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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.

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