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Far from the associations with gullibility, foolhardiness, and irrationality that can encumber the word in modern society, "faith" in Buddhism is an embodied ripening of abundance and joy.

Do not accept my Dharma merely out of respect for me,

Rather, examine and investigate it

Like a gold merchant tests raw ore

By rubbing, cutting, and melting.

These are the Buddha’s instructions to his followers for how to greet, understand, and integrate his teachings into our lives.

Does this mean that Buddhism is only a rational exercise? What part does faith (Skr. shraddha, Tib. phoen. dey pa) play in encountering the Dharma?

Traditionally, the Buddha described practitioners in two broad categories: those led by faith and those led by knowledge. When we look at these closely, though, we find that the lines blur as the individual’s journey progresses.

First of all, let’s 'fess up: faith is something of a dirty word in modern intellectual society. It can be associated with a fundamentalist fervor devoid of objectivity and divorced from experience, scientific observation, and reason. There is something of apprehension that I noticed in myself early in my path, and which I sometimes see in others: I feared that I would seem gullible, foolish, downright stupid if associated with faith.

Part of this has to do with conflating different connotations of the English word “faith,” in Western culture, however, is not just a mental state or attitude, but an individual’s belief in a religion, or the religion itself--we speak of a Christian faith as an animating principle of the USA, for example.

In Buddhist thought, faith is a mindset, an attitude or mental state. Specifically it is one of the virtuous, or uplifting mental states One’s particular faith mindset is unique, made up of our particular dispositions, inclinations, and the causes and conditions that brought the mental state into being. This differs from the connotation of faith as standalone, something that mysteriously happens, or doesn’t, independent of our input.

The Buddha always teaches in cause and result. Our mental states are a result of the causes and conditions that we enact to give rise to those states. Faith is no different.

Does that mean that there is no place for “blind faith” in Buddhism? Not at all. In fact, there is some measure, at least, of blind faith whenever we encounter a new venture, or an experience that can go one way or another, whether religious or secular.

We have a kind of blind faith when we board a plane that it will not fall from the sky, or even get behind the wheel of our car to drive, or a taxi or Uber someone else is driving. We know there is reasonable basis for this trust, though we may not know the details. This quality of low-octane faith, more accurately, trust, operates in spiritual contexts as well.

There is a rich history of lay people in heritage Buddhist countries of Asia relying very strongly on blind faith as the medium for engaging Buddhism. This is not disparaged in the way it is in our cultural context. Indeed, there is a quality of innocence and purity to it. Nor is it easily dismissed--this unquestioning faith can develop further with time and experience, engendering profound experience and realization.

In the West, when we are only now starting to see "first-generation Buddhists"--practitioners born to Buddhists--most Buddhists have converted from atheist, agnostic, or a variety of religions. Some measure of trust is in action when we try a new meditation center or attend a Buddhist teaching, even listen to a podcast about Buddhism, for the first or third, or tenth time, and the like. This is a reasonable trust.

Nevertheless, as we see in the instructions of the Buddha, a stagnant blind faith does not correspond to integrating the Buddhadharma in a vibrant, active way:

Do not accept my Dharma merely out of respect for me,

Rather, examine and investigate it

Like a gold merchant tests raw ore

By rubbing, cutting, and melting.

To do so presupposes some measure of interest and knowledge--a gold merchant has specialized experience in how raw gold differs from other ore, and is ready to make an investment if they find actual gold.

That initial mindset is one that develops out of our lives, our experience. A sense of urgency for the truth that makes sense of and brings meaning to our lives. An urgency that is born of experience, but does not die in the mere intellectual. It is ready to invest in the process, once we strike gold. This is not a mere exercise.

The rubbing, cutting, and melting of the quote exemplify the process of listening, contemplating, and meditating we featured from the very first episode of this podcast. This is a process of encouraging, developing, and cultivating precise knowledge at increasingly subtle and experiential levels. It moves from individual to word, to meaning, deep meaning, and intellectual understanding to nondual wisdom.

As you know, I can wax rhapsodic about this process, which I term integrative practice, at the drop of a hat. For today’s purposes, I would like to look at this three step process symbolized by a gold merchant testing raw ore by rubbing, cutting, and melting through another yet lens, that of faith rather than knowledge.

Here too, we find that there are three degrees of faith. All three relate to trust, as blind faith does, but here, the trust is a foundation enriched by understanding and experience.

Having some measure of this fundamental trust, which we may experience as a suspension of disbelief, or benefit of a doubt, allows us to greet the Dharma on its own terms, equally likely to critique our own misconceptions as what we find in the teachings. The more we encounter and put the Dharma into practice at this level, the more we develop the first degree of faith, called confidence.

Now it is more than the trial and error approach of suspending disbelief and making our way without evidence. Faith as confidence arises out of our lived experience of what happens when we apply the teachings to our lives, examining how causes and conditions we put into action yield corresponding results. This in turn helps us understand all our experience as results, applying the Dharma to welcoming whatever comes with a view towards enacting practice. We see too, the results in our mental state as we cultivate skillful qualities actively and let go of unskillful ones, on and off the cushion.

This confidence is itself a spectrum--a bit wobbly at first, like a fawn taking its first steps, it can grow into a stronger confidence, described as conviction. This is much more stable than the suspension of disbelief. It fuels even more engagement with the teachings and meditation, yielding a clarity of purpose and intentionality called vivid faith, or clear faith.

At this level, the principles of Dharma come alive in us: living an ethical life, fostering tranquility, insight, and understanding are meaningful in and of themselves. Their value shines with vivid intensity, and powers our spiritual practice right within our experience of the results of nourishing them in our mindstream.

What’s more, this active intentionality and engagement brings clarity and vivacity to how we engage the Buddhadharma--understanding comes more easily, our reach expands, meditation feels more pleasant, life is less overwhelming. The Dharma literally lights our way, so we see more clearly, take succor in its power, gaining in self-care, tenderness to others, ability, and trust in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha--the Three Jewels.

Our path softens and contextualizes, more about insight than rules. Faith is experienced as blessing, grace, a salve that reduces friction amidst the ups and downs of life, easing our movements, and encouraging still more exploration right within experience. The vivid character of this faith experience connects us to the very qualities within us that we seek to manifest by relying on external supports.

From there, we become inspired to embody the highest of qualities of mind--those exemplified by the Three Jewels, aware that they are our own innate qualities as well. This is faith as longing, aspiration, inspiration. The example of the Three Jewels that fuels us also inspires us to manifest the excellence that is our own true nature directly, for our own sake, and for the sake of lighting the way for all beings.

Faith in this light is understood to be a continuum, a mental state that is subject to our intention, our own care and attention, our choices, and actions. The more we polish the seeds of urgency, of seeking truth through the teachings and practice of Dharma, the more faith ripens along this spectrum. The three degrees are signposts along the way, indicators of turning points when the critical mass when one inflection of faith metamorphoses into something qualitatively different, yet of the same stuff.

More importantly, like the parallel process of listening, contemplating, and meditating, the degrees of faith are described in terms that embody curiosity, depth, and integration. The two ways of going--traveling via faith and by knowledge--are ultimately discovered to be interwoven. This is a vital clarification.

The resonances between and among the ways of faith and knowledge keep reason from descending to dry, dusty, and disembodied concepts divorced from experience. Likewise, this harmony imbues faith with rigor, relationality, and resilience. The result is a grounded and uplifting integration of of Buddhadharma that is agile and enriching. One way leads with reason, the other with heart, yet both ripen to a vibrant unity revealing the central traits of the Buddhist path: it is maturational, relational, experiential, and realizational.

Understood in its living context, the Buddhist sense of faith, then, is one of encounter, nourishment, and empowerment, present from the very beginning and blossoming continuously throughout our spiritual path. It brings a vital sense of wonder, curiosity, exploration, joy and abundance to our lives here and now as well as fueling our spiritual path as a whole with its richness, all the way to transcendence.


Listen to the full episode of our Prajna Sparks podcast about faith, including a discussion, a lively popular song reset to Dharma lyrics, and guided meditation, based on the teaching in this article.


Adventures in

Investigating Mind

HOSTED BY KAGYU MILA GURU SANGHA The Kagyu lineage stresses experiential investigation of mind as a primary vehicle to realizing our true face. In this intensive practice weekend, we map the adventure that is coming to know mind, right within the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of everyday life and formal meditation.

Saturday and Sunday, June 12-13, 2021

10:00 AM to noon USA MDT

1:00 PM to 1:45 PM USA MDT

2:30 to 4:30 PM USA MDT

Zoom Online Video Conference


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