The Buddhist Concept of Faith

Evening Vigil at Wat Pah Boon Lawm

This pas­sage on faith is found in chap­ter 18 of Bud­dhad­ham­ma, by Ven. Phra Payut­to, on the unique attrib­ut­es of awak­ened beings:

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Let us return to the first virtue of faith (sad­dhā) and exam­ine how it is a cru­cial fac­tor at the begin­ning of spir­i­tu­al prac­tice. Nor­mal­ly, faith is divid­ed into three groups: faith in the Bud­dha, faith in the Dham­ma, and faith in the Sang­ha. Occa­sion­al­ly, a sin­gle, pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion is pre­sent­ed, espe­cial­ly when describ­ing the faith of a noble dis­ci­ple before the real­iza­tion of stream-entry: (a per­son) has faith in the enlight­en­ment of the Tathā­ga­ta thus: ‘The Blessed One is an ara­hant … the Awak­ened One.’ This form of faith is called ‘faith in the Tathāgata’s awak­en­ing’ (tathā­ga­ta-bod­hi-sad­dhā).1 It is faith in the wis­dom of the Bud­dha, who is con­sid­ered the arche­type, rep­re­sen­ta­tive, or pio­neer for all human beings.

Bodhi Leaf at Wat Pah Boon Lawm

The Buddha’s awak­en­ing con­firms that all human beings are capa­ble of real­iz­ing the truth and reach­ing the high­est good through mind­ful­ness, wis­dom, and dis­ci­plined effort. The Bud­dha com­pared him­self to a baby chick who is the first to peck its way through the eggshell of ignorance,2 and to a dis­cov­er­er of an ancient path who reveals this path to humanity.3 Faith in the Buddha’s awak­en­ing is thus equiv­a­lent to faith in the capa­bil­i­ty and wis­dom of human beings. Or more suc­cinct­ly, it is self-con­fi­dence or faith in one­self. This con­fi­dence is not self­ish belief or pride, but rather con­fi­dence in being human or an objec­tive trust in human­i­ty. One believes in the human poten­tial for wis­dom, that every per­son can reach the high­est goal through spir­i­tu­al train­ing and ful­fil the great­est of human aspirations.4 The Bud­dha is the sym­bol of self-belief; he was the first per­son to assert this human poten­tial and the first per­son to not attribute enlight­en­ment to a divine or super­nat­ur­al pow­er.

Effec­tive­ly, faith in the Buddha’s awak­en­ing encom­pass­es faith in the Triple Gem: there is trust that human beings can devel­op wis­dom to the point of resolv­ing even the most refined dif­fi­cul­ties in the heart, and they are able to reach the high­est lib­er­a­tion and com­plete hap­pi­ness, just as the Bud­dha was able to accom­plish as leader and guide; there is trust that these prin­ci­ples of prac­tice and the high­est goal are aspects of truth based on nat­ur­al laws; and there is trust that there are peo­ple who have reached this goal, who com­prise a noble com­mu­ni­ty, have ver­i­fied the truth, prop­a­gate the Dham­ma, spread bless­ings, and are ful­ly pre­pared to assist oth­ers in join­ing this noble com­mu­ni­ty.

Although Bud­dhism advo­cates wis­dom, faith is an essen­tial qual­i­ty at the begin­ning stages of prac­tice, before a per­son real­izes his or her poten­tial and per­fects wis­dom. Faith here is dif­fer­ent from what is com­mon­ly under­stood and should not be mis­tak­en for blind faith; it is faith in wis­dom, linked with wis­dom, and leads to wis­dom.

Buddhist Ordination Candidate Chanting

There are two impor­tant aspects to faith in the Triple Gem or to faith in the Buddha’s awak­en­ing. First, the entire teach­ing in Bud­dhism, includ­ing modes of prac­tice and the high­est goal, rests on the prin­ci­ple that human beings are capa­ble of fol­low­ing in the Buddha’s foot­steps and real­iz­ing the truth through their own effort and wis­dom. There exists no exter­nal, supreme source of pow­er sur­pass­ing that of human beings. If this prin­ci­ple were to be false, then the entire Bud­dhist sys­tem of prac­tice and the stat­ed goal would be mean­ing­less and void. Sec­ond, if a Bud­dhist dis­ci­ple does not have trust in this human poten­tial, he will be unable to progress along the path of Bud­dhism. How would he be able to devote him­self to prac­tice? In fact, he would not be a true dis­ci­ple of the Bud­dha. Faith in the Buddha’s awak­en­ing is thus an essen­tial qual­i­ty for a Bud­dhist.

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1 Alter­na­tive­ly, ‘faith in the wis­dom of the dis­cov­er­er of Truth.’ It is note­wor­thy that the Bud­dha uses the term tathā­ga­ta here to refer to him­self, because there are many epi­thets for the Bud­dha and each one empha­sizes dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties. The use of the term tathā­ga­ta here is con­sis­tent with the pas­sage where the Bud­dha describes the laws of nature, which exist autonomous­ly and are not depen­dent on the aris­ing of Tathā­gatas; a Tathā­ga­ta is mere­ly the dis­cov­er­er and reveal­er of these truths (see: A. I. 286; S. II. 25). On many occa­sions the term tathā­ga­ta is trans­lat­ed as a ‘being’ (e.g.: M. I. 426; S. IV. 395; explained, for exam­ple, at MA. III. 142). Inter­est­ed schol­ars may com­pare bod­hi here with the con­cept of Bud­dha­hood in the Mahāyā­na tra­di­tion.

2 Vin. III. 3–4.

3 S. II. 106; S. III. 66, 108–9; M. III. 4.

4 In answer to the ques­tion of whether human knowl­edge is lim­it­ed, the knowl­edge of one who is well-trained is the high­est pos­si­ble degree of human wis­dom. If this knowl­edge has lim­its, then no knowl­edge exists else­where that sur­pass­es and aug­ments it; even the knowl­edge belong­ing to the high­est gods is impart­ed by human beings (see: Kevaṭṭa-sut­ta, D. I. 215–23; Brah­man­i­man­tani­ka-sut­ta, M. I. 326–31).

 

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