FAITH and Refuge
From Wings to Awakening, IntroductionThus, for every listener, faith in the Buddha's Awakening was a prerequisite for advanced growth in the teaching. Without faith in the fact of the Buddha's knowledge of Unbinding, one could not fully accept his prescription. Without faith in the regularity of the Dhamma — including conviction in the principle of kamma and the impersonality of the causal law, making the path open in principle to everyone — one could not fully have faith in one's own ability to follow the path. Of course, this faith would then be confirmed, step by step, as one followed the teaching and began gaining results, but full confirmation would come only with an experience of Awakening. Prior to that point, one's trust, bolstered only by partial results, would have to be a matter of faith [MN 27].
Acquiring this faith is called "going for refuge" in the Buddha. The "refuge" here derives from the fact that one has placed trust in the truth of the Buddha's Awakening and expects that by following his teachings — in particular, the principle of skillful kamma — one protects oneself from creating further suffering for oneself or others, eventually reaching true, unconditioned happiness. This act of going for refuge is what qualifies one as a Buddhist — as opposed to someone simply interested in the Buddha's teachings — and puts one in a position to benefit fully from what the Buddha taught.
The Buddha employed various means of instilling faith in his listeners, but the primary means fall into three classes: his character, his psychic powers, and his powers of reason. When he gave his first sermon — to the Five Brethren, his former compatriots — he had to preface his remarks by reminding them of his honest and responsible character before they would willingly listen to him. When he taught the Kassapa brothers, he first had to subdue their pride with a dazzling array of psychic feats. In most cases, however, he needed only to reason with his listeners and interlocutors, although here again he had to be sensitive to the level of their minds so that he could lead them step by step, taking them from what they saw as immediately apparent and directing them to ever higher and more subtle points. The typical pattern was for the Buddha to begin with the immediate joys of generosity and virtue, followed by the longer-term sensual rewards of these qualities, in line with the principle of kamma; then the ultimate drawbacks of those sensual rewards; and finally the benefits of renunciation. If his listeners could follow his reasoning this far, they would be ready for the more advanced teachings.
We often view reason as something distinct from faith, but for the Buddha it was simply one way of instilling faith or conviction in his listeners. At several points in the Pali Canon [e.g., DN 1; MN 95] he points out the fallacies that can result when one draws reasoned conclusions from a limited range of experience, from false analogies, or from inappropriate modes of analysis. Because his teachings could not be proven prior to an experience of Awakening, he recognized that the proper use of reason was not in trying to prove his teachings, but simply in showing that they made sense. People can make sense of things when they see them as similar to something they already know and understand.
Thus the main function of reason in presenting the teachings is in finding proper analogies for understanding them: hence the many metaphors and similes used throughout the texts. Faith based on reason and understanding, the Buddha taught, was more solid than unreasoned faith, but neither could substitute for the direct knowledge of the regularity of the Dhamma and of Unbinding, for only the experience of Unbinding was a guarantee of true knowledge. Nevertheless, faith was a prerequisite for attaining that direct knowledge. Only when the initial presentation of the teaching had aroused faith in the listener, would he/she be in a position to benefit from a less-adorned presentation of the content and put it into practice.
FAITH and Karma
From Wings to Awakening, Kamma & the Ending of KammaThus the experience of his Awakening gave a new purpose to narrative and cosmology in the Buddha's eyes: they became tools for persuading his listeners to adopt the training that would lead them to the phenomenological mode. This accounts for the ad hoc and fragmentary nature of the narratives and cosmological sketches in his teachings. They are not meant to be analyzed in a systematic way. It is a mistake to tease out their implications to see what they may say about such metaphysical questions as the existence or lack of existence of entities or identities underlying the process of kamma and rebirth, the relationship between the laws of kamma and the laws of the physical sciences, or the nature of the mechanism by which kamma makes its results felt over time [see the discussion of appropriate questions in II/G]. The search for systematic answers to such issues is not only invalid or irrelevant from the Buddhist point of view, it is actually counterproductive in that it blocks one from entering the path to release. And, we should note, none of the modes of discourse — narrative, cosmological, or phenomenological — is capable of describing or even framing proper questions about what happens after Awakening, for such issues, which lie beyond the conditions of time and the present, cannot be properly expressed by the conventions of language and analysis, which are bound by those conditions. Only a person who has mastered the skill of release has the mental skills needed to comprehend such matters [AN 4.174, MFU pp. 31-32]. The Buddha reserved his systematic explanations for the particular phenomenological mode to be used in viewing the process of kamma in its own terms, as it is being mastered, so that the actual problem of kamma and its retribution (as opposed to the theoretical questions about them) will be solved. The right way to listen to the narratives and cosmological sketches, then, is to see what they imply about one's own need to master the kammic process on the level of awareness in and of itself.
From these points it should become clear why kamma, as an article of faith, is a necessary factor in the path of Buddhist practice. The teaching on kamma, in its narrative and cosmological forms, provides the context for the practice, giving it direction and urgency. Because the cosmos is governed by the laws of kamma, those laws provide the only mechanism by which happiness can be found. But because good and bad kamma, consisting of good and bad intentions, simply perpetuate the ups and downs of experience in the cosmos, a way must be found out of the mechanism of kamma by mastering it in a way that allows it to disband in an attentive state of non-intention. And, because there is no telling what sudden surprises the results of one's past kamma may still hold in store, one should try to develop that mastery as quickly as possible.
In its phenomenological mode, the teaching on kamma accounts for the focus and the terms of analysis used in the practice. It also accounts for the mental qualities needed to attain and maintain that level of focus and analysis. In terms of focus, the principle of scale invariance at work in the complexities of kamma means that their essential processes can be mastered by focusing total attention on them right at the mind in the immediate present. This focus accounts for the practice of frames-of-reference meditation [II/B], in which attention is directed at present phenomena in and of themselves. These phenomena are then analyzed in terms of the four noble truths, the phenomenological terms in which appropriate attention and discernment direct and observe the experience of developing the qualities of skillful action.
The most immediate skillful kamma that can be observed on this level is the mastery of the very same mental qualities that are supporting this refined level of focus and analysis: mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, together with the more basic qualities on which they are based. Thus, these mental qualities act not only as supports to the focus and analysis, but also as their object. Ultimately, discernment becomes so refined that the focus and analysis take as their object the act of focusing and analyzing, in and of themselves. The cycle of action then short-circuits as it reaches culmination, and Unbinding occurs. These elements of focus, analysis, and mental qualities, together with the dynamic of their development to a point of culmination, are covered by the teachings on the Wings to Awakening discussed in detail in Parts II and III. Thus the Wings can be viewed as a direct expression of the role of skillful kamma in the path to release.
It is entirely possible that a person with no firm conviction in the principle of kamma can follow parts of the Buddhist path, including mindfulness and concentration practices, and gain positive results from them. For instance, one can pursue mindfulness practice for the sense of balance, equanimity, and peace it gives to one's daily life, or for the sake of bringing the mind to the present for the purpose of spontaneity and "going with the flow." The full practice of the path, however, is a skillful diverting of the flow of the mind from its habitual kammic streams to the stream of Unbinding. As the Buddha said, this practice requires a willingness to "develop and abandon" to an extreme degree [AN 4.28]. The developing requires a supreme effort aimed at full and conscious mastery of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment to the point of non-fashioning and on to release. A lack of conviction in the principle of kamma would undercut the patience and commitment, the desire, persistence, intent, and refined powers of discrimination [II/D] needed to pursue concentration and discernment to the most heightened levels, beyond what is needed for a general sense of peace or spontaneity. The abandoning involves uprooting the most deeply buried forms of clinging and attachment that keep one bound to the cycle of rebirth. Some of these forms of clinging — such as views and theories about self-identity — are so entrenched in the narrative and cosmological modes in which most people function that only firm conviction in the benefits to be had by abandoning them will be able to pry them loose. This is why the Buddha insisted repeatedly — and we will have occasion to return to this theme at several points in this book [II/E; III/A (CONVICTION)] — that conviction in the fact of his Awakening necessarily involves conviction in the principle of kamma, and that both forms of conviction are needed for the full mastery of the kamma of heightened skillfulness leading to release.
FAITH in Awakening
From Faith in AwakeningThe Buddha never placed unconditional demands on anyone's faith. And for anyone from a culture where the dominant religions do place such demands on one's faith, this is one of Buddhism's most attractive features. We read his famous instructions to the Kalamas, in which he advises testing things for oneself, and we see it as an invitation to believe, or not, whatever we like. Some people go so far as to say that faith has no place in the Buddhist tradition, that the proper Buddhist attitude is one of skepticism.
But even though the Buddha recommends tolerance and a healthy skepticism toward matters of faith, he also makes a conditional request about faith: If you sincerely want to put an end to suffering — that's the condition — you should take certain things on faith, as working hypotheses, and then test them through following his path of practice....
Repeatedly the Buddha stated that faith in a teacher is what leads you to learn from that teacher. Faith in the Buddha's own Awakening is a requisite strength for anyone else who wants to attain Awakening. As it fosters persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, this faith can take you all the way to the deathless.
So there's a tension in the Buddha's recommendations about faith and empiricism. I've discussed this point with many Asian Buddhists, and few of them find the tension uncomfortable. But Western Buddhists, raised in a culture where religion and faith have long been at war with science and empiricism, find the tension very disconcerting. In discussing the issue with them over the past several years, I've noticed that they often try to resolve it in the same ways that, historically, the tension between Christian faith and scientific empiricism has been resolved in our own culture. Three general positions stand out, not only because they are the most common but also because they are so clearly Western. Consciously or not, they attempt to understand the Buddha's position on faith and empiricism in a way that can be easily mapped onto the modern Western battle lines between religion and science.
The first interpretation has its roots in the side of Western culture that totally rejects the legitimacy of faith. In this view, the Buddha was an embodiment of the Victorian ideal of the heroic agnostic, one who eschewed the childish consolations of faith and instead advocated a purely scientific method for training and strengthening one's own mind. Because his method focused entirely on the present moment, questions of past and future were totally irrelevant to his message. Thus any references to faith in such issues as past karma, future rebirth, or an unconditioned happiness separate from the immediate input of the senses are later interpolations in the texts, which Buddhist agnostics, following the Buddha's example, should do their best to reject.
The second interpretation has roots in the side of Western culture that has rejected either the specifics of Christian faith or the authority of any organized religion,but has appreciated the emotion of faith as an essential requirement for mental health. This view presents the Buddha as a Romantic hero who appreciated the subjective value of faith in establishing a sense of wholeness within and interconnectedness without. Tolerant and opposed to dogmatism, he saw the psychological fact of a living faith as more important than its object. In other words, it doesn't matter where faith is directed, as long as it's deeply felt and personally nourishing. Faith in the Buddha's Awakening means simply believing that he found what worked for himself. This carries no implications for what will work for you. If you find the teaching on karma and rebirth comforting, fine: Believe it. If not, don't. If you want to include an all-powerful God or a Goddess in your worldview, the Buddha wouldn't object. What's important is that you relate to your faith in a way that's emotionally healing, nourishing, and empowering.
Because this second interpretation tends to be all-embracing, it sometimes leads to a third one that encompasses the first two. This [third] interpretation presents the Buddha as trapped in his historical situation. Much like us, he was faced with the issue of finding a meaningful life in light of the worldview of his day. His views on karma and rebirth were simply assumptions picked up from the crude science of ancient India, while his path of practice was an attempt to negotiate a satisfying life within those assumptions. If he were alive today, he would try to reconcile his values with the discoveries of modern science, in the same way that some Westerners have done with their faith in monotheism.
The underlying assumption of this position is that science is concerned with facts, religion with values. Science provides the hard data to which religion should provide meaning. Thus each Buddhist would be performing the work of a Buddha by accepting the hard facts that have been scientifically proven for our generation and then searching the Buddhist tradition — as well as other traditions, where appropriate — for myths and values to give meaning to those facts, and in the process forging a new Buddhism for our times.
Each of these three interpretations may make eminent sense from a Western point of view, but none of them do justice to what we know of the Buddha or of his teaching on the role of faith and empiricism on the path. All three are correct in emphasizing the Buddha's unwillingness to force his teachings on other people, but — by forcing our own assumptions onto his teachings and actions — they misread what that unwillingness means. He wasn't an agnostic; he had strong reasons for declaring some ideas as worthy of faith and others as not; and his teachings on karma, rebirth, and nirvana broke radically with the dominant worldview of his time. He was neither a Victorian nor a Romantic hero, nor was he a victim of his times. He was a hero who, among other things, mastered the issue of faith and empiricism in his own way. But to appreciate that way, we first have to step back from the Western cultural battlefield and look at faith and empiricism in a more basic context, simply as processes within the individual mind.
There, they play their major roles in the psychology of how we decide to act. Although we like to think that we base our decisions on hard facts, we actually use both faith and empiricism in every decision we make. Even in our most empirically based decisions, our vision is hampered by our position in time. As Kierkegaard noted, we live forwards but understand backwards. Any hard-headed business entrepreneur will tell you that the future has to be taken on faith, no matter how much we know of the past. What's more, we're often forced into decisions where there's no time or opportunity to gather enough past facts for an informed choice. At other times we have too many facts — as when a doctor is faced with many conflicting tests on a patient's condition — and we have to go on faith in deciding which facts to focus on and which ones to ignore.
However, faith also plays a deeper role in many of our decisions. As William James once observed, there are two kinds of truths in life: those whose validity has nothing to do with our actions, and those whose reality depends on what we do. Truths of the first sort — truths of the observer — include facts about the behavior of the physical world: how atoms form molecules, how stars explode. Truths of the second sort — truths of the will — include skills, relationships, business ventures, anything that requires your effort to make it real. With truths of the observer, it's best to stay skeptical until reasonable evidence is in. With truths of the will, though, the truth won't happen without your faith in it, often in the face of unpromising odds. If you don't believe that democracy will work in your nation, it won't. If you don't believe that becoming a pianist is worthwhile, or that you have the makings of a good pianist, it won't happen. Truths of the will are the ones most relevant to our pursuit of true happiness. Many of the most inspiring stories in life are of people who create truths of this sort when a mountain of empirical evidence is against them. In cases like this, the truth requires that faith actively discount the immediate facts.
If we dig even deeper into the psychology of decision-making, we run into an area for which no scientific evidence can offer any proof: Do we actually act, or are actions an illusion? Are our acts already predetermined by physical laws or an external intelligence, or do we have free will? Are the results of our acts illusory? Are causal relationships real, or only a fiction? Even the most carefully planned scientific experiment could never settle any of these issues, and yet once we become aware of them we have to take a stand on them if we want to continue putting any energy into our thoughts, words, and deeds.
These were the areas where the Buddha focused his teachings on empiricism and faith. Although his first noble truth requires that we observe suffering until we comprehend it, we have to take on faith his assertion that the facts we observe about suffering are the most important guide for making decisions, moment by moment, throughout life. Because his third noble truth, the cessation of suffering, is a truth of the will, we have to take it on faith that it's a possible goal, a worthwhile goal, and that we're capable of attaining it. And because the fourth noble truth — the path to the cessation of suffering — is a path of action and skill, we have to take it on faith that our actions are real, that we have free will, and yet that there's a causal pattern to the workings of the mind from which we can learn in mastering that skill. As the Buddha said, the path will lead to a direct experience of these truths, but only if you bring faith to the practice will you know this for yourself. In other words, "faith" in the Buddhist context means faith in the ability of your actions to lead to a direct experience of the end of suffering....
So instead of an empirical proof for his teaching on karma, the Buddha offered a pragmatic proof: If you believe in his teachings on causality, karma, rebirth, and the four noble truths, how will you act? What kind of life will you lead? Won't you tend to be more responsible and compassionate? If, on the other hand, you were to believe in any of the alternatives — such as a doctrine of an impersonal fate or a deity who determined the course of your pleasure and pain, or a doctrine that all things were coincidental and without cause — what would those beliefs lead you to do? Would they allow you to put an end to suffering through your own efforts? Would they allow any purpose for knowledge at all? If, on the other hand, you refused to commit to a coherent idea of what human action can do, would you be likely to see a demanding path of practice all the way through to the end?
This was the kind of reasoning that the Buddha used to inspire faith in his Awakening and in its relevance to our own search for true happiness....
Faith in the possibility of nirvana — the heartwood of the path — is what keeps you from getting waylaid by the pleasures of the sapwood and bark: the gratification that comes from being generous and virtuous, the sense of peace, interconnectedness, and oneness that comes with strong concentration. Yet, surprisingly, modern discussions of the role of faith in the Buddha's teachings rarely mention this point, and focus on faith in karma and rebirth instead. This is surprising because nirvana is much less related to our everyday experience than either karma or rebirth. We see the fruits of our actions all around us; we see people being born with distinct personalities and differing strengths, and it's only a short leap to the idea that there's some connection between these things. Nirvana, however, isn't connected to anything we've experienced at all. It's already there, but hidden by all our desires for physical and mental activity. To touch it, we have to abandon our habitual attachment to activity. To believe that such a thing is possible, and that it's the ultimate happiness, is to take a major leap.
Many in the Buddha's time were willing to take the leap, while many others were not, preferring to content themselves with the branches and sapwood, wanting simply to learn how to live happily with their families in this life and go to heaven in the next. Nirvana, they said, could wait. Faced with this honest and gentle resistance to his teaching on nirvana, the Buddha was happy to comply.
But he was less tolerant of the stronger resistance he received from brahmas, heavenly deities who complacently felt that their experience of limitless oneness and compassion in the midst of samsara — their sapwood — was superior to the heartwood of nirvana. In cases like this he used all the psychic and intellectual powers at his disposal to humble their pride, because he realized that their views totally closed the door to Awakening. If you think that your sapwood is actually heartwood, you won't look for anything better. When your sapwood breaks, you'll decide that heartwood is a lie. But if you realize that you're using bark and sapwood, you leave open the possibility that someday you'll go back and give the heartwood a try.
Of course, it's even better if you can take the Buddha's teachings on nirvana as a direct challenge in this lifetime — as if he were saying, "Here's your chance. Can you prove me wrong...?"
To act on...faith is to test it, the way you'd test a working hypothesis. You need faith to keep following..., but you also need the honesty to recognize where faith ends and knowledge begins. This is why, in the Buddhist context, faith and empiricism are inseparable. Unlike a monotheistic religion — where faith centers on the power of another — faith in the Buddha's Awakening keeps pointing back to the power of your own actions: Do you have enough power over your intentions to make them harmless? Do harmless intentions then give you the freedom to drop intention entirely? The only way you can answer these questions is by being scrupulously honest about your intentions, to detect even the slightest traces of harm, even the slightest movement of intention itself. Only then will you know the deathless, totally unconditioned by intention, for sure. But if you claim to know things that you don't, how can you trust yourself to detect any of these things? You need to make your honesty worthy of your faith, testing its assumptions until you find true knowledge in the test.
This is why science will never be able to pass valid judgment on the truths of Awakening, for the path deals in matters that outside experimenters can't reach. Although others may sympathize with your suffering, the suffering itself is an experience you can share with no one else. The honesty and skillfulness of your intentions is an affair of your internal dialogue, something that is also purely your own. Scientists can measure the neurological data indicating pain or intentional activity, but there's no external measurement for how the pain feels, or how honest your intentional dialogue may be. And as for the deathless, it has no physical correlates at all....
As in science, faith in the Buddha's Awakening acts like a working hypothesis, but the test of that hypothesis requires an honesty deeper and more radical than anything science requires. You have to commit yourself — every variation on who you feel you are — totally to the test. Only when you take apart all clinging to your inner and outer senses can you prove whether the activity of clinging is what hides the deathless. The Buddha never forced anyone to commit to this test....