Faith get a bad rap in our modern, secular society. Faith is often associate with rigid beliefs systems, views that are antithetical to science, or perspectives that are based on outdated perspectives of the world and our place in it. Of course, there are many examples of faith that validate this view of faith as a whole, but that understanding of faith itself is limited and partial.
Let's start at the beginning: what is faith?
Faith is admiration of, longing towards, and trust in that which is true.
– Jamgon Mipham
Buddhist philosophy distinguishes three types of faith: admiration, longing, and confidence or trust. Each of these has its orientation on that which is true.
Admiration is faith based on the qualities one perceives and gives rise to devotion. It is easy to look down on this type of faith, but actually we all give rise to admiration and devotion based on what inspires us and seems to be authentic and true. Think of a recent medical discovery, like the promise of psychedelics for the treatment of PTSD. It is easy to be inspired by this idea, that we may have really found something to treat what is often intractable disease, and to really admire the scientists and researchers who are paving the way for this type of treatment. The faith of admiration is based on inspiration and the possibilities we can see for ourselves and the world in which we live.
Longing is faith that is based on yearning or action towards the truth. Longing not only recognizes the qualities of the truth and is inspired by them, but is also accompanied by the sincere wish for that truth to be known for oneself. To continue our metaphor, this would be like a person suffering from PTSD hearing about the psychedelic treatment, and then being motivated to seek it out, or to work towards its progress and development. The faith of longing is based on the recognition that the truth we perceive can be known directly in our own experience.
Confidence or trust is faith that is based on one's own understanding and experience. Trust is always based on either inferential or direct valid cognition. Inferential valid cognition is the result of logic and reasoning, through which we can come to a conceptual understanding and confidence in what we perceive of as true. Direct valid cognition is the result of sensory experience or non-conceptual direct perception in meditation. Confident faith would be like our suffering person undergoing psychedelic treatment and then experiencing its result, which could be positive or negative in this situation.
Confident faith or trust is the most durable type of faith because it is based on one's own understanding and experience. The Buddhist teachings call this type of faith irreversible, compared to the other two types which are reversible or temporary.
In each of these types of faith, truth is the guiding north star. We begin by seeing the north star, progress by orienting towards it and letting it guide us, and finally we gain confidence as we meet our destination. But what is authentic and true?
Exploring the truth
Truth seems elusive these days. Everyone has their own version of the truth and there seems to be little accountability for upholding that which is true. What is the truth and why is it significant?
In the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Buddha describes two types of truth: relative and ultimate. The relative truth is based on dependent origination and cause and effect. We can understand the relative truth of the world by seeing how everything is connected and coming to understand how they exist. The relative truth is within the realm of concepts and ideas, and thus we can understand ourselves and the world around us using logic and reasoning.
The ultimate truth is beyond concepts or description. It is the true nature of phenomena. With regards to our own true nature, we find in the Prajnaparamita Prayer:
Inconceivable, inexpressible perfection of wisdom,
Unborn and unceasing, with a real nature like the sky,
Experienced as the wisdom of our own awareness,
I pay homage to the mother of the Buddhas of the three times.
In our journey to understand our true nature, we start with admiration and longing towards that understanding and experience. We start with faith, and through the effort of our practice, we come to experience that true nature directly.
You can probably appreciate that though we may have an inferential understanding of our true nature, that type of reasoned faith is likely to be insufficient when we consider the nature of our own mind. We might conceptually understand our true nature and the nature of our own mind, but without the direct valid cognition of that experience, we likely won't have confidence or trust in that knowledge.
Tasting and feeling the truth-
not knowing it, but tasting and feeling it, getting a feel for it.
When you get a feel for it you change.
When you know it in your head, you don't.
– Anthony De Mello, Awareness
For many areas of our life, having a reasoned and logic faith is enough. We can use logic and reasoning to remove confusion, doubt, and uncertainty about who we are and the nature of the world around us.
When it comes to our true nature, reasoning and logic can actually increase our admiration and longing. We can rely on the teachings like the four reliances to move us closer to the truth of who we are, they serve to approximate the ultimate truth, but they themselves are not the direct valid cognition of the nature of our mind. The nature of the mind, our true nature, is inconceivable, inexpressible, with a real nature like the sky.
This means that we have to rely on faith until we gain the confidence of direct experience. We have to sit at the edge of our seat and honor our potential, even when we don't recognize it or experience it directly. We need to rely on faith, reason and logic to approach our true nature, but at some point we need to set aside our concepts and walk the path of meditation with faith alone.
It is through our experience that we remove doubt and uncertainty. It is by walking that path that we gain a taste and feel for what is authentic and true. We need to be wayfinders on the path, relying on that north star, and acquiring the skills and tools we need to find our way.
It is on the path of meditation that we develop the taste and feel of our true nature, and when that experience culminates in direct valid cognition, our faith of admiration and longing become one of confidence and trust. Our experience and understanding shift, such that we have confidence in who we are and understand the nature of the world around us. This wisdom is really nothing more than knowing the reality of our own mind and the human experience. It is the wisdom that embraces and transcends all of the particulars of human experience. More than anything, it is a willingness to hold the truth of our suffering without fear.
Having experienced our true nature directly, one has confidence in the path, confidence in its tools and confidence in the result. One knows the various signposts and pitfalls experienced along the way. What one doesn't know is what comes next. And so we take a leap of faith, and begin walking.
I don't know where we are going, but I know exactly how to get there.
– Renias Mhlongo