Faith and Discipleship

The Buddha’s teachings are not to be listened to and stored away as just more stuff in one’s head. The teachings may resonate with us and really “ring true”, but that’s useless if we don’t put them into practice.  And as a practice, we need to learn how to do it! As Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it, “…the very structure of [the Buddha’s] Teaching presupposes a relationship of discipleship between himself and those who hearken to his message.”

Because we need to learn how to practice the Buddha’s teachings, we will need something to get us going, something that will compel us towards a path that will force us to unflinchingly look at ourselves and all our dirty, lovely mess moment after moment after moment. Aspiration is part of this – the will to awaken and help, at first to our suffering, at length to the suffering of the numberless beings, sentient and insentient. But this vow we make can take us in many directions and through many practices – why take up the Way of Buddha?

Bhikkhu Bodhi offers an answer to this when he says:

The course of discipleship under the Buddha begins with an act of faith (sadddhā). Faith, for Buddhism, is not an unquestioning assent to propositions beyond the range of possible verification but a readiness to accept on trust the claim that the Buddha makes about himself: that he is the Fully Enlightened One, who has awakened to the deepest, most crucial truths about the nature of sentient existence and who can show the path to the supreme goal…Faith necessarily leads to action, to the undertaking of the training, which in concrete terms means the implementation in one’s life of the guidelines the Buddha has laid down for his followers.

Before we take that first step or follow our first breath with questioning awareness and alongside that deep aspiration to awaken, there must be faith that the path we are undertaking will actually help in some way.  Without faith, why take that step along the Bhudda’s path?

And this applies just as much to the seasoned practitioner as to the beginner – the more we practice, the deeper into unexplored terrain we move. What the practice has done for us before gives us confidence. But why think its still gonna work for the next turn of mind? That takes faith on our part.

I do take issue with one part of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s quote. As I have often heard before (and as I have often said before too! so this criticism applies to me too), he sets up faith in the Buddhist context as separate from faith in other contexts: “Faith, for Buddhism, is not an unquestioning assent to propositions beyond the range of possible verification…” Although he does not say it, the most salient one would be the theistic context in which faith plays a significant role.  (From here forward, I will be writing in a monotheistic context, but these comments would equally extend to a polytheistic context as well.)

First, since I do not know the Pāli language, I add the following warning: we are moving from the Pāli word ‘sadddhā’ to the English word ‘faith’. The word ‘faith’ in our language is quite at home in a theistic context and so should raise some eyebrows about whether that is the best word to translate ‘sadddhā’ to begin with. But, Bhikkhu Bodhi is a very careful scholar (as evidenced from his many carefully argued commentaries and essays), and I will trust him that this translation is trustworthy.

So I find it counterproductive and unfounded that we position faith in the Buddhist context as “other” to faith in the theistic context. Yes, faith in the Buddhist context is with respect to something other than the God of monotheism. But, to put it plainly, just because Barack Obama loves a woman who is different than the woman George Bush loves doesn’t mean their love is different. They both are in the same relationship of love, it is just that what is being loved differs. The same applies to those who love their pets. I recently got a dog and I must admit that my feelings for him go beyond simple pet owner. I would jump in front of a car to push him out of the way, much like my partner. Different beings, same relationship.

So we put faith in the Buddha, we put faith in the Dharma, we put faith in the Sangha, and we put faith in these Three Jewels as they arise in us, but nothing said so far makes this a different process than putting faith in God. There is shared baggage among those of us on the spiritual path, whether theistic or non-theistic, and faith seems to be part of it.

It might be argued that faith is different for Buddhists since, as Bhikkhu Bodhi states, we do not unquestioningly assent to propositions beyond the range of possible verification. But this is wrong as a characterization of theistic faith – questioning can be (and should be, in my view) part of belief in God. But it is also wrong as a characterization of Buddhist faith, at least for much of us lay Buddhists that are struggling along the Eightfold Path. I have not experienced complete exhaustion of taints. And given all the rhetoric about the unconditioned state being beyond our capacities of description, beyond our rational thinking, beyond beyond beyond, I do not think there is anything we could verify about this with evidence. Verification and evidence are part of our rational capacities for understanding the world – their application to the unconditioned realm is questionable at best.

Some caveats – as I said earlier, Bhikkhu Bodhi did not set up his account of faith against theism, I interpreted it that way. So these remarks should not be read too strongly as a criticism of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anlaysis. However, even if he did not intend that, the claim that Buddhist faith is different from Theistic faith is in the public sphere enough to treat it as common ground.

Also, I am writing this as an exploration of faith and Buddhism and how it relates to faith and theism. I have been on the dualistic side of treating them as different, but I no longer see them that way. There does seem to be a common act to spiritual seekers of all kinds. Recognizing that act can be awakening, for better or worse.

So as we take up the mat and cushion one more time, as we rest in what arises, hangs around, and passes away, as we strive and struggle and smile along the Eightfold Path together, let us take heed that we are disciples of the Buddha but also that we are spiritual seekers alongside the countless spiritual seekers of the many paths around us.

Thank you for your practice! May we all be at ease! May we all be free from suffering!

(Note: Bhikkhu Bodhi’s discussion of faith and discipleship, as well as the quotes above, can be found in Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, pp. XV – XVI.)

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