Some people may think that Buddhists have no use for faith. This may be one of the greatest misconceptions I have ever encountered, and as is typical, the first place I noticed it was in my own mind.
We may speak in every day terms about having “faith” in something other than a god, such as when we encourage a friend encountering a challenging task: “I have faith in you.” But in a spiritual context, the word faith has been inextricably linked to the concept of “religion,” as when I might refer to my mother, who attends Catholic mass most mornings, as a woman of faith. But Buddhists don’t embrace the term “religion.” Even more specifically, in this religio-spiritual context, “faith” is generally considered to refer to the existence of God. And Buddhists most assuredly do not believe in in an interventionist God. But it would be wrong to say that many Buddhists do not acknowledge the possible or probable existence of metaphysical phenomena. It is for this reason that we typically identify as “non-theists” as opposed to being “atheists.”
Buddhist practice is about observing truth. And Buddhist teaching maintains that the only real truths are those that we observe directly. That is the practice of meditation in a nutshell: the direct observation of reality without language as an intermediary. That reality, without thought and its constituent system, language, is often called “ultimate reality.” I don’t like that phrase very much because “ultimate” connotes the notion of it being a superior reality or more intense reality (like Ultimate Frisbee!). It may also connote a reality that is sought as a goal, and as Buddhists we are encouraged to see “the path as the goal.” In other words, there are no established benchmarks for progress as approved by some cabal of wise elders in the high Himalayas.
But Buddhist teachings do make an interesting concession to the fact that unless we are in perpetual solo retreat, we are usually moving through a world replete with complex series of language-based conventions and laws and social norms: that is what we call “relative reality.”
But what does any of this have to do with faith? It is this: at its root, faith means “trust.” And the most challenging obstacle that I have encountered in my own practice is trust: trusting myself, my experiences both on and off the meditation cushion, and the guidance of my many teachers. This is not a trust that stays cemented in my psyche, and it that sense, it is so very different from religious faith. It is not trust countered by doubt. It is trust countered by full-on existential dread. And that means, for me at least, that it is faith that must be continually and actively practiced, not by attending services or re-affirming to myself and others that I believe something to be true, but rather by observing my mind. And I must continually use faith to underscore my very limited awareness that my mind possesses the truth about the very essence of what it means to a human being. Because it rarely feels like something called “enlightenment.” There are rarely moods of elevated consciousness. And nirvana istelf? Ephemeral.
Sometimes the monotheistic traditions tell useful stories that convey some of the qualities of the type of faith that reflects my own experience. While there are many stories of faith-testing by God in the Bible, I am frequently awed by the epic of Abram, wielding his sword over the neck of his son. Seriously, just try to actually imagine that situation. I find this story inspiring not because of the obedience to God that Abram was willing to demonstrate, but because of the quality of his faith. That is a mighty faith. That is a profound level of trust. Some part of me feels like it is this sort of high-stakes act that we engage in when we decide to walk the Buddhist path. Lives are at stake: my life and the lives of those who I may encounter. And practicing to remain attentive and intentional in our lives requires that kind of mighty faith.
On the upside, the practice itself can bring liberation and joy, and those are also some pretty high-level gains (relatively speaking, of course). Ultimate liberation and joy, and I suppose ultimate faith as well . . . I cannot use language for those things.