Insight Newsletter
Apr 1, 1997

This article is excerpted from a workshop offered by Sharon Salzberg at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on September 22, 1996.

Faith is something very personally meaningful to me. It is something difficult to understand, and it is something that is not often spoken about within the context of a wisdom tradition—especially in the West.


The last time I led a program on Faith, I heard people express disquietude, uneasiness, and even hostility. Somebody said to me, “I came to Buddhism to get away from all this.” And for him, because of his own conditioning or background, the very word “faith” was difficult to hear. It brought up questions of being good enough and having enough faith; it brought up facing dire consequences if he didn’t have enough faith or didn’t have the right kind of faith. The word faith brought up a lot of fear, rather than faith seeming like an antidote to fear.

The word we normally translate as faith from the Pali language, the language of the original Buddhist texts, is saddhà, which literally means “to place the heart upon.” Saddhà means to give our hearts over to, or place our hearts upon something. Its meaning can vary a lot, depending on what we put our heart upon or the quality with which we give our hearts over. So there are a number of different ways faith can be manifest.

Sometimes faith means trust. In your reflections you can contemplate: Is there some quality within yourself that you trust? Awareness, love, critical thinking? What do you trust? I remember having a great deal of difficulty with my practice at one point in my life and my teacher U Pandita said to me: “You just sit and walk. The dharma will take care of the rest.” I was trying too hard to “make the practice work,” and the faith that came from simply trusting that the practice would work all by itself has been tremendously helpful for me.

Faith can also take the form of inspiration, where all of our being comes together behind something, behind an endeavor. This doesn’t feel like a struggle, because we are so inspired to engage in a pursuit. We might be inspired by a teacher or a teaching, but whatever it is a sense of possibility is awakened for us. This initial inspiration is what brings us to a practice or to any deeper exploration, and it helps sustain us in the difficulties we inevitably encounter.

Or faith can mean confidence. You might think of a time in your life when you faced a task that was a little bit daunting, but you had a quality of confidence so you persevered. As we begin to practice, there may be a lot of restlessness and sleepiness and resistance and pain and boredom and angst—all kinds of different experiences. It can be very hard. But what allows us to keep going? What allows us to say “Well, maybe this is just the way things are in the beginning, or maybe this is just going to take some time, and I need to devote time to see what happens?” What allows us to take that risk and keep going? This also is a form of faith.

Another way we might think of faith is in terms of patience: when we can be present in a situation and allow it to unfold without needing to manipulate it, letting things take their natural course, allowing things time to ripen. You might think of a time in your life when this was very present for you.

The faith that inspires us to take a step away from the normal dictates of society, as it defines happiness, success, prosperity or goodness, and perhaps to begin a meditation practice—is courage. We step back from our conditioning, from our past, from our belief systems, and then we step forward to take a look in order to allow the truth to speak to us, in order to be present for whatever might be revealed through our own experience. All this takes courage, and this courageous aspect of faith is by no means insignificant. The purity and simplicity of faith is very powerful. Faith is what begins our energy, our willingness to look; it is what sustains it. It is what allows us to take a risk, to open up to seeing the truth for ourselves, rather than simply going along conventionally or conveniently believing only what we have been told. “We might be inspired by a teacher or a teaching, but whatever it is a sense of possibility is awakened for us.”

There is one sense of the word faith that is closer to relaxation. You can just sit and listen to sounds as they come and go—the sound of my voice, for example, or other, even internal sounds. Notice how you don’t have to construct or create an awareness of them. You simply have to be quiet, to be present, and the awareness will happen naturally. You can relax.

I have been very interested to see the different ways that faith weaves throughout the traditional teachings of Buddhism. There is an evolution in the quality of faith that is not dissimilar to an evolution or deepening of wisdom. And in fact faith and wisdom seem to go hand in hand.

First there is what we call bright faith, which is a sense of being able to draw near, to open up, to be inspired, that happens when we meet somebody who is very impressive for us. They awaken some confidence in ourselves about a way of being that might be possible for us as well. We meet a teacher or a great being or a great poet, and somehow the experience is not just about them and who they are—they also serve as a mirror in some way for who we might be. We feel very inspired and moved. There is an emotional quality of wonderment, of excitement, and of confidence. Faith is what allows us to draw near.

But bright faith, while it can be powerful and important, is not very reliable. We might meet one person one day and another person another day, and find ourselves just careening back and forth between these different sources of inspiration, because we are not so centered within our own experience.

There is another quality of faith, somewhat more evolved, known as verified faith. Maybe we’ve met a person or we’ve encountered a teaching and have gotten inspired; and we’ve done something about that—we’ve actually practiced or we’ve explored something for ourselves, and in doing so we’ve opened to some amount of experience. The feeling we have about that path or process, the sense of being able to place our hearts upon it, is now rooted in our own experience and strengthened.

When I was first practicing meditation, one of the great one-liners my teacher Munindra offered to me was “The Buddha’s enlightenment solved the Buddha’s problem, now you solve yours.” It was important to me to feel that the Buddha’s enlightenment did solve his problem, because after all here was the very path he had offered. And I also recognized that I clearly hadn’t yet solved mine! But I saw that Munindra was implying a confidence that I actually could solve the problem of suffering for myself. There was some amount of energy and effort and actual practice that was being called for from me so that I could step up to this experience of verified faith.

And then there is what is called unshakable faith, where we have experienced something so deeply and strongly that from that point on there is no turning back. It is not that somebody can then appear to us in the role of the inspirer and say, “Well, you know it’s really this way, it’s not that way” and have us believe that simply because they say so. We know from our own experience that this is how things are; we have a more complete faith in the truth of our own vision and our perception of the truth. This three-fold progression is one way faith is talked about as it evolves through our own understanding.

The opposite of faith, as talked about in the traditional teachings, is doubt. Of course there are many sides to doubt. There is a kind of doubt that is very positive. It is an edge of investigation which says, “I’m not going to accept this just because somebody else says it’s so. I really want to know.” And this is the cutting edge of wisdom, the voice that says, “I want to know for myself, not just because you say so.”

This, of course, is echoed in the teachings of the Buddha such as the Kàlàma Sutta in which people say something like, “Here in this village there are so many teachers of spirituality who come and go. Some say this and some say that. There are all kinds of different messages and different instructions and different ways of practice that are offered. How do we know what’s true, what’s worth doing?” (Sound familiar?)

And the Buddha’s response, in effect, is: Put it into practice. Don’t believe anything just because I say it or some worthy being says it. Don’t believe anything because it is held to be traditionally true. Don’t believe anything because you’ve read it. Believe it is truth from your own experience. If you put it into practice and you find that this particular meditation or spiritual practice leads to a diminishing of greed and desire in your mind, then you can trust that. If you find that it leads to a diminishing of anger and hatred and fear in your mind, you can trust that. If you find it leads to clarity, so there’s less delusion, there’s less feeling of being cut off and disconnected, you can trust that. You put it into practice. That’s how you know.

So this aspect of doubt, of not just believing in something because somebody else says it’s so, is very helpful. But there is another aspect of doubt that is far less helpful—namely, endless speculation.

Sometimes doubt is actually an excuse to remove ourselves from a situation and not put something into practice. We can then stand back and judge, speculate, not commit ourselves, not take a risk, not see what happens if we practice. But all of this is a process of intellectualization; it is not at all from our own experience. There may be a feeling of empowerment that comes from standing apart, but it is really a very shallow kind of strength. This is a way of protecting ourselves, because we don’t have to take the risk and commit ourselves and open up to something and then see what happens. But really the strength we then feel, which is a kind of conceit and indulgence, is very short-lived. It will not actually give us the sustained strength and confidence to discover the truth for ourselves.

Probably the strongest period of doubt I ever had was fairly early on in my own meditation practice. I first went to India in 1970, and I first began practicing mindfulness meditation, vipassana meditation, in January of 1971. I was quite young, 18 years old. I remember that from the first moment I entered that room and the first moment I sat down, I felt like I had come home. There was just a sense of rightness to it. One of the meanings of faith is knowing within the feeling of rightness, of alignment, of being in harmony with something. So faith in the dharma was very present for me right away, though I had a lot of doubt about myself and my own capacity.

I also had a lot of speculation about which practice to actually do. My first teacher was somebody from a Burmese tradition, and he taught a practice quite similar to what is taught at IMS today. That seemed a really wonderful way to practice. It was simple and direct, yet very profound. And it was accessible, which I appreciated a lot.

After a few months of being in a particular place in India and practicing with that teacher I traveled up into the mountains and met a Tibetan teacher with whom I felt a very strong connection, and I appreciated everything that he was teaching as well.

I had a choice, it seemed to me: I could either continue on practicing in this Burmese tradition, in that style and methodology, or I could practice with the Tibetan teacher and just follow along with the instructions that he was offering. So, in effect, I did neither. Every time I would sit to meditate, I would think about which one to do, and so I would sit there and think, “I wonder if I should do the Burmese practice. Or if I should switch to that Tibetan practice. Maybe the Tibetan practice is faster. This Burmese practice is so plain, but then it’s really simple. Maybe I could actually do this. I can’t really do the Tibetan practice so well. . .”

And that was what my meditation practice looked like. It was a continual stream of speculative thinking about which practice to do. And what was almost worse, whenever I was with my Burmese teachers I would ask them what they thought the Tibetan practice was about. And then whenever I was with my Tibetan teachers I would ask them what they thought of Burmese practice. So not only was I learning nothing from my practice, because I wasn’t really practicing, only thinking about which one to do, I was actually learning little from my teachers because I was asking them about traditions they knew the least about, rather than asking what they were so extraordinarily steeped in and proficient in teaching. It just went on and on until finally I said to myself, “Just do something. It doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, but do one or the other because this way you’re doing nothing.”

I found that to be a perfect example of the difficulties of doubt. In the traditional texts they describe doubt as being like a traveler at a crossroads—you just don’t know which way to go. Rather than trying a way and see what happens, you just stand there waiting for enlightenment to strike. We can’t make a decision as to which way to try, and that is the most draining and debilitating characteristic of doubt with which we get stuck.

Faith has the quality of allowing us to open, to draw near, and to go forth, to harness our energy to pursue a goal or an aspiration. But faith also has to be carefully balanced with wisdom. If we have too much faith without enough wisdom, then it really becomes what we ordinarily call “blind faith.” We can be very gullible. We can with bright faith hear somebody and they’re impressive and they move us and our hearts sing and we experience an extraordinary feeling of inspiration; and then the next day we hear somebody else and they say a different thing and we feel inspired by them . This is mere belief—faith without enough wisdom.

I think that belief and faith sometimes go together. It’s not that they are mutually exclusive—we can believe something and also have faith in it. I would use the word belief to refer to something more in the realm of an idea about things. It can be something that we have never really examined, and therefore we don’t have a quality of faith in it that comes from seeing for ourselves that it is true. It’s more just an idea that we have. Beliefs are often these assumptions that we have about so many things that are really fabrications of the mind, not based on an actual, personal experience of things.

It’s not that all belief is wrong; some belief might reflect a true or a deeper understanding of things. But because it’s untested, perhaps, or not even acknowledged as a belief, I would distinguish it from that quality of faith which only deepens as it’s tested. And the practice is a great deal about examining these things and seeing what has some basis in actual experience and what is just a construction that has been made up.

I prefer to think of faith (as Coleridge says of poetry) as “the willing suspension of disbelief.” So rather than thinking of it as the assumption or the taking up of a belief, it’s the willing suspension of disbelief—a willingness to be open, to explore, to investigate.


Insight Newsletter, Spring 1997

Image from Flickr by nevil zaveri, Creative Commons License

May all beings be happy ♡