In the Footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimages with Shantum Seth across India and South Asia. Other spiritual journeys that transform. Mindful travel.
An interview with Vipassana teacher Sharon Salzberg and an excerpt from her new book, Faith.
Why a book on faith?
The first time I taught a workshop on faith, my listeners sat for a while in stony silence. Then somebody blurted out, "I came to Buddhism to get away from all this shit." I was startled! People started talking about their painful experiences with faith. To some of them it meant blindly adhering to a dogma, a lot of negative self-judgment, or the fear of being condemned for not having enough faith or the "right" kind. But that's not what faith has to imply. Rather than merely replace "faith" with a word people might feel more at ease with, such as "trust," I hope to reclaim it, and to face the discomfort the word evokes head on.
What's your understanding of faith?
In Buddhism faith is a verb. It's the offering of one's heart. It's not a commodity we have or don't have. It's something we do. Faith is a liberating process that deepens as our wisdom deepens. In fact, wisdom and faith support each other.
In the Theravadan tradition, there are three kinds of faith. The first is "bright faith," which is like falling in love-perhaps with Buddhism or other spiritual teachings. Usually a teacher or a text inspires us, lifting us out of the narrow confines of our world. We have a sense of energizing possibility. But bright faith is just the beginning; it's not meant to deny the intellect. In fact, the only way to get to the second stage—to what is called "verified faith"—is by knowing the truth of something for ourselves: we have to investigate the very person or thing that has inspired our faith in order to ground our inspiration in personal and direct experience. That means testing the teachings through our own practice and learning how to question all that we've been told. Otherwise, our faith will not mature into verified faith. As verified faith develops, it becomes "abiding," or "unwavering," faith. With abiding faith, we know a truth so deeply that it's not something we even think about anymore—we are it.
Is bright faith the same as blind faith?
Blind faith is bright faith gone wrong. Both can have a feeling of intoxication, exhilaration, of being freed from the constraints and patterns of our lives. In blind faith though, as opposed to bright faith, we don't question anything for fear of losing the intensity of our infatuation. Blind faith, unlike bright faith, continues to depend on an external source for validation, not on developing our own experience.
When we develop "abiding faith," what is it that we have faith in?
The way we describe our abiding faith depends on the context of our practice. In Buddhism we have faith in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the exemplar of human possibility; the Dharma, the nature of things; the Sangha, the community that has attained a measure of liberation. Ultimately, we have faith in our own Buddha-nature, our capacity to be fully aware, to be free.
Where does faith come from?
Faith is a part of being alive, being human. The better question is, how is faith nurtured? How is it awakened in us? Sometimes it comes just because someone else has faith in us. Other times, wisdom brings faith. We see over and over again, for instance, that our lives are not under our dominion or control. We may despair at first, but when we realize and accept that we are not in control, we can also let go. We can acknowledge the faith it takes to step into the unknown. The wisdom of our realization awakens that faith.
Can suffering be fertile ground for faith?
Yes. In the Theravadan teachings, the Buddha said the proximate cause of faith is suffering—the proximate cause being the nearest condition giving rise to a quality. But this brings up an interesting question: If the proximate cause of faith is suffering, and everybody suffers, why do only some emerge from their suffering with faith, love, and compassion?
Is the answer to that question grace?
Sometimes it is a moment of grace. And patience, as Trungpa Rinpoche said, is grace. Something happens when we don't resist, when we don't hate ourselves for what we're experiencing. Our hearts open, and we realize we're not alone in our suffering. Even the suffering, we begin to see, is a vehicle for a larger sense of connection to all of life. Once we have that, we have faith.
Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience
Riverhead Books, 2002; 192 pp.; $22.95 (cloth)
In Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, the word usually translated as faith, confidence, or trust is saddha. Saddha literally means "to place the heart upon." To have faith is to offer one's heart or give over one's heart. In Pali, faith is a verb, an action, as it is also in Latin
and Hebrew. Faith is not a singular state that we either have or don't have, but is something that we do. We "faithe." Saddha is the willingness to take the next step, to see the unknown as an adventure.
The promise of happiness offered by the dharma touched a place within me so deep and unknown that what it had awakened there was wild, inchoate, primal. I recognize that now as the stirring of faith.
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It is a common assumption that faith deepens as we are taught more about what to believe; in Buddhism, on the contrary, faith grows only as we question what we are told, as we try teachings our by putting them into practice to see if they really make a difference in our own lives. The Buddha himself insisted, "Don't believe anything just because I have said it. Don't believe anything just because an elder or someone you respect has said it. Put it into practice. See for yourself if it is true." When I first encountered the dharma, I felt a growing excitement at what I was learning about the relationship of the body and mind, about the power of concentration, about the laws of nature and change. But many of these new ideas, though they struck me as true, were not yet my own experience. I believed what I was hearing but hadn't proven the truth of it to myself. To move from the floating world of bright faith to the more solid ground of verified faith I would have to ask questions, find a voice, explore the teachings for myself. Rather than asking me to adopt a set of customs and beliefs, Buddhism has led me over and over again back to the even more decided challenge of finding out what is true for myself. ▼