Faith as a Spiritual Faculty

As I mentioned last week, the theme of Shaila Catherine’s new years retreat at the Margaret Austin Center was the Five Spiritual Faculties. According to the Buddha, faith, effort, mindfulness, concentreation and wisdom are mutually reinforcing faculties that help practitioners free the mind from attachment and suffering. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing on Shaila’s teachings, reviewing these faculties in turn. We begin tonight with faith.

Faith is the subject of a poem in William Stafford’s collection called The Way It Is (1998):

There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die;
And you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

The thread is our faith that the universe is unfolding as it should and is supporting us on our paths through life. As a spiritual faculty, faith—balanced by wisdom and refined by mindfulness—leads to wise effort.

In order to develop faith, we must explore the darkness of our suffering. Some of us are accustomed to thinking of faith as the unquestioning acceptance of a belief or doctrine, simply because it is dictated by a religious authority—faith in, say, Biblical miracles. But true faith and confidence come from our own profound experiences.

I remember arriving with shaky faith for a month-long retreat shortly after a dear friend died of cancer at the age of 52. I had a hard time accepting the death of Andy—a young, dedicated doctor and father of two little boys. One day, during an outdoor walking meditation period, I had an encounter that strengthened my faith and helped me reconcile with the Buddha’s teachings about the impermanence of all things. I wrote the following poem about my experience and dedicated it to Andy:
A dead bird lies neatly
In the center of the path.
No way to avoid it.
Death knows how to get my attention.
Touching the stiff talons,
I lift the feather-weight body
Atop a piece of bark.
One jet eye, still open
Witnesses my caretaking.

The soft plumage,
Fawn and pale yellow,
Is perfectly arranged.
Not a feather out of place,
As if death were anticipated,
And even welcomed.

Respectfully, I carry
The small fresh corpse
To the forest altar,
Sunrays highlight the bird’s quiet form,
Illuminating its natural radiance,
A reminder of how your smile shone
As you prepared to fly free.

During the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha was visited by Mara, the Demon of Delusion, who used all his powers to distract, tempt and scare him away from achieving the goal of liberating the mind. In the face of pleasant visions, horrible nightmares, and confusing fantasies, the Buddha was steadfast. All night long, he sat calmly without doubts, sleepiness or restlessness. As dawn broke, he placed a hand on the ground and asked the earth to bear witness to his right to awaken. At that moment his mind became completely free of all hindrances, and, in a rage, Mara disappeared, vanquished by the Buddha’s staunch faith.

In the ancient Pali language, the word for faith is “sudha,” which means to “put your heart on top of something.” Buddhist philosophy posits that there are three stages of faith, starting with “bright or blind faith,” transforming into “verified faith,” and culminating in “unshakable or abiding faith.”

At the first level, bright faith develops from an outside source, usually from an inspirational encounter or experience. An example of bright faith occurred in 1995, when some scientists, fascinated by the stars, directed the Hubble telescope towards an empty part of the sky in the Ursa Major constellation. They had a blind faith that something would be discovered in that emptiness. The result of their research was a series of amazing photos of enormous distant galaxies billions of years old.

When we first find the Dharma path, we may feel relief and recognize that there is a saner way to live that entails less suffering. Inspired by a teacher or a friend, we can develop bright faith, which gives us motivation to practice meditation. But reliance on outer authority is usually not sufficient to sustain ongoing, dedicated practice. And blind faith is neither wise nor clear enough to sustain us through times of crisis.
On his peregrinations through northern India, the Buddha visited the village of people called the Kalamas. He found them upset and confused about contradictory lessons by various spiritual masters who had extolled their own teachings while disparaging those of others. The Kalamas asked the Buddha, “Which of these venerable Brahmans and contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?”
His sage response was, “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought: ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness,’ then you should enter and remain in them.”
To serve us in an ongoing way, bright faith must be transformed into the second stage of verified faith, which entails careful investigation and deep reflection. Verified faith comes from direct knowledge that is informed by our personal experience and that changes our perception. In our dharma practice, we discover that the Buddha was right: Practicing mindfulness meditation really does cultivate skillful thoughts, words and actions, just as wise speech actually does facilitate our interpersonal relationships. It’s true that attachment to people, material things, or preferred places causes us suffering. The act of letting go of things that we’ve been grasping certainly does alleviate our suffering.
Verified faith doesn’t allow doubts to stop our spiritual development. We are inspired to meet doubt and resistance with investigation, and we trust that it’s worthwhile to continue practicing. Faith adds flavor to meditating when it seems dry or boring. (Without verified faith, I could not sustain my practice throughout month-long retreats.)

We need wisdom and mindfulness to guide our faith. Some people fall in love easily, only to be disappointed over and over again. Other people are disillusioned by spiritual masters who don’t live according to their own teachings. During a crisis of faith, we have an opportunity to develop a stronger and more lasting faith, with increased confidence in our own intuition and capacity to distinguish between what is wholesome and unwholesome.

Gradually, as greater peace and wisdom grow, we learn for ourselves that everything is impermanent, so that we question our conditioned tendency to grasp what is ungraspable. Each time we have a moment of freedom from suffering by letting go of desire, our conviction is stronger that we have the capacity to liberate ourselves from habitual suffering.

Little by little, verified faith evolves into the final stage of faith: abiding faith. In Buddhist lore, this level is associated with the image of a magical gem that purifies water, representing the power of pure faith to clear away impediments. When we’ve reached this point, we have enough understanding and wisdom to incorporate the values of the dharma into our words and actions—to “walk our talk.” As the philospher Paul Tillich says, we become “aligned with our ultimate concern.” Steadfast faith comes from knowing that our only real security is in conscious attention to the present moment.