When we talk about faith in Buddhism, we might think of devotional practices such as bowing to images of the Buddha, offering candles and incense, and perhaps reciting chants. These small rituals can be comforting and play a role in helping to affirm our spiritual practice. A danger arises when people treat devotional practice as something akin to prayer, asking for assistance from beings stronger than ourselves in whom we place our faith to help us. Still, devotional acts can be useful because they uplift our mind and incline us towards wholesome qualities whilst keeping us connected to our spiritual practice.
At the other end of the spectrum there are people who are sceptical of any form of devotion, viewing these as superstitious displays of religious emotion. Instead, they rely upon the power of reason to think their way through the teachings, as if they can somehow ‘logic’ their way to Enlightenment. However, this can lead to a disconnect between theoretical understanding and actual experience. Often, this focus on abstract philosophy creates a dry and somewhat unemotional practice which remains separated from practical application in our daily lives.
Neither of these two approaches—blind faith in a tradition, and logical reasoning—was encouraged by the Buddha. Instead, the Buddha exhorts us to rely on our own personal knowledge gained from experience:
But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should live in accordance with them. (Kesamutti Sutta AN 3.65) https://suttacentral.net/an3.65/en/sujato
The Pali word we translate into English as ‘faith’ is saddhā. Its meaning is not like faith in the Christian sense—a complete reliance on God’s grace based on spiritual conviction—instead, saddhā might better be translated as ‘confidence’ or ‘conviction’. This is because faith in Buddhism is never blind trust; rather, confidence in the path is built up gradually, dependent on knowledge gained from personal experience.
The way we start to develop confidence in the spiritual path is by coming into contact with the Buddha’s teaching, the Dhamma. We hear something that makes sense to us, which we can personally verify and know for ourselves. This sense of truthfulness gives us confidence in the Buddha as a teacher and our faith in his teaching starts to grow. Then we are happy to listen to more teachings, our confidence increases even more, and we trust the Buddha a little further.
The Buddha encouraged us to associate with good, wise people who could teach us the Dhamma. Listening to the Dhamma is the nutriment for the development of faith.
A stock phrase at the end of many suttas shows how people, having heard the Dhamma, come out of ignorance:
…Magnificent, Master Gotama! Master Gotama has made the Dhamma clear in many ways, as though he were turning upright what had been overthrown, revealing what was hidden, showing the way to one who was lost, or holding up a lamp in the darkness for those with eyesight to see forms. I go to Master Gotama for refuge and to the Dhamma and to the Sangha of bhikkhus. From today let Master Gotama accept me as lay follower who has gone to him for refuge for life. (The Shorter Elephant’s Footprint Simile MN27) https://suttacentral.net/mn27/en/sujato
In Buddhism, going for refuge to the Triple Gem is a mark of our conviction and becomes the basis for our development on the spiritual path.
Further Reading on Saddhā
Ignorance (Avijjā Sutta AN 10.61) https://suttacentral.net/an10.61/en/bodhi
Describes the dependent nature of the path and what things we can do to develop in the Dhamma.
…Faith, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for faith? It should be said: hearing the good Dhamma. Hearing the good Dhamma, too, I say, has a nutriment; it is not without nutriment. And what is the nutriment for hearing the good Dhamma? It should be said: associating with good persons.
Thus associating with good persons, becoming full, fills up hearing the good Dhamma. Hearing the good Dhamma, becoming full, fills up faith. Faith, becoming full, fills up careful attention. Careful attention, becoming full, fills up mindfulness and clear comprehension. Mindfulness and clear comprehension, becoming full, fill up restraint of the sense faculties. Restraint of the sense faculties, becoming full, fills up the three kinds of good conduct. The three kinds of good conduct, becoming full, fill up the four establishments of mindfulness. The four establishments of mindfulness, becoming full, fill up the seven factors of enlightenment. The seven factors of enlightenment, becoming full, fill up true knowledge and liberation. Thus there is nutriment for true knowledge and liberation, and in this way they become full.
Just as, when it is raining and the rain pours down in thick droplets on a mountaintop, the water flows down along the slope and fills the clefts, gullies, and creeks; these, becoming full, fill up the pools; these, becoming full, fill up the lakes; these, becoming full, fill up the streams; these, becoming full, fill up the rivers; and these, becoming full, fill up the great ocean; thus there is nutriment for the great ocean, and in this way it becomes full. So too, associating with good persons, becoming full, fills up hearing the good Dhamma…. The seven factors of enlightenment, becoming full, fill up true knowledge and liberation. Thus there is nutriment for true knowledge and liberation, and in this way they become full.
Treasures: Vitthatadhana Sutta AN 7.6 https://suttacentral.net/an7.6
Discusses the treasures of faith, energy, conscience, prudence, learning, generosity, and wisdom.
And what is the treasure of conviction? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones has conviction, is convinced of the Tathagata’s Awakening: ‘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.’ This is called the treasure of conviction.
The Shorter Elephant’s Footprint Simile: Cūḷahatthipadopama Sutta MN 27 https://suttacentral.net/mn27/en/sujato
Describes the gradual arising of conviction in the Buddha through the simile of tracking a bull elephant in the forest; real conviction isn’t based on faith but on actual knowledge.
With The Kalamas: Kesamutti Sutta AN 3.65 https://suttacentral.net/an3.65/en/sujato
A famous sutta about how to navigate spiritual beliefs with confidence.
Come, Kālāmas, do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think: ‘The ascetic is our guru.’ But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should live in accordance with them.