In Pali (the language of the original Buddhist texts), the word for faith is saddha. While sometimes translated as “confidence” or “trust,” the literal meaning of saddha is “to place your heart upon.” When we give our hearts over to a spiritual practice, it is a sign of faith or confidence in that practice.
Faith opens us to what is beyond our usual, limited, self-centered concerns. In the Buddhist psychology, it is called the gateway to all good things, because faith sparks our initial inspiration to practice meditation, and also sustains our ongoing efforts.
The concept of faith can be difficult for some people. Faith might be associated with mindless belief, or it might imply the need to proclaim allegiance to a creed or doctrine and then fear of being judged, by oneself or others, for one’s degree of compliance. When we use faith in a Buddhist context it is quite different from this.
To “place the heart upon” does not at all mean rigidly believing in something and thus being defensive about opening to new ideas. It doesn’t mean using that which we have faith in as a way of feeling separate from and superior to others. When we talk about saddha, we are talking about a heartfelt confidence in the possibility of our own awakening.
We experience faith on many levels. In a classical text entitled “The Questions of King Milinda,” a monk named Nagasena uses an allegory to illustrate this. A group of people gathered on the edge of a flooding stream want to go to the far shore but are afraid. They don’t know what to do until one wise person comes along, assesses the situation, takes a running leap and jumps to the other side. Seeing the example of that person, the others say, “Yes, it can be done.” Then they also jump. In this story the near shore is our usual confused condition, and the far shore is the awakened mind. Inspired by witnessing another, we say, “Yes, it can be done.” That is one level of faith. After we have jumped ourselves, when we say, “Yes, it can be done,” that is quite another level of faith.
The first instance is an example of what is called “bright faith.” This is the kind of faith that happens when our hearts are opened by encountering somebody or something that moves us. Perhaps we are inspired by a person’s qualities of love or wisdom or kindness. Whether it is someone we know or a historical figure like the Buddha or another great being, we can begin to sense the possibility of another, happier way to live.
Bright faith is a wonderful feeling and an important beginning, but it is also unreliable. We might encounter somebody one day and someone else another day, and be moved powerfully by each of them, but in opposite directions. We can get distracted by whatever influence comes into our lives next.
Mature faith is anchored in our own experience of the truth, centered in the deeper understanding of the nature of the mind and body that we come to in meditation practice. This deeper level of faith is called “verified faith,” which means it is grounded in our own experience. The inspiration and confidence we feel arises from our experience, rather than coming from someone outside of ourselves.
It is a great turning point in our spiritual lives when we go from an intellectual appreciation of a path to the heartfelt confidence that says, “Yes, it is possible to awaken. I can, too.” A tremendous joy accompanies this confidence. When we place our hearts upon the practice, the teachings come alive. That turning point, which transforms an abstract concept of a spiritual path into our own personal path, is faith.
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