Faith can sometimes seem a bit of a dirty word in Western Buddhist circles. Whilst wisdom, compassion, kindness, peace, and a whole other range of qualities are considered most desirable by the average Western Buddhist, faith is somewhat looked down upon. One reason for this may be that a large proportion of Westerners that are drawn to the Buddha Way are those who have read of it first, often with the study of Buddhism continuing to be a major part of their Buddhist practice. In contrast to this, the average Asian Buddhist was raised from a pre-reading age to follow Buddhism, and instead of studying it first and then living it, they live it first and then study it, if at all. Theirs is often a faith-based practice, unlike their comparatively intellectual Western counterparts.
Another contributing factor to this occidental preference for a more rational form of Buddhism is that the major forms of Buddhadharma in the West are those that often put less emphasis on faith, such as the Theravadin, Zen, and Tibetan sects. (This, of course, could itself be a result of the previous point made regarding Western Buddhists above.) It is worth noting here that the most widely practiced type of Buddhism in Asia, in terms of both geographical spread and numbers of followers, is Pure Land Buddhism, which is the most obviously faith-centered form of Buddhism practiced today. In his commentary on a Sutra of Pure Land Buddhism, Master Xuan Hua has said:
“Faith is the first prerequisite, for without it one will not make the vow to be reborn in the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, and thus will not realize the objective of this Sutra. You must have faith in yourself, the Land of Ultimate Bliss, cause and effect, and noumena and phenomena.”
(Master Hua, ‘The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Buddha Sutra’, p.56)
In Pure Land Buddhism, the main figure of attention is not Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, but Amitabha Buddha (‘the Buddha of Infinite Light’) that resides in the Western Paradise. This paradise, known as Sukhavati in Sanskrit, is a heavenly realm where devotees of Amitabha are reborn to continue and complete their journey to enlightenment. In the practice of Pure Land Buddhism, much faith is placed in Amitabha Buddha to assist the practitioner, the former reciting the name of Amitabha over and over again as a mantra. This is done either in Sanskrit as Namo Amitabha Buddha (‘Hail to the Awakened One of Infinite Light’), or more often, in the vernacular tongue, taking the forms Namo Amituofo in Chinese and Namu Amida Butsu in Japanese. Of course, reciting a mantra like this can have positive meditative results in this lifetime, whether the object of devotion actually responds or not, but faith is nevertheless an important component in the success of this method, whether resulting in this lifetime or the next.
Another recipient of many Buddhists’ faith in the Far East is Guanshiyin Bodhisattva, the so-called ‘Goddess of Mercy’, often compared to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as in Catholic worship. Guanshiyin, in fact, is a female incarnation of a male Bodhisattva known as Avalokiteshvara, or ‘the Lord that gazes (compassionately on all beings)’, and is the epitome of compassion. He features as the vehicle of compassionate wisdom in the Heart Sutra, teaching the famous lines, “Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness.” As Guanshiyin (or Guan Yin for short), she is the focus of devotees pleas for help when they are in danger, seriously ill, or dying. It is said that if her name is recited with absolute faith she can endow a childless woman with a baby much more successfully than any modern fertility treatment. Her mantra is primarily chanted in Chinese, although there are other versions in other languages, and it is, Namo Guanshiyin Pusa – ‘Hail to the Bodhisattva-that-hears-the-cries-of-the-world!’
Guan Yin: the Goddess of Mercy
Even the more cerebral kinds of the Buddha Way such as Zen and Theravada take on predominately faith-based forms for most of their oriental adherents. Living here in Thailand, I know only too well the wide variety of things that Buddhists get up to in the name of their religion, some of it in line with Theravadin doctrine, much of it not. Faith takes many forms in this hotpot of spiritual – and not so spiritual – practices, including talismans, ‘black magic’, predicting lottery numbers, and ‘love potions’ to make the object of someone’s fancy fall in love with them!
There is another kind of faith in Thai Buddhism, however, which can also be looked upon as conviction. It is a firm belief that in the person of the Buddha, the body of his teachings, and the sincere adepts of the Way, there is a lot to have faith in that can inspire one’s own walking upon the Path. Without such faith or conviction in the efficacy of Buddhist methods, it’s easy to get lost along the Way, perhaps even drowning in one’s own sea of doubts. Many Western Buddhists could truly benefit from a dose of oriental faith, as indicated in the following quote from the former abbot of the International Forest Monastery here in Ubon, Thailand, Ajahn Nyanadhammo:
“Faith is the fuel, the energy which propels us on the spiritual path. For many Western people this quality is actually not very strong when we come to Buddhism, because we often come to Buddhism with the approach of having rejected religions of faith, religions which demand belief. We’ve come from a rational, intellectual and logical appreciation of Dhamma; and so we find it difficult to develop those faith practices like recollection of the Buddha, recollection of his teachings, or recollection of the Ariya-Sangha. And that can be one of our weaknesses – that our strong intellectual side is out of balance – so our practice can be very dry and formal.”
(Ajahn Nyanadhammo, ‘The Power of Faith’ p.4)
Whatever the reasons for the comparative lack of faith in Western Buddhism, it doesn’t seem an overly wise attitude of us Westerners to have. Surely, faith is an important part of being Buddhist as Ajahn Nyanadhammo points to above, which serves to bolster the practice of the Way with the strength of conviction. Of course, such faith needs to be balanced with insight; otherwise we run the risk of being ‘born-again Buddhists’, running around trying to convince everyone else that Buddhism is for him or her when we haven’t considered the issues deeply ourselves. Buddhists, perhaps, are more fortunate in this regard than some others in that in the Noble Eightfold Path we have the tools to combat the dangers of creating an overzealous and simplistic faith. Such tools include mindfulness, meditation, and an understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
Faith can help overcome those doubts that can neither be proven nor disproved. Rebirth, for instance, is a part of the Dharma that many Westerners have problems accepting, whereas in Buddhist Asia it’s taken for granted that this lifetime is not an isolated event. Simply accepting that we are not only reborn moment to moment as can be seen in the movements of both mind and body, but that we are reborn life to life allows the mind to let go of a lot of tension that otherwise takes up valuable space in our minds. Again, this isn’t the blind faith demanded in many theistic religions, but an extension of the insights that arise out of meditating on the nature of being human. For example, in meditation thoughts can be observed to die and then be reborn in different forms, yet continuing the same thread of underlying ambience of their previous incarnations. And what of the everyday mental occurrence of reoccurring thoughts, such as when yesterday’s ideas pop up in the mind again today, apparently from nowhere; are they not a kind of mental rebirth, too? Having faith in the existence of rebirth does not have to be without basis, then, and the Buddha himself discouraged us form believing something without investigating it first.
We all need a bit of faith!
So, do you have faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha to help you lift yourself out of the nescience of the unenlightened state? Perhaps putting your faith in either Amitabha Buddha or Guan Yin is not ‘orthodox’ enough for you – at least form the Theravadin point of view, that is! For this simple Buddhist here, reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha has had good results (in this life at least!), and in truth if such recitation had been more consistent over many years, perhaps I would be further along the Buddhist Path than I am. As Master Hua mentioned the talk of his quoted above, faith is a prerequisite for successfully and completely traversing the Buddha Way, and this isn’t restricted to those devoted to Amitabha worship or Guan Yin devotion. All of us, whether Theravadin or Mahayanist, whether Buddhist or not, can benefit from having more intelligent faith in our lives. And, if as Buddhists we lack faith, then why are we practicing the Way at all, if we don’t believe in the existence of Awakened Ones, karma, rebirth, and the efficacy of the Noble Eightfold Path?
To read the original e-books quoted above, please go to:The Power of Faith by Ajahn Nyanadhammo