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Saddha – The Question of Faith
Saddha – The Question of Faith often arises in Buddhism. Is Buddhism a faith-based religion as theistic religions are? Do the teachings of the Buddha require faith in order to “practice” Buddhism? If the Buddha did not teach worship of a god or gods or any disincarnate deities, where should “I” place my faith?
(When using the term “Buddhism” or “Dhamma” I am referring to the original teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali Canon)
While the moral and ethical aspects of the Eightfold Path have some of the aspects of religion, there is no worship of gods, deities or even of the Buddha. There is nothing that could be considered dogma in Buddhism. There are no teachings or Buddhist “commandments” that if not followed precisely would subject one to punishment from an external supreme force. There is no final accounting save for one’s own mindfulness developed within the Buddha’s teachings.
There is no higher being or beings to appeal to or to appease in order to develop understanding through the Dhamma.
These beliefs can be held by someone engaging in the Buddha’s teachings as long as theistic views do not cloud the purpose of the Dhamma: to abandon all clinging.
The most significant difference between the Buddha’s teachings and most religions, including many “Buddhist” religions is the concept of religion as salvation. The Buddha did not teach salvation in the conventional sense that through proper adherence to dogma, rules, rituals and observances, one’s salvation would be assured. “Salvation” as taught by the Buddha occurs through one’s own actions, as the Buddha himself developed. He presented an Eightfold Path to be experienced through conviction, not followed with blind faith.
The Buddha did not see himself as a savior or his teachings as salvific in any general way. He did not see his teachings as a global religion and that everyone should practice what he taught or face dire consequences from him or his agents.
He simply taught to anyone interested a way to achieve lasting peace and happiness through understanding the nature of the world we live in. A fundamental understanding of the Dhamma is that complete freedom of choice is to be developed and understood. Whether one engages in the Dhamma is up to each individual. Mindfulness developed within the framework of the Eightfold Path brings awareness to each choice made and whether that choice will develop awakening or further confusion and suffering.
“Saddha” is a term that can be translated to mean faith or conviction and is often used in Buddhist teachings to refer to faith. Faith in anything is not required to begin to develop an understanding of the Dhamma, or to maintain a Dhamma practice. The Buddha taught that his teachings should be examined and practiced and if found useful to develop further.
The question of saddha in developing understanding of the Buddha’s teachings is critical in setting a clear and purposeful direction of initial inquiry. The often overlooked translation of saddha as conviction, rather than faith, is more appropriate in describing the quality of mind in which to initially engage the Dhamma.
A short while after the Buddha’s awakening he came upon the five wandering ascetics that he had befriended in his search for understanding. They at first wanted to ignore the Buddha as he had rejected their asceticism as unsupportive of gaining understanding and unbinding.
Upon seeing the radiance of a now awakened human being they immediately wanted to learn his Dhamma. The Buddha then set the wheel of truth in motion when he taught his friends The Four Noble Truths. (The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta)
Upon seeing the example of a Dhamma that a human being (Siddartha Gotama) could engage with and awaken, and then actually learning his simple Dhamma, they were able to generate the conviction to develop their own understanding. There was certainly no blind faith that led to their conviction. They could see through their own eyes the proof of the Buddha’s Dhamma.
Kondanna, hearing the Buddha’s words, declared “Whatever has the nature of arising, has the nature of ceasing.” Through his conviction arising from the example of a human being who awakened, and understanding the Four Noble Truths, Kondanna awakened. Upon hearing Kondanna’s words the Buddha declared “Kondanna has realized The Four Noble Truths. He is now Anna Kondanna – the one who realizes.”
The Buddha presented his second discourse shortly after this first teaching. He presented the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, the suttta on non-self. On hearing this second discourse, the other four followers awakened. Through conviction arising from direct engagement with the Dhamma they awakened.
The first Sangha was formed and they took refuge, with strong conviction, in the Buddha, a human being who awakened through his own efforts, and in his Dhamma.
Much like any course of study, developing understanding of The Four Noble Truths begins not with faith but with the conviction that it will deliver what it promises. All that is required is to remain focused on the curriculum.
The first factor of the Eightfold Path does not require faith or conviction. Right View initially is a mundane acceptance that the Four Noble Truths are in fact “Noble” and worthy of additional clear inquiry. Initial Right View allows for the intellectual decision to engage in the curriculum of the Dhamma. This intellectual decision is made within impermanence as psycho/physical beings, or as the aggregate of five clinging factors. We engage the Dhamma as we are, not as we hope to be. Right Intention, the intention to recognize and abandon all forms of clinging, generates the Saddha, the conviction, to engage and develop all eight factors of the path.
My own experience with modern Buddhism and with the more esoteric, mystical and magical aspects of the later-developed schools required me to take most of what was being presented on faith. Many of these later schools treat The Four Noble Truths, including the Eightfold Path, as archaic and not worth serious consideration. This did not generate in me conviction, but only more confusion.
How could the Buddha’s original teaching, and his path to awakening, not be the focus of “Buddhism?” Why must I take on faith the more cosmic and magical view that modern Buddhism presents, or sit endlessly waiting and hoping, with blind faith, for my Buddha-nature to appear. The Buddha taught that waiting for Buddha-Nature, or any other concept of an innate eternal self was founded in ignorance and would only generate more confusion and suffering.
The Eightfold Path can be engaged with conviction. The later school’s teachings required much blind faith. When I returned to the original teachings, free of cultural, societal and individual influences, the Dhamma become accessible and understandable.
The Buddha taught a Dhamma intended for human beings to engage with and awaken. Like any study, the Dhamma takes conviction and Right Effort to develop. Many of the principles take time to develop. This is why the Buddha taught an Eightfold Path. With conviction, engaging the Buddha’s Eightfold Path will deliver for any human what Kondanna experienced: realization and release, a mind at peace.
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My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.
Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.
I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.