wis­dom devel­op­ment is per­haps bet­ter defined as self-con­fi­dence: a per­son has a strong con­vic­tion based on crit­i­cal rea­son­ing that the aspired-to goal or ide­al is both valu­able and attain­able. This faith inspires a per­son to val­i­date the truth which he or she believes to be rea­son­ably accessible.

To help define faith in a cor­rect man­ner, all teach­ings in the Pali Canon con­tain­ing sad­dhā in a group of spir­i­tu­al fac­tors also con­tain wis­dom as an accom­pa­ny­ing fac­tor, and nor­mal­ly, faith is list­ed as the first fac­tor while wis­dom is list­ed as the final fac­tor in these groups. Teach­ings empha­siz­ing wis­dom, how­ev­er, do not need to include the fac­tor of faith. Because wis­dom gov­erns oth­er virtues and is an essen­tial fac­tor, it is more impor­tant than faith. Even as a per­son­al attribute wis­dom rather than faith is the deci­sive fac­tor: those indi­vid­u­als who are most high­ly praised in Bud­dhism, like the chief dis­ci­ple Ven­er­a­ble Sāriput­ta, are those who pos­sess the great­est wisdom.

There are two dis­tinct ben­e­fits to faith: 1) faith con­di­tions rap­ture (pīti), which gives rise to tran­quil­li­ty (pas­sad­dhi), which in turn leads to con­cen­tra­tion and final­ly to wis­dom; and 2) faith gen­er­ates effort—the endeav­our to under­take spir­i­tu­al prac­tice and to put to the test those things believed in by faith, in order to wit­ness the truth for one­self, which even­tu­al­ly leads to wis­dom. Although these two ben­e­fits stem from an emo­tion­al basis, the process lead­ing to their cul­mi­na­tion must always con­tain an inher­ent aspi­ra­tion for wisdom.

As the pur­pose of true faith is to sup­port wis­dom, faith must pro­mote crit­i­cal dis­cern­ment, which leads to wis­dom devel­op­ment. And faith itself is well-ground­ed and secure only when a per­son has estab­lished con­fi­dence and dis­pelled doubts through ratio­nal inquiry. In Bud­dha-Dham­ma, the qual­i­ty of faith thus sup­ports inquiry and inves­ti­ga­tion. The meth­ods of appeal­ing to oth­ers to believe, forc­ing oth­ers to accept a pre­scribed truth, or threat­en­ing dis­be­liev­ers with pun­ish­ment are all incom­pat­i­ble with this Bud­dhist prin­ci­ple of faith.

Faith and devo­tion to an indi­vid­ual has draw­backs. The Bud­dha even encour­aged his dis­ci­ples to aban­don devo­tion to the Bud­dha him­self, because such devo­tion is heav­i­ly invest­ed with emo­tion and can become an obsta­cle to com­plete and per­fect liberation.

Faith is not clas­si­fied as a fac­tor of the Path, because it is wis­dom, linked to and val­i­dat­ing faith, that is the nec­es­sary fac­tor for pro­gress­ing on the Path. Fur­ther­more, those per­sons with great wis­dom, for exam­ple the per­fect­ly enlight­ened Bud­dhas and the Pac­ce­ka-Bud­dhas, begin the Path at wis­dom, with­out pass­ing through the stage of faith. The cul­ti­va­tion of wis­dom needs not always begin with faith—it may also begin with wise reflec­tion (yon­iso-man­asikāra). There­fore, the Bud­dha insert­ed the con­cept of faith in the sec­tion on devel­op­ing right view; he did not dis­tin­guish faith as a sep­a­rate factor.

Even faith that pass­es beyond what is called ‘blind faith’ is still con­sid­ered incor­rect if it does not reach the stage of inquiry, of aim­ing for clear vision, because it fails to ful­fil its func­tion. Spir­i­tu­al prac­tice stuck at this lev­el is still defec­tive, because it lacks a true objective.

Although faith is of sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fit, at the final stages it must come to an end. The exis­tence of faith indi­cates that the true goal has not yet been reached, because as long as a per­son ‘believes’ in that goal, it shows that he has not yet real­ized it for him­self. As long as faith exists, it reveals that a per­son still depends on exter­nal things, entrusts wis­dom to exter­nal things, and has not reached per­fect free­dom. Faith is there­fore not an attribute of an ara­hant; on the con­trary, an ara­hant has the attribute of being ‘faith­less’ (asad­dha), which means that he or she has direct­ly real­ized the truth and no longer needs to believe in anoth­er per­son or in a ratio­nal expla­na­tion for the truth.

To sum up, pro­gres­sion on the Path is grad­ual, begin­ning with faith (sad­dhā), devel­op­ing into a see­ing or under­stand­ing in line with cause and effect (diṭṭhi), and final­ly lead­ing to a knowl­edge and vision of the truth (ñāṇa-das­sana). At the final stage, the task of faith is ended.

The impor­tance and advan­tages of faith should be clear­ly under­stood. One should nei­ther give faith too much val­ue nor hold it in con­tempt, both of which have harm­ful con­se­quences. A dis­par­age­ment of faith reveals a mis­un­der­stand­ing of faith’s role. A per­son may pos­sess a high degree of self-con­fi­dence, for exam­ple, but this may sim­ply be a belief in his own men­tal defile­ments and man­i­fest as con­ceit and egoism.

In rela­tion to moral con­duct (sīla), faith is a vital fac­tor. It pro­vides peo­ple with sup­port­ive prin­ci­ples that act as deter­rents, enabling them to resist temp­ta­tions and provo­ca­tions and to abstain from per­form­ing bad actions. Faith also pro­vides a chan­nel for thought. When a per­son expe­ri­ences a sense impres­sion that does not over­whelm the mind (does not exceed the pow­er of the prin­ci­ples instilled by faith), the course of his think­ing fol­lows the path pre­pared by faith; thoughts do not stray in unwhole­some direc­tions. For a per­son who is still sub­ject to men­tal defile­ments, faith thus sus­tains vir­tu­ous con­duct. Although faith has many ben­e­fits, how­ev­er, if it is not accom­pa­nied by wis­dom then it can be harm­ful and it can even hin­der the devel­op­ment of wisdom.

In ref­er­ence to wis­dom devel­op­ment, it is pos­si­ble to give a rough out­line of the var­i­ous stages of faith, as follows:

  1. One devel­ops views based on sound rea­son; one does not believe in things sim­ply because one has been told by oth­ers (in accord with the Kālā­ma Sutta—see below).
  2. One safe­guards truth­ful­ness (sac­cānu­rakkha); one lis­tens to the teach­ings, opin­ions, and doc­trines of var­i­ous par­ties with objec­tiv­i­ty; one does not rush into mak­ing judge­ments about things that one does not yet tru­ly know; one does not stub­born­ly insist that one’s per­son­al knowl­edge and opin­ions rep­re­sent the truth.
  3. When one has lis­tened to the teach­ings and opin­ions of oth­ers, has seen that they accord with rea­son, and has observed that the per­son who offers these teach­ings is sin­cere, unbi­ased and wise, con­fi­dence aris­es. One accepts the teach­ings in order to con­tin­ue an exam­i­na­tion of the truth using rea­soned analysis.
  4. One con­tem­plates and exam­ines these teach­ings until one is con­vinced that they are true and cor­rect; one feels deeply impressed by the truth that one has wit­nessed and makes effort to fur­ther one’s inves­ti­ga­tions in order to deep­en a real­iza­tion of the truth.
  5. If one has doubts one has­tens to inquire from oth­ers with a sin­cere heart; one inquires not to shore up one’s iden­ti­ty but in order to gain wis­dom. Faith is con­sol­i­dat­ed by prov­ing the truth of rea­soned argu­ments. In this way the pur­pose of faith is fulfilled.