May 14, 2010

Buddhism and Faith

For about the last seven years Tricycle has been sending out a daily email called Daily Dharma. Each Daily Dharma email provides a short teaching and links to a longer article from the Tricycle Wisdom Collection. Since its inception, Daily Dharma has been one of our most popular features.

For today’s Daily Dharma we chose a quote from Hakuun Ryoko Yasutani Roshi, which was taken from an early interview with Philip Kapleau Roshi. In it, Yasutani Roshi (himself a figure of some controversy) unequivocally states that Buddhism is in fact a religion. We knew it would elicit some strong reactions and it did (particularly among those that follow our Facebook page), but we did not foresee receiving a response as insightful and well written as the one below by author and security specialist Michael Jaquish. We thank him for this contribution, and welcome all of our readers' responses to Daily Dharma as well.

Here is the Daily Dharma,

Buddhism has often been described as both a rational religion and a religion of wisdom. But a religion it is, and what makes it one is this element of faith, without which it is merely philosophy. Buddhism starts with the Buddha's supreme enlightenment, which he attained after strenuous effort. Our deep faith, therefore, is in his enlightenment, the substance of which he proclaimed to be that human nature, all existence, is intrinsically whole, flawless, omnipotent-in a word, perfect. WIthout unwavering faith in this the heart of the Buddha's teaching, it is impossible to progress far in one's practice.

- Hakuun Ryoko Yasutani Roshi, from "Life with a Capital L " (Summer 1993)

Michael Jaquish's response,

I disagree with this author (Roshi) in today’s Tricycle message. I take issue with his statement that The Buddha claimed human nature is “intrinsically whole, flawless, omnipotent-in a word, perfect”. What The Buddha meant is that we can become perfect (enlightened) by following The Path out of the darkness of ignorance, unawareness and attachment to impermanent things. This is why all Buddhists take refuge in the path (the Dharma). Once we reach enlightenment (awareness of our true spiritual nature and connection to all beings) we destroy the illusion that happiness can come from impermanent things, situations and relationships that is cast by our ego. At that point we see the universe the way it really is.  In other words, it is our spiritual nature that is perfect, not our human nature. Our human nature is ruled by the ego and that is what causes suffering. The ego does not exist in our spiritual nature.

The process of growth that leads to such awareness is a step-by step process that re-programs the mind to break the illusion of reality and allows us to see truth. To say that this is an act of faith is similar to saying that a body builder must have faith that he will develop a perfect body over years of self-discipline and training. Yes, this requires a degree of ‘faith’ he can accomplish his goal but is this really faith in the sense of believing in the unseen like Christians who believe in a creator God no one has ever seen? I don’t think so. Just as we can look around and see the results of years of hard work in body builders who win competitions every day, we can look around and see great spiritual teachers who have attained enlightenment through similar effort. Buddhism is not a religion of faith because Buddhists do not worship any unseen deity. Buddhism is a philosophy that involves study, discipline and focus that leads to understanding.

-Michael Jaquish

Michael is the author of A Monk Without A Monastery, The Purpose Of Life & Where Did We Come From?

See Michael's books at

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Tricycle » Buddhism and Conflict Resolution's picture

[...] which we published here on the blog, leading to a very interesting and dynamic discussion on Buddhism and Faith. We recently heard from Michael again, this time in the topic of conflict resolution, and I am once [...]

Michael Jaquish's picture

More than 2,000 years ago Hindu yogis in India developed a system of mapping and tuning in to the energies of the 'aura' or 'subtle body' (spiritual essence). Over the centuries, somewhat controversial descriptions of how to tune in to these energies have been developed. Different methods involve aspects of 'tantric yoga', 'laya yoga', kundalini yoga' and 'theosophy'. The apparent contradictions between different traditions show that this can be a complex and difficult area to investigate and address.

Chakra is a Sanskrit word that means wheel or vortex. The chakras can be thought of as energy centers that direct the flow of energy through our bodies. Chakras are a part of our consciousness and how we use them reflects on the decisions that we make in our lives.

According to the ‘science’ of chakras, there are seven chakras located throughout the body, each with their own unique attributes and characteristics. They are focal points of energy located in important parts of your body such as your head or heart that we use, whether consciously or unconsciously, to affect reality and allow us to fully experience and realize events that unfold before us.

Chakra meditation is a unique form of relaxation that involves deep concentration. By achieving an uninterrupted level of focus, psychic energy is able to flow up through your body, energizing and reinvigorating all of your different chakras along the way. Practicing such meditation may allegedly enhance ones awareness of how the spiritual essence interacts with the physical body.

What Is So Beneficial About Chakra Meditation? : Our Mind Bo's picture

[...] Tricycle » Buddhism &#1072nd Faith [...]

Michael Jaquish's picture

As these posts are pointing out, verbal and written communication is always very problematic because words and labels tend to mean different things to different people. Effective communication requires that all participants be ‘on the same page’ in terms of the fundamentals. This is why we have dictionaries, but even with dictionaries we often find ourselves struggling to truly grasp what others say.

One of my books is titled ‘A Monk Without A Monastery’. The title was suggested by someone I have counseled through some very difficult times as a way of reflecting the fact that one does not need to be affiliated with an organized ‘religious’ group in order to be a Bodhisattva (an awakening being)… one who has embarked upon the path of enlightenment and out of pure compassion, seeks to motivate others to do the same.

Spirituality is an innate part of all beings and it is always with us whether we are aware of it or not. Those who become aware of it cannot ignore it. Spirituality is also by its very nature, a singular journey that each individual must eventually confront and engage alone and this can be seen quite clearly in Buddhism.

Stepping onto the path says you recognize and embrace your spirituality and that you are committed to opening the door to your inner essence to allow that spirituality to flow out and change your perspective of the world. Once you do this, you become a monk of sorts… at least in terms of discipline, dedication and motivation… and the world becomes your monastery.

Whether you decide to label Buddhism as a religion or a philosophy is ultimately unimportant as long as you understand the path to enlightenment and are dedicated to traveling this path. Such terms only become important when we (Buddhists) begin to reach out to other cultures that are on a different path. That is where discussion, evaluation and adaption occur. As Clark Strand points out, this is happening now within the pages of magazines like Tricycle and it is a very good thing. And as Hein and Craig point out, “recovering Christians” or outside observers who step upon the path of Buddhism sometimes initially find themselves struggling to understand concepts like ‘faith’, ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ within the context Buddhism.

All of this raises another very important topic that many Buddhists in America might prefer to ignore. Contrary to the traditional Buddhist attitude, we can no longer afford to sit back and wait for seekers of truth to come to us “when they are ready”. The rise of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism has pointed out how dangerous religions that promote elitism based upon self-imposed ignorance and mythology can be. Humanity is involved in a desperate struggle for survival and that survival could depend upon our perspective of the world and our spirituality. As American Buddhists we can chose to participate in the solution by being eager to engage in conversations that offer Buddhism as an alternative for those ready to consider a different path to spiritual growth and personal enlightenment.

Do not be afraid to spread the truth, compassion and wisdom of the Dharma. It has much to offer and the world deserves to understand this.

Hein's picture

From a different Western country (South Africa) perhaps my few cents into the purse about the approach to Buddhism and faith.

Firstly, I agree with Barbara that it is preferable to refer to Buddhism as a religion. It might also be a philosophy or even something else ("science-of-the-mind"), but ultimately it remains a religion. Secondly, (and fortunately for us down here) the Taiwanse have erected this huge Buddhist Temple an hours drive outside Johannesburg. The practice at the temple is chan (zen, but the Chiense version) and Pure Land ("Amida Butsu", but again the Chinese version). In addition we have various Tibetan Buddhist centres, but not many Theravadan centres. The importance of this is that very few (if any) people get the idea that Buddhism is a philosophy when confronted with a huge temple and huge Buddhas. The downside of it is that people thing of the Buddhas as "gods". Thirdly, faith is an important teaching I received from the chan master and it is in line with this remark by Barbara; "The words from the Pali and Sanskrit texts translated into English as “faith” (saddha or sraddha) do not mean faith in the sense of “belief” but rather of conviction, trust, or confidence."

The best explanation i could find (have regrettably not yet read too much - except "The Buddha" - of Karen Armstrong's books) about Buddhism and faith is an article by Sangharakshita (founder of the FWBO) that can be accessed here

My view; without faith (as Barbara, my chan master, Shangharakshita and Yashutani Roshi explained -and understand- it), it would be very difficult to deepen or progress in one's practice. As I am not into proselyzing Buddhism i do not need to wrap the dharma "in sugar" to make it presentable, but rather prefer to present it as it is. Faith (in the sense explained earlier) without a god is just how it is. In any event Buddhism is a personal religion and was IMO never meant for the masses. I therefore accept that a lot of people would remain theistic.

Clark Strand's picture

I find myself wondering if it would be all right for Buddhism to be a religion for some, and a practice, a philosophy, or a way of life for others. Does Buddhism really need to be a case of one-size-fits-all?

In the early days of this magazine its editors came under constant fire for what some regarded as editorial favoritism--choosing to cover one sect or school of Buddhism more often than another. (I know, because I was an editor of Tricycle during those days.)

Once in conversation with a person making just this kind of criticism, inspiration suddenly struck and I asked, "What if there were one magazine for all of Christianity--a magazine responsible for covering everything from Orthodoxy to Catholicism to progressive Episcopalianism to Mormonism to the Jehovah's Witness--would that be a successful venture?" The man I was talking to admitted that this would be an impossibility. The editorial policies of such a magazine would necessary be so broad as to render them virtually meaningless.

"And yet," I reasoned, "that is what we are being asked to do for Buddhism at Tricycle." I went on to explain that for one brief moment in the greater history of Western Buddhism (perhaps no more than a century), Buddhism in the West could be regarded as a single thing. It was mostly an illusion, because it was nothing of the kind and hadn't been for at least 2,000 years. But is was also partly true, since Buddhists (the conversts and their teachers at least) were willing to gather in one place for discussion and debate.

That place was Tricycle, and what a wonderful opportunity it was. Thought of in this way, it almost seemed workable. The moment you realized how diverse Buddhism was, however, you quickly understood that it was an impossibility. I believe the magazine and the forums for Buddhist teaching and opinion it offers continue to be a kind of impossible dream. Perhaps we will eventually all wake up in our respective schools, each with its own somewhat more comfortable (albeit limited) view. But for the time being it's wonderful to be able to talk together like this, is it not?

Barbara O'Brien's picture

Craig wrote,

"The article under discussion seemed to indicate that Buddhism hinges on faith that the Buddha was in fact enlightened."

I can see how you could read that paragraph that way, but that's not the whole story. In Mahayana Buddhism (which would apply to Yasutani) the understanding is that "enlightenment" is the fundamental nature of all beings, and with disciplined practice we can all realize and manifest this.

The foundational myth of Buddhism tells us that this guy "the Buddha' realized enlightenment and then spend the next several years teaching other people how to realize enlightenment themselves. The myth may or may not be factually true, but the "faith" rests more on how we experience Buddha-nature ourselves, not on an old story. Enlightenment is not something that has to be "believed in" or fantasized about, but until your perspective begins to change you do have to trust the practice.

Craig's picture

As a recovering Christian, having "faith" sets off all sorts of alarms in me. Christianity is said to be for nought if Jesus did not rise from the dead. The article under discussion seemed to indicate that Buddhism hinges on faith that the Buddha was in fact enlightened. Neither one of those assumptions would seem to be worth betting on for me. But I'll keep up with the meditative techniques which have been a real benefit and leave the cosmology for others to fantasize about.

Mark's picture

I have to tell you far as posts go, the Tricycle one's are the best. It's amazing to see thought out, intelligent, and kind responses on the net. Gassho all!!!!!!

Barbara O'Brien's picture

Michael Jaquish writes,

"I have personally found it easier to describe Buddhism to Americans as a philosophy rather than a religion of faith because the accepted definition of a ‘religion’ in the West involves the worship of a God or deity and the term ‘faith’ is generally used to describe a belief in some sort of unseen supernatural power such as the God of Abraham (particularly for fundamentalist Christians). To ignore those distinctions is to set people up for confusion."

Yes, but "philosophy" is just as inaccurate. I spend much of my life explaining Buddhism to people these days, and IMO "it's not a religion" is confusing more people than "it's a religion." It's too common to see Buddhism rendered into a banal self-improvement project people can adapt to suit themselves.

If I see that someone is really confused, I tell them to think of Buddhism as a discipline rather than a belief system. I think that's much closer to the truth of it than telling them it's a philosophy. And, frankly, if you go into formal practice you do have to get over being twitchy about "religion."

Buddhism will adapt and is adapting to western culture, and it is happening in its own time and in its own way. Just let it be what it is, and people will find it when they're ready.

Michael Jaquish's picture

Thank you for clarifying the term “Faith” in terms of how it is used in Buddhist Philosophy, Ms. O’Brien. You are right I interpreted what Yasutani meant in regards to faith from a Western perspective. I am not the only Westerner who did this however, as I have heard from others who disagreed with the statement for the same reason. And it is probably worth pointing out that the editor of the Daily Dharma (Monty McKeever) mentions in his opening statement here that, “we knew it would elicit some strong reactions.” That being the case, I believe it was appropriate to conduct a discussion of this nature.

Historical issues aside, while I understand your statement about Asian cultures using the terms ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ differently than they are used in the West (and I agree that labels are problematic for Buddhism), the fact is, we are in the West, not in Asia. Whether we wish to admit it or not, we American Buddhists are involved in a process of spreading awareness about Buddhism that requires us to spend a lot of time interpreting Buddhism by confronting and clarifying such issues for Americans.

I have personally found it easier to describe Buddhism to Americans as a philosophy rather than a religion of faith because the accepted definition of a ‘religion’ in the West involves the worship of a God or deity and the term ‘faith’ is generally used to describe a belief in some sort of unseen supernatural power such as the God of Abraham (particularly for fundamentalist Christians). To ignore those distinctions is to set people up for confusion.

Yes, these are ‘tiresome’ questions and issues but as more and more members of the monotheistic traditions begin reaching out for an alternative path to spiritual growth, we in the West who 'label' ourselves Buddhists must be prepared to respond to their needs and questions with clarity and uniformity. Yes, there are different traditions of Buddhism but all traditions are all in agreement about the fundamentals and we owe it to future generations of seekers of spiritual growth to focus on those fundamentals.

Everywhere Buddhism has spread it has adapted and evolved to embrace aspects of the culture in which it spread. The fundamentals have always remained the same but the trappings… those outward aspects of routine that observers tend to label as ‘religion’… frequently mirror the uniqueness of that particular society. The same thing is happening in America. In two hundred years Buddhism will quite likely have become a much more substantial part of American society than it is today. By then it will be on its way to developing into something we may not be able to anticipate but I am certain that it will continue to operate on the same foundation of the four noble truths that The Buddha set forth.

I am personally grateful and excited to be a part of this important process.

gary gach's picture

acknowledge truth — then faith

Barbara O'Brien's picture

Michael -- You and Yasutani are talking apples and oranges.

When Yasutani said, "human nature, all existence, is intrinsically whole, flawless, omnipotent-in a word, perfect," he was presenting a very basic Mahayana teaching on Buddha nature, the fundamental unity of existence (note the "all existence" in the quote). You misunderstood what Yasutani said and responded as if he were speaking of the individual self struggling for realization. This is not the same, although neither is it separate (see especially Madhyamika; the Two Truths; the Heart Sutra; etc.).

I understand that if you practice in Theravada you probably wouldn't have been exposed to this, but it's Mahayana 101.

I also agree with Leslie that you're misunderstanding Yasutani's use of "faith" and instead are using a currently popular definition of "faith" that isn't even applicable to the Abrahamic religions through most of their history (religion historian Karen Armstrong has written about this a lot; look it up). The words from the Pali and Sanskrit texts translated into English as "faith" (saddha or sraddha) do not mean faith in the sense of "belief" but rather of conviction, trust, or confidence.

We Zen students are told to have great faith, great doubt, and great determination. This "faith" is not the faith of clinging to doctrine and belief, but rather faith in the practice, faith to keep going even in the dark, confidence in oneself that realization is possible. The sutras, Theravada and Mahayana, are full of teachings about faith.

The word "faith" sets off alarms among English speakers today because of its association with dogmatic religion, but again, this is a relatively recent development (since the Reformation) even in the West.

Finally we get to the increasingly tiresome question about whether Buddhism is a religion. To me, the urge to label things in order to know them is itself un-Buddhist, but if one has to choose between "religion" and "philosophy" I vote for "religion." One needs a very expansive definition of "religion," but "philosophy" is an even smaller box that Buddhism doesn't fit into unless you lop off big chunks of it first.

Mark's picture


Hmmmm....I think this conversation is started to border on that tricky little issue of whether or not people bowing to statues of the Buddha are practicing "real" Buddhism - i.e. a practice leading toward the end of suffering. This is a huge topic, to be sure, and I'm not sure this is quite the place to bring it up, but it is nevertheless important.

Let's try and distill this to its essence. Buddhism is a practice that leads toward liberation from suffering. I don't think anyone will argue that point. The question most people then ask is whether or not faith (e.g. in karma, rebirth, the saving power of Bodhisattvas, etc.) is a requisite for liberation. In the West, we are very quick to say that faith in the supernatural isn't necessary. It strikes us at superstitious. I mean, let's be honest, most of us came to Buddhism because we found the teachings of, say, Christianity to be less than satisfying. I think this tends to make us a little suspect of people bowing to statues of the Buddha. It's almost as if here these people are - born into the dharma - yet they are missing out on the "true dharma"!

But is this a really fair assessment? More to the point, can this kind of practice lead to liberation? If you read the Pali sutras and commentaries, I think you can make a strong case that it does. In the Visuddhimagga, the concept of faith is deeply explored and it is suggested that those who follow by faith alone can reach a degree of liberation (stream-entry, usually). Is this faith necessary for liberation? No, of course not. And I think that's what you are getting at. All the same, Buddhism can be practiced like a "Western-style" religion and bring about a degree of liberation. It doesn't have to be practiced this way, but it can be. Furthermore, just because it is practiced this way doesn't make it any less Buddhist. So I guess you can say that Buddhism is both a religion and not a religion (and everything in between!) - it's all a matter of how it's practiced and by whom.....


Michael Jaquish's picture

Greetings, Leslie & Mark!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this interesting topic of faith with me. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to learn and grow from the wisdom of others who are on the path.

Your comments point out something that I observe and discuss frequently in regards to the limits of verbal or written communication. I suspect we may all actually be saying the same thing but just struggling to express our thoughts from different perspectives. Do I really mean ‘belief’ when I say ‘faith’? Maybe, but maybe not.

Perhaps it would help to offer up a couple of standard definitions as a starting point:

Definition of Religious FAITH: A Belief in something unseen or unproven. A strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny; “he lost his faith but not his morality”.

Definition of BELIEF: A state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing; a tenet or body of tenets held by a group; conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon, especially when based on examination of evidence.

Buddhism stresses the importance of personal responsibility and choice. Buddhism is expressed by the Dharma, the path that can be followed to reduce suffering by altering our perspective of the universe and reduce or change our expectations by diminishing and eventually destroying the ego. Yes, one must ‘believe’ that this goal is attainable but once one accepts that as a fact, then embarking upon the path and staying there becomes an act of discipline, not ‘faith’. At least not faith in the sense of summoning the assistance of an unseen supernatural power that will control our destiny.

For sure, Buddhism IS often used as (or like) a religion by followers and can easily be mistaken for a religion by untrained observers who see devotees bowing to statues of The Buddha and expressing great emotion. The Buddha took great pains however, to remind his followers that he was NOT a God though. He was a guide and a teacher who drew from his personal experience, nothing more. From the time of his death however, followers have attempted to turn him into a God anyway by worshiping him instead of simply revering him and following what he taught. This happens because human nature is strongly ruled by the ego, which battles constantly to convince us we are unworthy. Those who live under such a cloud find it very hard to accept that they are not inferior and therefore feel ‘obligated’ to bow down (or feel insignificant) before superior beings. (Read today’s Tricycle Dharma message) This is not the path of Buddhism but just as with the monotheistic religions, not everyone is self-realized or enlightened so vast numbers of adherents struggle to understand fundamental concepts.

But I do digress. in terms of the word ‘faith’ and its application to Buddhism, I would offer to Mark that the faith he says he needs to stay on the path is really belief; an awareness of the true reality of the Dharma as opposed to a trust in a supernatural power that controls destiny, AND that it is really ‘discipline’ that keeps him committed to pumping iron or meditating every day regardless of how he feels.

In summary I would say that I still contend that Buddhism is not a religion of faith, it is a lifestyle and a way of viewing the world in which we live.

Michael Jaquish

Leslie Ellestad's picture

Dear Michael,

How do you define faith? I think you are using the word faith in the same way some others may use belief. If that is the case, I agree with you that Buddhism is not a religion of belief. However, in the way that I understand faith, Buddhism is a religion of faith. Faith develops in buddhism through experiencing results of various stages of practice. Usually the first stage is a rational faith; we read or hear the teachings, we do some practice, see some results and it makes sense to us.

Another type of faith is related to the longing we experience to open to our spiritual nature. This is often also present near the beginning, or we wouldn't start seeking. One way of looking at it is that our spiritual nature is speaking to us and because we are as yet separate from it, we feel this separation as a longing and we have a natural sense of faith that there is something worth developing. We often experience this type of longing in the presence of teachers who are perhaps ahead of us on the path.

Perhaps a further development, but also interspersed along the path, are experiences of clear open faith. We have times where we are not separate from our spiritual nature and we rest, with no separation. Knowing is experienced and this spurs on our practice and we develop another level of faith in our practice.

I agree with you that the Roshi's description of faith is more consistent with belief, and similar to my expression of the "faith in Jesus" described in my childhood experience of Christianity.

Mark's picture

As a competitive powerlifter and student of Rinzai Zen, I think I'm especially well equipped to comment on this post. ;-)

Sure, practice and you see results. That's obvious - but only when you are looking from the perspective of accomplishment. Those grueling workouts where everything seems to go wrong - when the weight feels heavier than it should, where you can hardly muster the muscle to stand let alone deadlift 500 lbs. - those are the places where faith come in. You need faith that what you are doing is going to get you to where you want to be. Faith keeps you on the path and ensures that you won't go changing workouts, altering your diet, changing supplementation, etc. Faith keeps you consistent. Faith keeps you going.

The same thing is true with Buddhism. We've all had sits that were less than satisfying. Maybe your legs start to hurt after the first five minutes. Maybe you can't, for the life of you, call Mu to the end of your breath. Maybe just getting to the cushion is a chore for you on some particular day. Without faith, you aren't going to persevere to the end of that painful sit. Without faith, maybe you begin to doubt the efficacy of Mu (and, er, isn't doubt one of the hindrances?). Finally, without faith, maybe you begin to doubt the Dharma altogether. Maybe you begin to think that there are better paths - easier paths - and stray. Or maybe you begin, like so many people, to flit from spiritual flower to spiritual flower taking just the smallest bits of nourishment, never finding satisfaction.

Faith matters. Without faith, there is no path.