Can you have faith, but disbelieve the Buddha?
Facebook’s a funny place. You’ll post a link to a really brilliant, informative, insightful, and useful article on meditation and get very little response, and then post a picture of a dog meditating and get swamped with “likes” and comments. An example of the latter happened recently when I idly shared this cartoon on reincarnation. (It’s from speedbump.com — go visit the site, and consider buying a cartoon.)
Of course someone asked me what my own view on rebirth was, and I replied to the effect that on balance I’m not a believer. I made clear it’s not that I deny the possibility of rebirth — it just seems vanishingly unlikely that any kind of consciousness can exist outside of a brain, or be transferred from one brain to another. I guess you could say I’m an agnostic, and a skeptical one at that.
But this admission suddenly created a discussion in which it was suggested that I was lacking and downplaying faith, and had “modern rationalist prejudice” against the idea of rebirth.
I don’t really want to write too much about rebirth here — I’ll save that for another post — but I would like to say something about the nature of faith (saddha in Pali, or shraddha in Sanskrit) in Buddhism, and how having it doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything the Buddha said.
I’d also like to point out that saddha (faith) has very little to do, in the Buddhist tradition, with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience.
Early Buddhist texts tell us that when you attain the first level of spiritual awakening (stream entry) you have have unshakable faith in three things: the Buddha, his teaching (the Dhamma), and the spiritual community (the Sangha). But it’s important to examine how each of these things is described.
First, faith in the Buddha.
The disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’
The faith being advocated here is confidence that the Buddha is a realized teacher: that he has attained spiritual awakening and that he’s able to guide us to that same awakening.
Now, we can’t directly verify for ourselves that the Buddha was awakened. But we can read his words, and see the effects of Buddhist practice in others, and in our own lives, and on that basis develop confidence that there was something special about him — that he had some extraordinary insight. And we can have confidence that his teaching, in principle, can led to us having the same insight. This isn’t blind faith. It’s faith rooted in experience.
Second, faith in the Dhamma (teachings, path):
He is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’
I’m not going to parse this entire passage, but here, faith is confidence that the Buddha’s teaching is something that can be verified (“inviting verification … to be seen here and now … to be realized”).
The core of this confidence is recognition of the Dhamma as a verifiable process. We can’t — and this is important — verify the Dharma in its entirety right now. It has to be verified in our experience, and that takes time. Again, there’s no blind faith involved.
Third, faith in the Sangha, or spiritual community:
He is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well…who have practiced straight-forwardly…who have practiced methodically…who have practiced masterfully — [the various types of awakened individuals] — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’
This seems a straightforward kind of confidence: confidence that it’s a good thing to master the teachings and become spiritually awakened, that it’s a good thing to respect and honor people who have done so. This is an aspirational attitude, and also a devotional attitude, which is very important in Buddhist practice. It’s why you’ll see Buddhists bowing in front of Buddha statues (and to each other!). We need to respect and honor goodness and wisdom when we see it. But again, there’s no blind faith involved.
So this is the kind of faith that someone who is a stream entrant has, that someone who has reached the first level of awakening has. These types of faith are called “factors of stream entry” and they’re not only seen as characteristics of the stream entrant, but as means to gain stream entry itself. It has very little — nothing, really — to do with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience. It’s all “provisional trust” in something that you intend to, and can, verify.
I’d like to come back and talk a little about the teaching of rebirth. The scriptures are full of references to rebirth and to afterlives in heaven or hell. Although some have argued that the Buddha only taught rebirth as an accommodation to the culture he lived in, I see that in itself as a leap of faith! We know something of what the Buddha said, but we can never know what he was thinking if it was different from what he is recorded as having said. It seems reasonable to accept that the Buddha believed in rebirth.
Does that mean that I should, out of faith, believe in rebirth? I don’t think it does. For one thing, I can’t verify the existence of rebirth in my own experience. I don’t remember any previous lives, and there are always going to be questions hovering over the accounts of people who say they do. I can’t 100% verify their accounts. In fact I can’t verify their accounts at all, since all I’ve ever had to go on are other people’s accounts of their accounts.
For another thing, the Buddha said other things that we know to be incorrect — or at least he’s recorded as having said those things. There is no mountain hundreds of thousands of miles high, around which four continents are arranged. Those continents do not float on water, which in turn does not rest on air. Earthquakes therefore are not caused by the air which lies under the water which lies under the continents.
The Buddha’s area of expertise was spiritual psychology. Evidently, he didn’t know any more about geography, geology, and cosmology than any other educated Indian of his time. Although I recognize the Buddha as a sure guide to overcoming greed, hatred, and spiritual delusion, I’ve no reason to believe that he had any special insight into what happens after death.
Most importantly, though, it makes no difference to my practice to be skeptical of the reality of rebirth. I’m going to make the most of this life, whether or not I’ll be reborn. In fact, I’d argue that thinking it’s probable that this is the only life I’ll have gives me more of a sense of urgency about practicing. In fact the Buddha’s recorded as saying that his disciples can have the assurance that “if there is no fruit [in future lives] of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.”
If that was good enough for the Buddha, then that’s good enough for me.