Faith In Buddhism: Which Of These 3 Faith Types Do You Belong To?

Faith In Buddhism: Which Of These 3 Faith Types Do You Belong To?

This is an abridged chapter from Buddhist Scholar Sylvia Bay’s Book on Faith. You may find the book here


TLDR: Buddhism is nowadays taken to be ‘scientific’ with little need for faith. Have we got it wrong? Which type of faith do you identify with? Blind, Knowledge, or practice? Sylvia shares more

Faith is not a static mental state. Faith can strengthen (or fade). Right knowledge and clear understanding will strengthen faith. 

1. ‘Blind’ Faith 

When we first declared ourselves to be Buddhists, the odds are that at that time, we didn’t really know much about Buddha or his Teaching. What little we knew then was probably hearsay or as tradition dictated. 

We were likely to be caught up with the dos and don’ts of the rites and rituals. What to do at the temple or monastery? How to bow? How to chant? What offerings to make? And so on. Our faith might or may be transactional. 

We “pray” to Buddha and show our devotion by making offerings so that we will be blessed with success or be able to ward off misfortune. We may have all kinds of wrong understanding: ‘Buddha is god’, ‘Buddha can save me’, ‘just pray to Buddha and all will be fine’. 

Even worse, we may be afraid of asking questions because we think that it is ‘bad kamma’ to do so. Blind faith is superficial and fragile as it rests on ignorance and fear. This type of faith cannot withstand life’s inevitable disappointments and setbacks. It will be at constant risk of falling away. 

2. Knowledge-based Faith 

The faith that Buddha spoke about that is critical for spiritual growth is grounded on knowledge and a thorough understanding of the teaching. 

The deeper the knowledge, the stronger is the faith. 

Now, we must all start somewhere in terms of gathering knowledge. Buddha’s advice was to approach a teacher that you have respect for. Because of that positive chemistry, you will be willing to keep an open-mind and give him the benefit of the doubt. Because of your attitude, your mind is pliant, receptive and attentive. 

That helps you to register the Dhamma properly and remember it. What you can remember, you must reflect thoroughly and compare the teachings against your observations about life’s experiences and your mind. 

Only when the Dhamma makes sense, because it is consistent with what you have observed, will you embrace the teaching fully and confidently.

From the above, it is clear that Buddha had expected his followers not to just accept his words at face value but to have an enquiring mind and ask questions, challenge assumptions, think critically, and make thoughtful conclusions. These are high order cognitive processes. 

He said that they should accept his teachings only after they are satisfied that Dhamma makes sense from their own observations about their mind and life’s experiences. 

3. Practice-based Faith 

Ultimately, Buddha’s Dhamma is not an intellectual exercise. It helps the practitioner to understand the true nature of the mind such that he can overcome feelings of dukkha and is able to live more happily. 

It is not easy to get to a state where one can see the mind’s true nature. It may require fundamental changes to one’s habits and behaviour. One must make a serious effort to overcome one’s negative instincts and obstructive habits. 

Hence, the next level of faith development is practice. You must be ready to deliberately and thoroughly weave all aspects of his teaching into your daily life. And you keep applying the training discipline until your mind settles into a new equilibrium, with new knowledge about itself and its habits. 

When that happens, the practitioner would find himself becoming a kinder, gentler and wiser person, more content, happier and less caught up with ego and desires. 

As your understanding of the Dhamma deepens because of the practice, you will experience more periods of peace in your waking moments. Once the Dhamma is not just an abstract concept but a way of life, faith will grow exponentially. 

You have confidence that you know how to shape the mind because you understand how it works. 

You feel empowered. 

You no longer feel helpless in the face of changing external or internal conditions.

Img Alt text:

  • Blinded Sapa for blind faith
  • Reading sapa for knowledge
  • Meditative sapa for practice


Wise Steps:

  • Pause and reflect. Where do you currently stand now in your Buddhist faith? Are you comfortable with where you are right now?
  • Ask yourself, ‘How can I go from understanding the teachings to realising them?’. Take active steps to grow your circle of spiritual friends to support your journey
  • Associate with wise teachers, explore and find teachers to learn from. Those who are worthy of respect and conduct themselves similar to how the Buddha or disciples would behave.
Are you living life like a hungry ghost?

Are you living life like a hungry ghost?

This teaching is compilation of teachings extracted from talks/interviews with Dr Gabor Mate, Luang Por Sumedho, and Tara Brach.

Hungry ghosts can’t get enough satisfaction

In the Buddhist psychology, there are a number of realms that all beings cycle through.

  1. One is the human realm, which can be described as our ordinary selves.
  2. The second is the hell realm, which contains unbearable rage, fear, and terror; it contains emotions that are difficult to handle.
  3. The third is the animal realm, which is related to our instincts.

In the hungry ghost realm, the creatures are depicted with large empty bellies, small scrawny thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They are always hungry, always empty, always seeking satisfaction from the outside. This speaks to the part of us, isn’t it?

Just watch the desire in your own mind. It’s always looking for something. There’s a kind of restlessness such that when you’re frightened, you look for something certain; and you don’t know what to do, you feel this momentum of desire that looks for anything to do – eat, smoke cigarettes, read books, watch televisions, look around for this and that.

This is just a force of habit.

When you are not mindful, and when you are not wise, you become easily pulled into these things. When you lead life heedlessly, when you lead our lives without any kind of wisdom or understanding of it, you just get caught up in seeking excitement. When you get bored, you seek excitement. But when you get bored with excitement, you seek annihilation.

You get caught up in these habits.

The false refuges in our lives and never arriving

One of the most pervasive false refuges or substitute gratifications is the never ending effort to improve ourselves. It’s not the kind of improvement that leads us to sensing our creativity and the knowledge we long for, but it’s the kind that stems from a place of deficit. It’s the “I need to be a better person” kind of striving, and that wanting to feel like we’re good enough.

This is what goes on in us and is part of the hungry ghost.

If we’re honest with ourselves, are we really content and feel good enough? This sense of wanting to be good enough is not the same as the impulse to manifest our true potential. It’s the kind of internalised standards we have that make us think we should always look better, do more, and be more.

When we are honest, we realise that for many of us live with the kind of dissatisfaction, a disappointment that our lives aren’t turning out the way we want it to be. There’s a sense of never arriving, as though we’re trying to get somewhere, and we’re not there.

Three levels of suffering

Level 1: We are not satisfied

There’s a whole range of how we experience these hungry ghost energy. Along with that, we have chronic patterns on how we are trying to meet our needs and we do so through different substitute gratifications such as consuming sugar or seeking approval or attaching to our possessions.

As we may know, these are temporary fixes. We’re on a roller coaster. We feel better for a little, but then, the need is back there again.

Wanting begets wanting. It’s like drinking salt water to satisfy thirst.

So, that’s one level of suffering – i.e. we don’t get satisfied.

Level 2: The aversion we have towards ourselves for not being satisfied.

In the Buddhist tradition, we call that the second arrow. The first arrow is “I want, I need, I’m not satisfied”. The second arrow is “I am a bad person for wanting, needing, and feeling that I’m not satisfied”. It’s the self version that we pile on that is a very notable part of the addiction cycle. Eat too much, then feel really bad about ourselves. Feel like such as bad person, and then feel so miserable that we eat more, and return to feeling bad about ourselves again. The cycle keeps getting fuelled like this.

Level 3: Never being present and never arriving

The last level is just like in the casino: when we really want to win but are not quite there yet or when we are seeking approval and when we are trying to in some ways get something we don’t have, we’re not present. It’s kind of like we’re leaning forward, wanting the next moment to contain what this moment does not. We’re not present, and we’re always on our way to somewhere else.

Such wanting, addiction, and attachment is the heart of the suffering that comes with the hungry ghosts.

How many moments of our life is there a sense of we’re on our way to something rather than this moment counts?

A comforting perspective

Our attachment and addiction can be a flag to pause, and deepen our attention to what is here. And if we are willing to pause, and deepen our attention, we can begin to discover that rather than hitching to our addicting habits, the star we felt away from is right here. It is in this present moment. Right here.

Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, 
his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.

But whoever overcomes this wretched craving, so difficult to overcome, 
from him sorrows fall away like water from a lotus leaf.

– Dhammapada verse 335 & 336