Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Harold Stewart

What is Faith?

Faith has been repeatedly mentioned in these pages, and the reader may well ask what meaning this word has for Buddhism in general and for the Pure Land sects in particular. Faith is the conditio sine qua non not only for the spiritual quest but for accomplishment in any field of endeavour. It is our fundamental confidence in living, that reliance on the ultimate worth and meaning of existence, despite temporary setbacks, which is innate in all of us and without which we should have fallen into despair and committed suicide long since. As the rationalist Samuel Butler had to admit a century ago, 'There can be no doubt about faith and not reason being the ultima ratio', or final argument.

Faith also means that initial willingness, needed before any task can be undertaken, to give the method proposed a fair trial. While this assent should not involve blind unquestioning belief, it does require at least 'a willing suspension of disbelief' or belief in some other doctrine and method. A certain minimal trust should be maintained that the method will work and that the doctrine on which it is based is not simply false. For lacking these prerequisites, no one would be moved to begin any work, nor could he develop the staying power necessary to carry it through to completion. No method is likely to succeed if confidence in it is not felt or if one refuses to abide by its conditions. The athlete would not undertake his regimen of exercise and diet if he did not trust the training to lead him to the health and prowess in the chosen sport that he seeks. Since the choice of the English word 'faith' to translate the Mahayana Buddhist ideas expressed by the Sanskrit shraddha and the Japanese shinjin might result in false assimilation to faith as understood in Christianity as involving a belief in dogmas and obedience to an institution, it may be as well to forestall misunderstanding by some enquiry into the origins of these two words.

Shraddha derives from the Sanskrit shrat added to the verbal root dha, the t of the first assimilating to the d of the second in the compound. Shrat is related to the Greek kardia and the Latin cor and likewise means heart but it is also cognate with sat, from which comes satya, being or truth. The verbal root dha means to put, place, or set, so that the compound word shraddha signifies to put one's whole heart or being into something. In the Mahayana generally, shraddha has the connotations of tranquillity, light, and purification of all evil passions and defilements as a result of practising the Dharma. This leads to the Awakening of the Bodhicitta, which Ashvaghosa also called the 'Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana'. It implies an alertly passive non-interference, a serene opening up of the depths of one's being to the Buddha's influence. As such pure mindfulness, shraddha is the precursor of transcendent Knowledge (jnana) and Insight (prajna) into Reality.

Shin is the Japanese translation of shraddha, but in the Pure Land scriptures it is more often rendered shinjin, the Heart of Faith. Resolved into its component ideograms, this two-character Chinese compound reveals some enlightening information. The first character, shin, was originally a pictogram of a standing man on the left, and verbal vibrations issuing from a mouth on the right. The second character, also shin, but pronounced jin in the compound, was a pictogram of the human heart. The two characters together happily correspond to the English idiom: 'A man standing wholeheartedly by his word' showing that shinjin means the steadfast heart of good faith. Now it must be conceded that ifaithi is far from being a satisfactory English equivalent for the ideas expressed and implied by shraddha and shinjin. But admitting its inadequacy, 'faith' has been chosen faute de mieux, because the roughly synonymous words that English has to offer seem even less felicitous in their connotations. 'Confidence' might suggest a confidence trick; 'trust' reminds one of a bank or credit company; 'credence' has overtones of church furnishings; 'fidelity' is associated with the marital state and canine pets; and the etymology of 'reliance', like that of 'religion', implies a binding to, rather than a loosening from, rules and restrictions. But such alternatives have occasionally been used, suitably qualified in context.

As for 'belief', it is surrounded by such a strong verbal aura of mental and emotional attachment to tenet and institution that it is hardly fit to express serene detachment. So it is important to differentiate between faith and belief, as well as to determine their opposition to doubt. Belief is 'what one would lie', that is, would rather choose by personal preference or, in psychological jargon, 'wishful thinking'; whereas 'faith', from the Latin fides, still retains a trace of its original meaning of 'trust'. Periods of belief tend to alternate with relapses into doubt; for just as belief conduces to a static absolutism, so doubt misleads into the aberration of nihilism. Neither of these extremes, whose falsity was exposed by the Buddha, keeps to the Middle Way that transcends all such opposites.

To the chronic incredulity of a mind suffering from the 'agnostic syndrome', faith is equated with blind belief in exploded myths for which there is no scientific evidence and is reduced to an irrational acceptance of the verbal formulas of some religious organization and unquestioning obedience to its commandments for purposes of political manipulation. The scoffer identifies religion as a whole with its human corruption into hypocritical piety, overzealous bigotry, and fanatical intolerance of all divergent views; forgetting that abusus non tollit usum. In the closed mind of the sceptic, faith is confused with belief, such as his own doctrinaire and emotionally charged commitment to the groundless opinion that human reason alone is capable of comprehending and explaining everything in the universe (anything that it cannot grasp being conveniently ignored). Tennyson held that 'There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds'; and doubt can be used positively, as in Theravada and Zen, to clear away accumulated karma and dissolve egoistic adhesions. But doubt cannot confer Enlightenment. One of the grave disadvantages of doubt is that is can harden the heart, hindering a free flow of Compassion; another, that it may imprison the mind within the false Void of absence and annihilation.

In his Yoga Sutras Patanjali enumerated the last three negative states of consciousness to fall away before Kaivalya, or Liberation, in this order: fear, sorrow, and doubt. Just before his final break-through, the Zen disciple arrives at the Great Doubt, the Doubt of doubts, when he must give up even his doubting. Having exhausted all self-effort, mental and physical, he must simply leave his attainment of satori to Tao or place his trust wholly in the Other Power. And this amounts to Pure Faith, the prerequisite for Enlightenment.

But professional incredulity, scepticism as a way of life, is disfavoured by all the scriptures, Buddhist and others alike, because such doubt inhibits the development of the positive spiritual qualities and virtues. What is censured is an ingrained and ungenerous mistrust that disbelieves in everything on principle - except its own cleverness in not being credulous. And yet your hard-headed materialist can become as gullible as the most naive believer when it comes to accepting as unquestionable truth the latest tentative hypothesis, for 'he places his faith only in Science, which has faith in nothing, not even in itself'.

As the opposite of doubt is not faith but belief, we should not believe in Amida, but have faith in him. Individual belief, which involves attachment to self, would result in Rebirth into the Borderland of the Western Paradise, not into the True Pure Land. It is not that the Shinshu faithful will be accepted into Sukhavati and those lacking in faith excluded, as some critics have falsely asserted. It is Amida's divine will to save all beings, irrespective of our faith or lack of it. Indeed it was precisely for the benefit of those lacking in faith that Amida made and fulfilled his Forty-eight Vows and gave us his Name as the channel through which his own Faith, not ours, could be transferred to faithful and faithless alike. So in these commentaries Faith has been capitalized to indicate that of Amida and distinguish it from the faith of the devotee. The three positive qualities of Faith are that it is pure-hearted, single-minded, and continuous; while its three negative qualities are that it involves no contrivance of the individual ego, feels no desire for the fruits of actions, and is moved by no ulterior motive of gain.

The Pure Land sages realized that Faith of such qualities could no longer be achieved by one's own unaided efforts but only received from Amida through his Name. Faith in the Pure Land sense, then, is a serene trust in the sole method of invocation of Amida Nyorai's Name, a tranquil confidence in the efficacy of his Vows, a sincere self-abandonment to his Compassion and complete reliance on his Wisdom, with contented patience in awaiting his free gift of Faith. The essential difference between Christian faith and that of Pure Land Buddhism is that in Christianity the devotee must have faith in Christ, whereas in Pure Land Buddhism, Amida must have Faith in the devotee.

What most Western books about Buddhism fail to mention is that none of the spiritual and psycho-physical practices of the Hinayana, Mahayana, or Vajrayana is going to prove effective if the indispensable prerequisite of Faith is wanting. If the postulant does not take refuge whole-heartedly and without reservations in the Buddha, his Doctrine and Method, and his Order of sages and scholarly teachers, his efforts are likely to be unavailing. He may abide by all the moral precepts and monastic regulations, recite the sutras and perform the rituals, practice zazen, repeat the Nembutsu, but if Faith is lacking, no Deliverance or Enlightenment will result.

But lacking faith or having lost it, how in this Faithless Age does the earnest seeker go about finding a faith he never owned or regaining one that he has failed to keep ? Clearly Faith cannot be acquired for oneself by any effort of the individual will, for the purpose of the various Buddhist methods is to remove precisely that egoistic obstacle to the reception of Faith. The awakening of shraddha or shinjin can no more be self-induced than artistic inspiration can, but must likewise be awaited with a peacefully open heart and mind and accepted gratefully as a gift from above. Amida is ever prepared to bestow Faith unconditionally on all, yet for most of us the accumulated consequences of our past stand in the way. Diminishingly few in each generation are those who feel any vocation for the monastic life or possess the virtue and stamina needed to obey more than a fraction of the disciplinary rules in their original rigour.

During the past century in particular, loss of faith has become the rule rather than the exception, until now almost no one is spiritually and morally qualified and equipped to gain or regain Faith by his own efforts or even feels any desire or need to do so. Only the Name can now remove such a heavy karmic burden, because other methods have become too difficult to practice for those living in this Last Age of the Dharma. Whereas our Western temperament is too restless to wait patiently until spiritual gifts arrive of their own accord but always impetuously wants to take Heaven by storm, the traditional impassivity of the East realized many centuries ago that there is nothing whatsoever the individual will can do that will not interfere with the spontaneous working of the Will of Heaven. For no matter how pure my intentions, everything that I can think, say, or do is inevitably tainted with egoism.

How then is the aspirant to open up the depths of his being to admit the Faith that Amida's Will is always ready to transfer? The Heart should be allowed to unfold as naturally as the lotus-bud to the sun's ray, by avoiding any thought, word, or deed that might hinder or inhibit Amida's gift; but also by refraining from any attempt to help or hasten it by individual effort. As Honen Shonin recommended, one should simply call the Name without self-conscious troubling about whether the invocation is mindful or mindless, and when the time is ripe and the Heart of the devotee is prepared, Faith will be received.

Since the Call of Amida alone imparts Faith, the unprompted arising of his Name in the Heart and immediate issuing of the Nembutsu from the lips of the devotee in itself constitutes effective initiation without the need for mediation by priest or ritual. So the Shin sect requires no formal rite for the reception of the Name, nor does it recognize any initiatory degrees or the transmission of the Nembutsu from or through a master. But on closer investigation, Shinshu proves to be no real exception to the traditional norm; for the transmission of the teachings through the Seven Pure Land Masters and such later sages as Shinran forms a genuine lineage; and a Good Friend in the Dharma, usually a Shin priest, is necessary to give the candidate instruction in the orthodox doctrine as well as to offer advice on his problems and progress in reciting the Nembutsu. Shinshu also offers a formal ceremony of adherence to the sect, in which the Abbot of either of the two Hongan-jis lightly passes a razor three times over the head of the candidate.

This ritual, held in almost total darkness in the Founder's Hall, is a mimetic gesture of actually taking the Buddhist tonsure, just as the climactic throwing of the hall doors open to admit a flood of light is symbolical of sudden Enlightenment. On the same occasion the neophyte receives his name-in-religion, which always begins with Shaku, to indicate that henceforth he is numbered among the family of Shakyamuni. But in the Shin sect it is clearly understood that this rite of adherence only marks the candidate's reception as a member of the religious institution founded and ruled by the Otani family as descendants of Shinran Shonin. It does not and cannot confer Faith, though by its impressiveness it may help to confirm it in the heart of the adherent. Such solemnities in no way constitute individual or institutional channels for the transmission of Faith, because that can only come direct from Amida Buddha himself through his Name.

This lack of intermediaries is to obviate the least trace of duality for, as we have seen, Amida needs no help. The tranquillising atmosphere of those havens of silence and solitude, the Buddhist temples, with their precious ambience of gardens, architecture, art works, liturgy, and scholarship, may greatly help in the opening up of the Heart, so difficult in the grossly secular modern world outside their walls. But though life inside a Jodo or Shin religious community may prove a salutary aid, it is not indispensable, for Amida's gift of Faith is not mediated through any human agency, individual or collective. Like the external forms and institutions of all the great Traditions in this Final Age of religion, those of Buddhism are in an advanced stage of fossilization and decay from sheer old age. Fortunately such corruption cannot prevent the transference of Amida's Faith, against which no evil can prevail.

Reflections on the Dharma - Harold Stewart

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