“Faith” In Buddhism

One of the “loaded” terms in English that I try to use carefully is the term “faith.” For a long time, I rarely used the term, so as not to confuse it with the Judeo-Christian use of the word “faith.” In Buddhism, we don’t have a divine creator being or a God that we have “faith” in. We also don’t have “blind faith” in such a being, or faith that such a divine being will “save us.”
However, does this mean that the word faith has no meaning or no place in Buddhism? I don’t think that is the case either.

My teacher in Japan, Professor Shigaraki, chose this as the focus of his life study of Buddhism and Jodo Shinshu. He studied the meaning of shin 信,which could be translated in some cases as “faith,” but in other cases refers to the spiritual realization of shinjin 信心, or awakening to the true heart and mind of the Buddha.

Shigaraki-Sensei used to give the following example. He said that “faith” in Buddhism is like walking into the ocean at the beach. When we first enter, the water is shallow, but as we walk out further into the ocean, the water becomes deeper and deeper, eventually becoming unfathomable. “Faith” in Buddhism is like that. We have to have faith in the beginning. We have to take those first steps into the ocean. We have to have faith that there is something to Buddhism that we see as valuable or meaningful. If we didn’t have that beginning level of “faith,” we would never enter the ocean. We would never begin our first steps on the path of Buddhism.

However, the more we walk the path of Buddhism, we find that what we are entering into has great depth and breadth, just like walking into the ocean. What began as “faith,” deepens into realization, insight, understanding. We begin to see Buddhism as something with unfathomable depth and breadth, just like the ocean. Now it can no longer be described as “faith,” but must be described by other words, like realization, insight, understanding, great wisdom, etc.
In order to even get started on that path of “faith,” or to get our feet wet on those first steps into the ocean, we have to have faith in others who might be the ones responsible for getting us started in the right direction and taking those first steps. They might be a friend or a teacher, a parent or grandparent, maybe even someone that we never knew in life, but merely read their book. A friend says to us, “You should check out this book on Buddhism I read. It’s really great.” Or, a friend might say, “I have been going to this Buddhist temple and taking classes there. You should check it out.”

If we didn’t have faith or trust in the words of our friend or acquaintance, we would never take those words of advice to either read a book or go to a service. This is where faith is such a crucial part of the first steps along the path.

Recently, I have read a wonderful book by a noted and popular American Buddhist writer, Sharon Salzberg, titled, “Faith.” Her book has opened up my mind to the use of the term faith in Buddhism. In her book she writes the following in the introduction,

Many link faith to narrow-minded belief systems, lack of intelligent examination, or pain at having one’s questions silenced. Faith might evoke images of submission to an external authority. Historically, the idea of faith has been used to slice cleanly between those who belong to a select group and those who do not. To fuel their own embittered agendas, fanatics harness what they call faith to hatred.

I want to invite a new use of the word faith, one that is not associated with a dogmatic religious interpretation or divisiveness. I want to encourage delight in the word, to help reclaim faith as fresh, vibrant, intelligent, and liberating. This is a faith that emphasizes a foundation of love and respect for ourselves. It is a faith that uncovers our connection to others, rather than designating anyone as separate or apart.

Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity or God, though it doesn’t deny one. This faith is not a commodity we either have or don’t have – it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.
p. xiii to xiv, “Faith” by Sharon Salzberg.

Sharon Salzberg in her book addresses the common and loaded uses of the term “faith,” but brings to the discussion her own deeper appreciation and insight into the meaning of faith in terms of her own spiritual journey in the Buddhist tradition. I found a lot of what she wrote in her book relatable to what we refer to as shinjin in the Jodo Shinshu tradition.

As Buddhism and Jodo Shinshu continues to grow and develop in the west, we will necessarily have to address words and concepts that we share with but also differ with in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Faith is one of those terms.

I think that for me, we all begin with faith as Buddhists, but as we journey along the path and enter into the ocean of the Dharma, we find that what started out as faith, evolves into a sense of conviction, a sense of knowing, a sense of insight, a sense of realization, a sense of fulfillment.

Namuamidabutsu,
Rev. Marvin Harada