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.
This is adapted from Sylvia Bay’s bulletin for Buddhist Fellowship written in March 2020. This is a great reminder for us as we greet each new year. This pandemic throws all the curveballs we could never expect. Here is how we can l
TLDR: These are unprecedented times. The past few months have been very hard for us as the world gradually descends into a Covid-19 pandemic and we watch an accustomed way of life slowly disintegrates.Here is how we can develop faith in fearful times
Every new day seems to bring worse news and we are seized by worry and fear for the safety and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.
It doesn’t help that nobody knows how long this pandemic will drag on. What more damage will it inflict on society and the economy before it passes? Will it even be over? Will ‘normal’ life as we know it ever return?
Why Must We Not Give In To Fear & Worry?
It brings out the worst in us. In our practice, we must learn to recognise racing thoughts driven by worry and fear.
Recognition, seeing rightly, is a necessary first step to breaking away from being trapped in an endless, vicious cycle of anxiety and panic proliferating frightful thoughts which in turn heighten the overall sense of doom.
Fear and worry are powerful akusala (unwholesome) mental states that can and often do bring out the worst in us. We become selfish and self-centred. We do silly and illogical things. We hoard food, masks, sanitisers, washing detergents, toilet papers! Fear and worry drain our goodness and humanity.
Our capacity for metta, compassion, generosity, empathy and so on dissolve under the deluge of worried and fearful thoughts. Even our noble aspirations to be good Buddhists and to do the right thing for ourselves and for others are terminated in mid-stream.
That is why it is critical that we try our utmost not to give in to fear and worry. It is not easy, but it can be done.
When you see those two mental states arising, take a deep breath and acknowledge their presence.
Call them out by name: “That is fear. That is worry.”
But don’t get defensive.
Don’t blame yourself for their presence.
Just be aware of them and other akusala mental states trailing in their wake: greed, anger, resentment and so on. Then consciously and deliberately choose not to give in to all the mental negativities.
We must not because if we are decent people and especially if we want to be good Buddhists, we will regret any unkind word said and selfish action made while caught in the grip of fear and worry.
What Do We Turn Our Minds To?
Turn our minds to Faith
Instead, turn our minds to faith (saddhā). As Buddhists, our faith is in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
The stronger our faith, the more we will feel fear and worry dissipate. Faith is so powerful that it can bring up intense joy and immense gratitude.
If you don’t believe, try this: take a deep breath and say slowly, mindfully and with conviction, “My faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha will protect me.” Don’t think. Don’t over-analyse. If you do as instructed, you will see faith surge. Joy, gratitude and humility will wash over you.
Like all mental states, faith has to be cultivated. Therefore, set aside quiet time to pay homage to the Triple Gem. More importantly, use that time to reflect on the meaning of the ancient words.
Right reflection is necessary to strengthen faith and protect the kusala (wholesome) in the mind.
We start by recalling the Buddha’s virtues as follows but in a language that we understand and can appreciate: “The Blessed One is an Arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.”
What stands out here is the fact that the Buddha was the epitome of wisdom (vijjā) and goodness (carana).
He had realised entirely on his own how his mind works and how suffering can cease.
And then out of compassion for all sentient beings, Buddha devoted the rest of his life to helping others to the same intuitive realisation. Buddha was an incredible teacher: ingenious and creative, uplifting and inspiring, with boundless compassion, drive and energy.
He taught Dhamma literally to the end.
As he laid dying beneath the Sal trees in Kusinara, Buddha reminded his students to strive on and to realise Nibbāna for themselves.
Buddha’s life was profoundly inspiring.
In these difficult times, we must remind ourselves to bring out that ‘Buddha’ potential in us and not give in to our darker instincts, namely, greed and anger. We must believe that we too are capable of great wisdom and goodness. We only have to stay committed to the practice and not lose faith.
Reflect on the virtues of the Dhamma as follows: “Well expounded is the Dhamma by the Exalted One, directly visible, immediately effective, calling one to come and see, leading on, to be personally realised by the wise.”
This is a reminder to ourselves to not get caught up in the running commentaries in our heads. Thought constructions are often unhelpful but they can be downright destructive if fuelled by fear and worry.
Instead, live in the present moment or as the Buddha had put it: “sandiṭṭhiko” (visible here and now) and “akāliko” (timeless). Learn to enjoy the NOW.
Be aware of how our mind can stay in the present, without chattering, at least for a while before it drifts off again. Be grateful each time you are aware of this present moment where the mind is quietly watchful.
Treasure this moment in the Dhamma. Feel blessed that with the guidance of a 2500-year old teaching, we too are enjoying this wondrous experience
To recall the virtues of the Sangha is to remind ourselves that we must stay kusala and not willy-nilly stray into akusala. As the first part of the homage recitation goes, “The order of the Exalted One’s disciples is practising well; … is of upright conduct; … has entered the right path; … is practising correctly.”
Indeed, the noblest of Buddha’s disciples were all paragons of virtues. If we profess to be Buddha’s disciples, the least that we can do is to restrain our akusala instincts and to conscientiously cultivate kusala ones.
We learn to speak kindly and gently. In this trying time, where everyone is anxious and agitated, we should not add to another’s pain.
We shall act with consideration. We take (or buy) only what we need for survival and not clear the shelves because we can. We must be giving (cāga). For those of us with means, this is really a chance to cultivate generosity because there are very real and desperate needs out there. If we find our mind resisting to give, tame that stain of miserliness by giving more.
What must we do?
We must be empathetic. Covid-19 obviously does not respect national boundaries. There is no one race or religion immune to Covid-19. The entire human race is in this together.
So we will not point fingers and look for convenient scapegoats. Instead, we should embrace all and help all alike. And finally, we will be grateful for our blessings to be living in a country where we have good people and resources to contain Covid-19 outbreak and save lives.
The fact that we remain hopeful despite the body blows to the economy and complete disruption to our social lives, shows that instinctively we trust the people in the forefront know what they are doing.
We must not add to their burden. Instead, we will be humble and wholly support them. We must think positive, stay optimistic and believe that this pandemic will pass.
May we all emerge from this defining challenge of our time, stronger in our faith, kinder in our words and conduct, and wiser in our thoughts. May your faith in the Triple Gem keep you well and at peace
TLDR: Chanting keeps the mind afloat on the choppy waves of suffering. Connecting you to others across time and space, the ritual of chanting creates a refuge from pain. The healing device of chanting is anything but boring!
Yeap, you read it right. Chanting is crazy helpful. Especially when the mind goes crazy. To a non-believer, chanting can be an unfathomable activity – boring, even superstitious. To a practitioner, chanting cleanses the mind.
Let us understand what chanting is and how it heals.
Chanting Tickles Your Right-Brain
Relying on synchronised tunes and steady rhythms, chanting vocalises the Buddha’s teachings, recollections and praises for the Triple Gem.
Chanting is the ‘feeling’ and ‘healing’ part of a logical and pragmatic religion-philosophy. Done with full intent and focus, chanting soothes the heart like a balm. Cooling and stilling afflictions. Warming and uplifting the mind.
Short of comparing chanting to singing your favourite soundtrackmindfully in full earnest, the voicing of “lyrics” falls within a short range of inflecting tones without musical accompaniment. Chanting with the right understanding of familiar verses leads to joy and peace. Sometimes, tears. On auspicious occasions, goosebumps.
The volitional act of voicing out the Buddha’s teachings, never mind the tune, pledges one’s faith that the Dhamma leads beings out of suffering. This verbal allegiance is not for show but to remind ourselves of the Truth time and again.
Because we forget. In this way, chanting instils a sense of belonging – to the Triple Gem, to a wholesome way of life, to a practice of training towards the human fullest potential, to kindness. To hope.
Knowing how to chant, one plugs into a common Buddhist ritual that binds all differences – nationality, language, race, class, culture, those suffering and those enlightened. Cutting across space and time, in your home, at any temple, in a forest, on mountain tops or at the Buddist holy sites in India — wherever, whenever, chanting connects you to a community of practitioners since Lord Gotama Buddha’s time.
The key to a spiritually satisfying chanting session is then learning how to chant and what to chant, in which language.
The Ritual of Chanting
Typically, chanting is part of a practitioner’s morning and evening routines. Depending on the Buddhist tradition, chanting involves varying extents of ritual, usually set in front of an altar, where possible. Due to my upbringing, I have the fortune of learning how to chant in both the Mahayana (Chinese) and Theravadin (Thai Forest) traditions. Having experienced both, I feel more connected to the latter, which I will give a little exposé below.
Simple in tones and expressions, without instrumental accompaniment, Theravadin chanting is mainly in the Pāli language, an ancient vernacular during Lord Buddha’s time. Disciples of the Thai Forest Tradition alternate between Pāli and translations in their first languages, such as Thai, English, German, and Chinese etc.
From experience, searching up the translated meaning of Pāli verses before chanting helps to quell the critical mind.
After offering incense or candlelight or flowers and paying respects to the Triple Gem by bowing, you put your palms together in añjali, kneeling or sitting with your knees folded away from the altar. If you have learnt the words by heart, close your eyes. If not, set out a chanting book with translation nearby. Gather awareness on your breathing. Ready the mind for spiritual connection.
Then, the chanting begins.
Regardless of chanting in private or in public, alone or in a group, a keen sense of ego arouses when projecting the voice initially.
To avoid suffering, you can set aside that notion of “me/mine/myself” for clear awareness to arise. As the Dhamma rings in your ears and through your body, the vocal cords sync with a sincere heart.
The mind arrives at each articulated word to soak in its meaning.
Peace ensues. Chanting creates a refuge for the moment amidst chaos.
What chants can I turn to?
There is a chant for any time and occasion to counter greed, hatred and delusion, which reside in our hearts since the beginning of time.
Some recollections are snippets of the Buddha’s exhortations; others are full discourses considered as protective chants. Some typical chants a lay practitioner has in his/her spiritual toolkit help uplift the mind into wholesome vibes.
For monastics, cardinal sermons are chanted to maintain the oral tradition of preserving the Buddha’s discourses. Particular recollections pertain to arousing dispassion towards worldly attachments and urgency for practising the Holy life. A set of chants reserved for funerals; another set for blessings.
On every Full Moon and New Moon of the lunar calendar (Uposatha Lunar Observance Days), monks gather together to chant the VinayaPatimokkha, which is the Code of Discipline Lord Gotama Buddha set down for monastics to uphold and honour. Similarly, to upkeep their virtues, the laity would undertake the Five Precepts or Eight Precepts by chanting them on Lunar Observance Days.
Chanting plays important roles in our practice: it teaches us what is skillful and remind us to counter the stubborn poisons within our hearts.
Dr. Buddha, can you prescribe some chanting for my troubled heart?
For practitioners encountering intense emotions such as anger, sorrow, fear, anxiety or grief, listening to chanting is a helpful relief from recurring and distressing thoughts. The act of chanting brings an even greater autonomy over processing negative feelings. An effective spiritual ParacetamolTM that soothes sharp, crippling pains from my personal experience. You will always find an emergency playlist of my favourite chants in my phone on standby for breakdowns.
If you wake up grumpy, listless or sian, what better way to pick yourself up than a cup of warm water and a morning chanting?
For the past year, I made it a point to begin my day with morning chanting, regardless of how much time I have or how long the chanting is. On good days, morning chanting uplifts my mind for a quiet sit. On bad days, chanting seems to be the only wholesome thing I can cling on to for my life. Chanting has since become my anchor in the tumultuous waves of negative emotions.
Without chanting, I am pretty sure I would not have made it through difficult times to be here and write. Crazy helpful, I’d say.
I have listed a couple of resources to support your journey with chanting in the Theravadin Thai Forest Tradition below. Hope you will find a chant that resonates.