One of the reasons for the popularity of Buddhism in the modern West, especially among the highly educated, is that it seems so pragmatic and rational. Unlike some of the other religions in the current spiritual marketplace, Buddhism appears to discourage blind faith and instead emphasizes an appealing reasonability. Buddhism can be seen to be cool and hip because it seems to conform so nicely to a modern, skeptical, and urbane worldview.
Some have seized on this portrait of Buddhism to argue that it is not really a religion at all. It is, according to some, more of a philosophy, therapy, or "science of the mind." And for many of us who are disillusioned with what we disdainfully refer to as "organized religion" (as opposed to "disorganized religion"?) but are still drawn to a spiritual life that won't insult our intelligence, it's just fine that Buddhism might not be a religion. For some of its contemporary adherents, the more secularized and rational the Buddhism, the better.
Whether or not we regard Buddhism as a religion, it's not hard to find textual confirmation of this portrait of a rational Buddhism. The Buddha himself advised his followers to scrutinize the authenticity of his teachings like one would examine gold: "As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on a touchstone), so are you to accept my words only after examining them and not merely because you revere me." With the recent rise of fundamentalism, where religious discourse tends to be authoritarian, doctrinaire, and closed-minded, it is reassuring to hear a spiritual teacher encouraging us to think for ourselves.
In another widely quoted passage from the Pali text known as the Kalama Sutra, the Buddha insists that we must abjure outside sources of authority and "figure things out for ourselves":
"Do not believe in something because of what others say, or because it has been handed down by tradition (parampara), or because it is the received opinion. Do not believe in something just because it is cited in the scriptures, or because it seems to be logical, philosophical, commonsensical, or in accordance with your preconceptions. And do not believe in things just because they are said by trustworthy people or by your guru. Only when you've figured things out for yourself - 'this is immoral and blameworthy, disapproved of by the wise and conducive to ruin and suffering' - should you reject them. And only when you've figured things out for yourself - 'this is moral and praiseworthy, recommended by the wise and conducive to well-being and happiness' - should you act accordingly."
Indeed, according to some sources, the last words the Buddha imparted to his disciples were to "Be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourself. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves."
Such quotations jibe nicely with our modern sensibility and its stress on the individual, its egalitarianism and suspicion of authority, and its abhorrence of what we regard as the irrationality and superstitions of the past (and of the fundamentalisms of the present).
But choosing to represent Buddhism in only this way obscures another facet of the tradition. Faith (the Sanskrit is shraddha, for which see below) is also a prominent and necessary component of Buddhism, just as it is for every religion. We cannot easily shunt this element aside in the effort to make Buddhism more palatable to us secularized Westerners. Faith is at least as important to the Buddhist path as is rationality. And, what's more, faith and reason are not the polar opposites many of us seem to believe they are.
Perhaps we can start by rehabilitating the true meaning of "faith." The word does not automatically come with the adjective "blind" prefixed to it. Faith is not antithetical to reason. Indeed, as Gandhi noted, without reason faith cannot survive: "Faith must be enforced by reason. When faith becomes blind it dies."
Another word for faith is "conviction," believing something is true because one has really worked it out. One arrives at faith or conviction through exercising, not repudiating, one's rationality. And this conviction then can serve to see you through the hard times. "Faith," wrote C. S. Lewis, "is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods."
Faith is not the opposite of reason; it is the opposite of what we might call "lazy doubt," the unwillingness to wrestle intellectually and emotionally with the thorny questions of life. This kind of doubt is regarded in Buddhism as one of the major mental afflictions (it made the "top six" list), for it underlies and enables inertia and thus bankrupts our hopes for self-improvement. "Thoughtless doubt" has been described by the first Dalai Lama, Gendun Drup, in the following verse:
It wanders through the sky pitch-black night,
Attacking our hopes for high spiritual goals,
A viper that threatens the life of our freedom;
Oh protect me I beg, from the terror
Of the demon of thoughtless doubt.
This kind of doubt is thus one of the biggest obstacles to spiritual progress. But it is unfortunately sort of chic in some corners of contemporary society. Being without convictions of any sort is sometimes seen as a mark of sophistication. Sogyal Rinpoche writes,
"If we were to put our minds to one powerful wisdom method and work with it directly, there is a real possibility we would become enlightened. Our minds, however, are riddled with confusion and doubt. I sometimes think that doubt is an even greater block to human evolution than is desire or attachment. Our society promotes cleverness instead of wisdom, and celebrates the most superficial, harsh, and least useful aspects of our intelligence. We have become so falsely 'sophisticated' and neurotic that we take doubt itself for truth, and the doubt that is nothing more than ego's desperate attempt to defend itself from wisdom is deified as the goal and fruit of true knowledge. This form of mean-spirited doubt is the shabby emperor of samsara, served by a flock of 'experts' who teach us not the open-souled and generous doubt that Buddha assured us was necessary for testing and proving the worth of the teachings, but a destructive form of doubt that leaves us nothing to believe in, nothing to hope for, and nothing to live by."
This kind of fashionable but dangerous lazy doubt paralyzes and depresses. In contrast, faith is the precondition of a vital spiritual life aimed at true happiness. In the Buddhist as well as the yoga texts, faith is listed as the first of the "five powers" (panca bala) that comprise a spiritual life. The power of faith (shraddha) counteracts the inaction that accompanies doubt and thus enables joyful effort (virya). Effort overcomes laziness and leads to mindfulness that in turn empowers the concentration (samadhi) necessary for the cultivation of wisdom (prajna).
Faith is thus the precondition for wisdom, as Arya Nagarjuna also notes in his "Precious Garland": "Because of the faith one has in it, one relies on a spiritual practice. And because of the wisdom one acquires through that practice, one really knows what's what. Of these two, wisdom is the main thing and faith is its prerequisite." Without faith to inspire us, we never exert any effort and therefore never learn "what's what." Immobilized by doubt, we remain inert and ignorant. It is faith that leads us to begin rational inquiry into the purpose of life, the causes of happiness and unhappiness, and the true methods for achieving our goals.
Placing faith in our teachers, in what they teach us, and in our ability to learn and progress provides the motivation to work for change. Too often the paralysis of doubt prevents us from even beginning - from finding a teacher and initiating the process of learning what they have to teach us. As Reginald Ray notes in regard to a typical reluctance to commit to a teacher, our doubt holds us back from taking the leap we must take if we are to move ahead:
"At a certain point, the disciple begins to realize that he or she could continue to hold on to reservation and suspicions, and could always wait until tomorrow to require further experiences and further proof of the teacher's authenticity and reliability. But then the question arises, how much information is enough? At what point will one be convinced? And then one realizes that no matter how much information is acquired, there is always the uncertain future that stretches out in front forever. The disciple realizes that, at some point, to go further he or she will have to make a leap.
One begins to realize at this point that what is at stake here is not mistrust of the teacher but fundamental paranoia and unwillingness to trust anything. One always wants to hold on to some shred of solid ground, some filament of self-reference, to make sure that one is all right. But the disciple sees now that that basic mistrust itself is the problem; it is preventing him or her from going deeper. It is necessary to abandon oneself to the good graces of the teacher. At that point, one needs to leap."
Such a necessary "leap of faith" to overcome doubt and mistrust does not, however, entail abandoning all reasoning and questioning. While overcoming one kind of doubt is necessary to even begin a spiritual life, the cultivation of another kind of doubt is the condition of possibility for detaching from the complacency that thwarts and stifles our ability to work hard for our spiritual goals.
As Oscar Wilde has declared, "Skepticism is the beginning of faith." For without a skeptical attitude toward the truisms and mere appearances of the unexamined life, we can never grow into the mature conviction and wisdom that are born of hard intellectual and spiritual labor. Or as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says (with his typical flair for the controversial), a worthy recipient of spiritual teaching must first be a total cynic:
"At this point, we are talking purely about the beginner's level and the preparations that might be needed in order for spiritual transmission to occur in the very early stages. It is necessary for us to sharpen our cynicism, to sharpen our whole critical attitude towards what we are doing. That cynicism provides a basis for our study and work."
While faith is the antidote to one kind of doubt, another kind of doubt is thus the necessary correlate to faith itself. Freedom from suffering and the attainment of true happiness cannot come from passive acceptance of the status quo. Mark Twain was right when he noted, "Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul." It is doubt that impels us to start questioning what we have hitherto blindly accepted, and it is that questioning and rational inquiry that leads to conviction -- a reasoned faith that frees us from ignorance and complacency.
In an article entitled "The Distance Between Faith and Doubt,"Zen priest Sensei Sevan Ross argues that without "Great Doubt" there can be no "Great Faith":
"Doubt is what unseats the ego as we have come to know it. Doubt is the questioning that, if it grows enough and we have determination, can come to encompass everything. Life becomes questioning, period...
Often someone can be convinced that they have Great Faith, but lack this kind of Doubt. When asked about this, I am thrown all the way back to memories of my Catholic childhood. Some of us had what we thought of as Great Faith. We accepted our inadequacy in God's eyes and put our faith in His mercy. Or so it seemed. But you see, we had no Doubt. Not the Doubt of Zen, the Doubt of intense questioning. We started out with no questions at all. We took it all literally.
So, we never really had Great Faith. We couldn't have, because Great Faith and Great Doubt are two ends of a spiritual walking stick. We grip one end with the grasp given to us by our Great Determination. We poke into the underbrush in the dark on our spiritual journey. This act is real spiritual practice - gripping the Faith end and poking ahead with the Doubt end of the stick. If we have no Faith, we have no Doubt. If we have no Determination, we never pick up the stick in the first place."
"Good doubt" (as opposed to the "lazy doubt" described above) is, therefore, not at odds with faith but rather is its requirement and complement. Without faith or conviction reason is stunted, marooned in indeterminacy and shallow pessimism.
So by all means be critical and rational as part of your spiritual path. Embrace doubt and even cynicism. Never accept things blindly. Buddhism does indeed call us to be skeptics and rationalists.
But begin by targeting the very doubt that keeps us in our suffering state. Sogyal Rinpoche challenges us "to deflate the claims of doubt itself":
"To do as one Hindu master said: 'Turn the dogs of doubt on doubt itself, to unmask cynicism, and to uncover what fear, despair, hopelessness, and tired conditioning it springs from.' Then doubt would no longer be an obstacle, but a door to realization, and whenever doubt appeared in the mind, a seeker would welcome it as a means of going deeper into the truth."
Don't be taken in by the "cool" kind of modern cynicism, which is really just indolence, confusion and resignation posing as worldliness, wit and intelligence. Avoid despair. Learn to be happy and live a fulfilling life. And realize that it is faith - springing from "good doubt" and grounded in reasoned conviction - that can set you free.
With all good wishes,