Faith: credible mystery


Photo by Mathijs Beks on Unsplash
Examining the place of faith in Buddhism, Nagapriya outlines why it is a crucial tool for understanding.

“For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand. For this too I believe: that unless I shall have believed, I may not understand.”

For St. Anselm, belief or faith was the starting point from which his spiritual inquiry began, the foundation upon which it rested, not its result. He saw his belief as something to understand, confirm and unfold, not something he needed to justify to himself or the world. In an age where reason is king and supreme judge, St. Anselm’s reliance upon faith may seem medieval, even intellectually naive. And yet, for me at least, it is resonant. It seems to encapsulate the essential paradox of faith: that it is the precondition of spiritual understanding, not its goal.

I came to Buddhism as a floundering human being, not as a logician seeking proof of the Buddha’s ‘theories’. Before I knew anything about Buddhism, a seed of faith was already there: I hoped there could be a way out of my spiritual crisis. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic might consider even this as evidence of credulity, but I think it is more reasonable than resignation or despair. Since I did not know if there was a way out of my existential predicament, I was faced with a choice: to accept there was none, or to hope there was and to look for it. If I had chosen the first the discovery of meaning would have been impossible, the second at least offered a chance. Even the strongest reasons will never persuade a skeptic that a spiritual path is worth undertaking.

Paradoxically, in order to develop faith we must already have faith or at least a seed of it. Faith has, however, become an intellectually discredited source of knowledge, dismissed as the refuge of the weak: for insecure people seeking easy certainties. Exposure to religious cults has no doubt intensified suspicion of anyone who proclaims their faith. We have learned to demand reason, science and hard facts. Faith and reason are seen as opposed: the one naive, credulous and unreliable, the other informed, rigorous and trustworthy. Ironically, western culture appears to have an unqualified faith in reason — especially the scientific method.

Buddhism has been popularly acclaimed as “the religion of reason,” even claimed as a philosophy that can be divorced from contaminating religious features. Buddhism, it is sometimes proposed, is entirely rational, as it does not depend on unverifiable beliefs, such as belief in the existence of a creator God. But such a description, while having an element of truth, knocks the stuffing out of Buddhism. Although Buddhism can be expounded rationally, what motivates the individual Buddhist to practice is certainly not reason. Reason could not have compelled me to abandon previously cherished goals and embrace a life of spiritual discipline. Reason articulates, supports and confirms the commitments that I make on quite different grounds. What inspires people to strive towards a spiritual ideal is not reason but an emotional conviction. Faith moves us to act.

 Paradoxically, in order to develop faith we must already have faith or at least a seed of it.  

But what does faith mean in the context of Buddhism? In what does a Buddhist have faith? And how is it generated? “Faith” is an emotive term: for some positively so, for others negatively. But we should not be put off by a word. It has much in common with such words as confidence, trust and conviction that most of us use happily. I find conviction especially resonant since it evokes the robustness, stability and, above all, passionate commitment that is the characteristic of faith.

Traditionally, the primary object of faith for a Buddhist is the Buddha and secondary objects are the Dharma and the Sangha. Collectively these Three Jewels are the principal ideals of Buddhism. The individual Buddhist has faith that the Buddha was Enlightened and that Enlightenment is an ideal realizable not only by himself or herself but also by all humanity. But how is it possible to have confidence in this? The Buddha died a long time ago, there is no means of verifying his attainment and, besides, how can we have confidence in someone’s attainment of a state that seems wholly beyond all we know? Buddhist faith rests upon three grounds: intuition, reason and experience.


Faith is an intuitive conviction that the Buddha was Enlightened, that his teaching is true, and that we can emulate his spiritual achievement. It is not an intellectual conclusion but a passionate assent expressed through devotion, service and discipleship. It is as though, deep down, the potential for Enlightenment within oneself resonates with the testimony of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. At first it is vague, even shaky, but through time it becomes firm, clear and robust. The more one pays attention to this intuitive conviction, in order to understand and then articulate it, the more it flowers into Wisdom.

At the age of 19, I was part-way through a Philosophy degree that — naively — I had hoped would enable me to discover ‘the meaning of life’. After my first year I had a deep realization that intellectual inquiry alone was a futile method for generating beliefs upon which to base my life. Moreover I realized that I did not believe in God and that no-one was going to save me. I was on my own. I could see no way forward until I encountered Buddhism. Somehow, without even knowing what Buddhism taught, I felt a conviction that this was the way out and, as the months and years rolled by, this intuitive faith settled into a steadier, more informed commitment.

 For me, the mystery of faith is not why it is, but that it is.  

Faith often arises seemingly from nowhere, without warning, like a flower blossoming in a wasteland. For me, the mystery of faith is not why it is, but that it is. Based on a fleeting encounter, on a book left lying around, or a chance meeting on a bus, the whole course of a person’s life can be irrevocably changed. This seems almost miraculous.

But is intuition to be trusted? While there can be no proof as to the truthfulness of one’s faith, this does not mean it is unreasonable or unreliable. A characteristic of human life is that much of what we think we know cannot be proved. Logical certainty is a rare thing and has only a small part to play in our lives. Most decisions are based on far less compelling grounds than those which inspired my commitment to the Buddhist path, but this is not to say they are unreasonable.


Reason functions as a means of testing and clarifying our convictions. While it is possible to have correct intuitions, it is also possible to have false ones, so until our intuitive faculty is sufficiently refined, reason remains indispensable. For example, I may have an intuitive conviction that I am on live television, that all my friends are actors and that my world is no more than an elaborate film set. Being a reasonable person I decide to investigate the matter, only to find that the evidence before me points unequivocally to the reality of the world, rather than to its being a fabrication. In such circumstances, it would be unreasonable not to accept that I am, in fact, living in the “real world” (though it remains a logical possibility that I have been systematically misled, as in the film The Truman Show). The fact that it may be possible for a belief to be false does not mean it is unreasonable to hold it. Most of our beliefs would be discarded by such a measure. The reasonableness of a belief is found in relation to the weight of the available evidence, not to logical certainty.

There may be beliefs, however, for which there seems to be no decisive evidence either way. The belief that the Buddha was Enlightened is like this. There is no compelling evidence to recommend it — it is difficult even to know what it means — while, at the same time, there is no convincing evidence against it. The Buddhist scriptures say that the Buddha was Enlightened, but they may simply represent the wishful thinking of pious followers. Undoubtedly the Buddha (at least as presented by the Buddhist scriptures) exerted a profound influence on many people, but this proves nothing about his spiritual attainment: many charlatans have done the same. Hence, testing the belief that the Buddha was Enlightened using reason alone is inconclusive.

Does this matter? In practice I do not think it does. It is questionable whether one needs to hold any such belief to practice effectively as a Buddhist. Enlightenment represents the highest possible development of the human individual. Perhaps the minimum faith needed for Buddhism to become meaningful is trust that one can change for the better, that such change will lead to greater self-fulfillment and that Buddhism offers beliefs and practices that will encourage this to happen.


 The relationship between intuition, reason and experience is not always simple.  

Faith achieves its decisive confirmation through experience. Only when we realize for ourselves the truths that Buddhism propounds can we feel fully confident that faith has been justified. This is a progressive process. Consequent upon our initial faith, we decide to practice according to the Buddha’s teaching. After some time our experience begins to confirm the reliability of that teaching as we experience for ourselves the fruits that it promises. This enables us to place our faith in the Dharma more fully and even to trust in those teachings, for example rebirth, that are not immediately verifiable.

But what if experience does not bear out our intuition or seems to contradict it? Do we then abandon our belief? Buddhism teaches that through ethical practice we become happy, but there are surely many people who are ethical but miserable. We could suggest they are simply not ‘good’ enough, but what if they are the most virtuous people we know, yet still unhappy?

The relationship between intuition, reason and experience is not always simple, and it may be a long time before an intuition is confirmed in experience. This suggests that an essential aspect of faith is patience.

Finally, how does faith arise? A Buddhist teaching known as the 12 progressive links, which provides a positive account of the Buddhist spiritual path, offers some clues. The first element in this path is suffering, and in dependence upon suffering arises the second element, faith. To understand the link between these experiences better, I will introduce a term from Pali Buddhism: samvega or disillusionment. Bhikkhu Thanissaro expounds this term well:

Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.

The final dimension of the experience of samvega is crucial — the urgently felt impulse to escape from the emptiness of ordinary existence. That there is such a way out and that we can respond to it is what leads us towards the experience of faith and saves us from despair. The experience of samvega is not usually seen as a healthy response to the limitations of the world but as an inability to cope, even as mental illness. People may be told not to take life so seriously, to ‘make the best of it’, even given medication to dull their existential sensitivity. In this way a precious opportunity for faith is lost.

Perhaps it is only through a deep experience of samvega that faith becomes a serious possibility. Until we recognize that ordinary life is a problem, the possibility of a solution does not arise. As Wittgenstein remarked: It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.

Intuition, reason and experience function concurrently as means of establishing and then testing faith. Faith is not an optional extra but the indispensable ground on which spiritual practice is based. It is the fuel that drives one forward. Faith is an upward leap of the heart; a joyful celebration of human promise.

Without faith we would never take up a challenge or would lose heart when faced with adversity. The conviction that Buddhism offers a path towards spiritual fulfillment is a mysterious impulse that each Buddhist must cultivate, cherish, test and ultimately realize.

nagapriyaNagapriya is a long-standing member of the Western Buddhist Order who, amongst other things, lectures on Buddhism at the University of Manchester, England. His first book, Exploring Karma and Rebirth (previously reviewed on Wildmind), is widely available. His next book, an overview of Mahayana Buddhism, is due late 2008. Nagapriya has a blog at

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Serge Martich-Osterman
    April 11, 2008 9:14 pm

    An insightful, introspective analysis of the role that ‘faith’ has in our lives. One of my enduring (and ongoing) ‘passions’ is etymology which I understand as the investigation that leads from a name (i.e. word) to ‘that which’ it purports to name. As the author points out ‘confidence’ (f. Latin cum- ‘with’ + fides ‘faith’), trust and conviction are all kindred expressions hinting at a similar underlying ‘content’.
    An intelligent appraisal of the karuna aspect of the karuna-prajna that underlies and supports all ‘spiritual endeavours’.

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