What Is Faith?

Here is something about faith from a Buddhist perspective. The first chapter in the book How to Raise an Ox by Francis Dojun Cook is titled “The Importance of Faith,” and it begins, “Practice is not possible without faith.” Dojun Cook continued,

“Prior to the experiential realization of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, one must proceed with practice in the faith that the teachings are true and that through practice we will realize our Buddha nature. Without this faith, there is no support for the practice, and if there is doubt or lack of assurance, one will either not begin practice or will not continue it through one’s inevitable difficulties.”

Having faith the teachings are true is not the same thing as “believing in” doctrines. This is an important point. Buddhism proposes that the way we understand and perceive ourselves and our lives is an illusion, and that through practice we can realize this for ourselves and thereby break the chains that bind us to dukkha. So, in this sense, the faith is more a matter of trust than of belief.

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Dojun Cook writes that when students of the dharma “begin to verify the teachings of Buddha in their own experience, faith is superseded by direct knowledge.” This is in contrast to other spiritual traditions, in which “the tenets of their belief are not experientially validated in the same way as the doctrines of Buddhism.”

Even though Buddhist faith is not about belief, I think sometimes it requires a suspension of disbelief. Sometimes people make up their minds too quickly about what’s possible, or about what’s “natural” and what isn’t. Trusting the teachings means it’s okay to not understand them right away, and to remain open to “not knowing” without forcing it all to make sense. When we insist on stuffing the dharma into our existing cognitive database, we strip it of its power to teach us.

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