15 July 2011

Faith in What?

teaching Buddha
teaching Buddha
Asian Arts
I'VE BEEN PONDERING FAITH quite a bit recently. I've written a number of times about belief, and then last year was interviewed by Ted Meissner of The Secular Buddhist. Subsequently I joined a discussion group in which we talked about faith and belief; and about secularism and religion. One of our number came up with this aphorism;
Religious Buddhism doesn't convince us;
Secular Buddhism doesn't move us.
This seems to sum up a dilemma faced by modern, Western Buddhists. We often get this dichotomy between faith and reason. In our group we discussed the Kālāma Sutta which I have already written about. [1] It's one of those texts that gets cited far too often and usually for the wrong reasons. One of the negative criteria put forward in this text is:
mā ākāraparivitakkena...
don't use reflecting on signs...
To put it in context, this is saying that we should not decide on what constitutes good and bad behaviour on the basis of ākāraparivitakka, which I translate as 'reflection on signs'. Ākāra is from ā– + √kṛ 'to do, to make' and means 'a way of making; a state or condition; a property, sign; a mode'; while parivitakka derives from takka with prefixes pari– and vi– and means 'thought, reflection', or 'meditation' (in the English sense). Bhikkhus Nyanaponika & Bodhi translate it as 'reflection on reasons' which is not incorrect, but leads to a strange conclusion: that one should not reflect on the reasons for acting ethically. I've discussed the problem a little in my post about the ten negative criteria, but want to return to consider the context a little more.

In the Apaṇṇaka Sutta (MN 60) Gotama asks the Brahmin lay folk he's just met whether they have settled on a teacher in whom they 'have reason to have faith' (ākāravatī saddhā paṭiladdhā) - or perhaps 'have obtained reasoned faith'. Here ākāra is combined with the possessive suffix -vatin so the sense is a faith which possesses (-vant) 'reasons', or perhaps 'signs'. They have not found a teacher and so he gives them an incontrovertible teaching (apaṇṇakadhamma). There's no sense here that reasoning is a bad thing, and the expectation seems to be that people can be expected to have reasoned faith in a teacher.

The task of understanding is not made easier if we then read the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta (MN 47). Here the disciple has faith in the Buddha, which they should explain this way:
Where-ever I approach the Bhagavan, friend, he teaches a dhamma better and better, higher and higher, with dark and light counterparts, and [as a result of] direct knowledge of a certain aspect of that teaching I arrived at the conclusion (niṭṭḥamadama) I found satisfaction (pasīdi) in the teacher (expressed) thus 'the the Bhagavan is perfectly awakened, his dhamma is well taught, and his community on the good path.'
Most Buddhists will tend to talk about faith in the teachings, and indeed much of the discussion on the Kāmāla Sutta, both with my friends and in published work, revolves around the content of the teaching. Here, although his good teaching is certainly a positive criteria, saddhā is associated with the teacher, not in the teachings. Note that the Kālāmas ask "who is telling the truth?", not "what is the truth?" The Kālāmas are apparently not seeking independence, only guidance on which teacher to have faith in. Here in the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta we see that one firstly has faith in the teacher. Likewise the culmination of the Kālāma Sutta is the act of going for refuge to the Buddha by the Kālāmas - i.e. they place their confidence in him. The worldview of the texts is one in which not having a teacher is almost inconceivable, hence the magnitude of Gotama's achievement.

This same theme is repeated elsewhere. In the Karandaka Sutta (MN 51), the Mahānāma Sutta (AN 6.10 & AN 11.12), and the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) one develops confirmed confidence (aveccapassāda) in the Buddha after hearing a Dhamma talk. It seems to me that the one thing that faith does not require, in these texts, is practice or experience. Faith arises merely upon hearing the Buddha speak. Elsewhere in the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta it says that faith should also be 'rooted in vision' (dassanamūlikā), a metaphor here for personal knowledge, but this vision also seems to arise upon hearing the Buddhadhamma, not upon practising it.

A number of texts in the Saṃyutta Nikāya refer to faith in the Buddha. For instance:
SN 55.37 (S v.395)
"To what extent, Sir, is a layman endowed with faith (saddhā-sampanna)? Here, Mahānāma, the layman is faithful (saddha), he trusts (saddahati) in the understanding (bodhi) of the tathāgata [as expressed in the Buddha vandana or itipi so gāthā]. To this extent, Mahānāma, the layman is endowed with faith."
This is interesting because it contains the noun (saddhā), the verb (saddahati), and an adjective (saddha) all from the same root. Faith here is faith in bodhi of the Tathāgata. In the Cabbisodhana Sutta (MN 112) we find it explicitly said:
tāhaṃ dhammaṃ sutvā tathāgate saddhaṃ paṭilabhiṃ

Hearing the Dhamma, I gained faith in the Tathāgata.
I have yet to find a text which describes faith, in the sense of saddhā, in anything other than a teacher. So despite the received tradition - and I include here the tradition I received - in the early Buddhist texts faith (saddhā) seems to mean faith in the person, or the personal achievement, of the Buddha.

There is another kind of confidence that arises from personal experience of practice and this is called aveccapasāda. Pasāda is more literally 'clear, bright' and we might translated it as 'clarity', and aveccapasāda as 'definite clarity'. SN 48.44 explicitly contrasts faith in the Buddha, with knowledge gained from personal experience. Sāriputta says he need not rely on faith in the Bhagavan (Na khvāhaṃ ettha, bhante, bhagavato saddhāya gacchāmi) to have faith that the faith faculty has the deathless as it's final goal (saddhindriyaṃ... amatapariyosānaṃ): he knows it for himself.

As I mentioned above there are texts where aveccapasāda is synonymous with saddhā, but more often the two are distinguished. Although this distinction is reasonably clear in the texts, it seems to have been lost in practice. And this has a downstream effect on discussions of faith in Buddhism. There is an over emphasis on what is effectively aveccapasāda (confidence based on personal experience), and a down playing of saddhā (faith in the teacher) as irrelevant. Although we use the term saddhā we do not use it in the same way as the canonical texts do, we tend to mean something more like aveccapasāda.

However this discussion still leaves the problem of how to understand and translate the occurrence of mā ākāraparivitakkena in the Kālāma Sutta. Frankly the only way it makes sense to me is to assume that ākāra here means something other than 'reason', and we do know that the interpretation of signs was practised since monks are banned from doing it in the Brahmajāla Sutta. [2] In various places Buddhaghosa equates ākāra with liṅga and nimitta (e.g. MA 3.38), both of which mean 'a sign'. For instance the clothing, long hair and beard are said to be a sign (ākāra, liṅga, nimitta) of the villager. Perhaps then our little phrase means 'don't go by external appearances', which would also fit the context.

If our morality is unreasoning, then it will likely be unreasonable. Similarly with faith. But in the texts I've cited faith is a quality of relationship between the protagonist and the Buddha. According to traditional compound analysis (in Sanskrit):
śraddhā iti. yatra hṛdayam mama dadhāmi, sā.
'Faith' [means] where I place my heart. [3]
This suggests that we don't place our hearts in things or ideas, but only in another person. For us it could could refer to the relationship between ourselves and our teacher, or perhaps between us and our imaginative connection with the Buddha. The latter, though, leaves us vulnerable to narcissism and hubris since we tend to imagine the Buddha (as Theists imagine God) to be like us, but a bit better.[4] Perhaps what this reinforces is the necessity of contact with a living exemplar of the practices, although even this is no longer a straightforward proposition in the West. So many of us have been more than a little naive about who we trust, and so many of the trusted have proved untrustworthy. And given that many of us convert to Buddhism, having already fallen out of love with Christianity or some other religion, faith is a subject fraught with tensions. We have a naive, romantic view of trust and love, and falling in love. Perhaps this is the fundamental problem - we court betrayal by trusting naively; then being hurt we think we'll find a refuge in ideas (aka The Dharma). I'm quote doubtful about this.


  1. I discussed this three years ago in a post on Persian influences on Indian Buddhism.
  2. See my Visible Mantra blog post on śraddhā, especially the comment by Elisa Freschi a scholar of Sanskrit, and Indian Philosophy.
  3. Since originally publishing this essay I came upon some research which has quantified this phenomenon. Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs. PNAS. Part of the abstract reads: "In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated [brain] areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God’s beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one’s own existing beliefs." Put simply: we appear to believe that God agrees with us. I leave atheists to contemplate what it means for us.
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