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Faith, Belief or Neither?

I’m reading another book by Alan Watts (highly recommend him to everyone) that brought up an interesting distinction between faith and belief. This is an important distinction for Pragmatic Buddhism and one that we discuss within the Order from time to time. Are we a Faith? Do you have to have faith…or belief…to be a Buddhist? CAN you have faith…or belief…and still be a Buddhist? All important questions, but ones that sometimes get confused by the secular West’s tendency to equate faith and belief. Watts writes that they are completely different.

He says of Belief:

Belief…is the insistence that the truth is what I would ‘lief’ or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes.

…and of Faith:

Faith…is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown.

I think we too often ignore the roots of words, and Watts is brilliant in pointing out the root of belief as ‘lief’ or wish. Faith is a little more difficult in this respect - it comes eventually from the Latin ‘fides’ or trusting. Let’s look at what these definitions share in common with Buddhism.

Belief, in Watts definition, is the very cause of dukkha - the very essence of the Third Ennobling Truth. Dukkha is caused by our selfish craving; and what is that craving other than insisting that reality be what we want it to be rather than what it is. Remember that this is a totally different concept than working to make reality a better place for all beings - our duty under the Bodhisattva Vow. Working to make the world better requires that we are first aware of the reality of the world as it is and accept that this state is real before we can take action to make it better - the Pragmatic Buddhism Ethic is “Authentic Awareness, Acceptance, Skillful Action”.

Faith on the other hand is trusting in the truth of the reality around us. “But doesn’t faith mean trusting in things that can’t be proven?” you might say. No. It does require trusting in things that you don’t know from your own experience; but makes no assumptions about the veracity - or verifiability - of those things. Think of faith in terms of the “Trust Fall” at team building events. You have faith that the rest of your team will catch you as you fall backwards, but you don’t yet know it from your own experience. Scientists have faith that their hypotheses will be verified by testing, but they don’t know it yet. Once they have been tested they are no longer subject to faith, but firmly rooted in reality. When scientists find a hypothesis that is disproven by observation they don’t cling to a belief in it, but discard it. Once this stage is reached they - and we - are no longer taking “a plunge into the unknown”, but observing verifiable reality. Without faith, however, we will never take that plunge - or fall back into the comforting embrace of our friends.

We do this as Buddhists. We take a plunge from the beliefs of a God or gods, of an afterlife, of an eternal soul, into the uncertainty of “I don’t know”. The teachings of the Buddha don’t promise us anything in the afterlife; they are agnostic to things that cannot be verified in this world - at least when stripped of the belief system of early CE India and examined as innovative teachings of a man who found a way out of dissatisfaction and suffering. As Pragmatic Buddhists we have faith that the prescription given to us by this Medicine Buddha can heal us from dukkha in this life. We have faith that we can work together to liberate all being from dukkha. We have faith that we can discover the peace and contentment within ourselves that does not require belief in what we wish, but cradles us in the reality of what is.

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