By Nancy Thompson
The Buddha famously told his followers, Don’t believe anything just because I say it. Try it for yourself. If it works, use it; if not, discard it.
So what is the role of faith in a tradition whose founder says not to take anything, not even his words, on faith?
In Buddhism, faith starts as interest, or curiosity. You see something, meet someone, read something, hear something. It sparks a response in you. You want to know more – how does that person attain that sense of calm amid chaos? How does the First Noble Truth – that suffering touches everyone – explain the world? How can I apply Pema Chodron’s teachings to my life?
That’s called aspiring or desirous faith. Sharon Salzberg, in her book Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, calls it “bright” faith. It isn’t fully formed, just a sense that there’s something there.
The next level is yearning, which Salzberg calls “verifying.” You ask questions at this stage. You do some investigating. You listen to more talks, you try some meditation techniques, you read more books. And it still makes sense. In a scientific framework, aspiring faith is the hypothesis. You have some reason to believe that something is true, that it makes sense, based on other things you know. Then you do more research or experiments to test it out. That’s the verifying stage.
If it holds up, you reach resolute or abiding faith. You trust in that which you’ve studied and experienced.
Buddhism places a lot of weight on the experience part of that equation. You can read about emptiness and understand it intellectually, but until you have a felt experience of that, you can’t know it. The Buddhist path, with all its lists and interpretations, its 88,000 doors, is simply intended to help you peel off the conditioned layers of society and self to access your inner wisdom.
The Buddha also said that you are your own best teacher. When his followers asked what they should do after his death, he replied: Be a lamp unto yourself.
Ultimately, faith in Buddhism means having faith in yourself, trusting in your own innate goodness and wisdom and ability to discern what creates harm and what creates contentment. As Salzberg writes, “Whether faith is connected to a deity or not its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.”