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.