Faith: A Meditation and a Homily

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by Sāmanera Bodhesako


“I teach but two things, monks:
suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering.”


1. A Meditation

At Citta Samyutta 8 (v,298) the householder Citta (who is anagamin) asks which is better, faith or knowledge. Nigantha Nataputta (i.e., the Jain leader, “Mahavira”) replies, as might we all, that knowledge is to be preferred. Indeed. But what are we to do when we do not know? Whether the subject is roses or the nature of personal existence, if we don’t know for ourselves then we find, in our ignorance, the substitute of belief.

Faith, then, is one thing at least that we all know about. Or do we? If we don’t know about faith then we can only have beliefs about it. And if knowledge is better than faith, then faith in faith may not be a very hopeful position from which to begin. Nevertheless, we must begin from where we are, for from where else can we begin? So we explore, and learn what we do know about faith and what is a matter merely of belief. At worst, we can come to know how much we don’t know, which is better than not knowing even that.

* * * * *

It is sometimes believed that having faith is a matter of choice — not only that we can believe or not believe, as we prefer, but that disbelief is of a different order than belief. One who has faith in this view does not see that disbelief is of the same quality as belief. For example, the atheist no less than the theist is bound up with the assertion of the existence of God; for how can he deny what has not been asserted? His faith may be placed here rather than there, but it is nonetheless placed: for faith always demands an object, whether specific (e.g., faith in the efficacy of vitamin C to cure the common cold) or general (e.g., faith in the sanctity of all life; faith that there is an entity, “humanity”, of which we are meaningfully a part). A faith that is not a faith in something — an abstract faith — is as impossible as breathing without air.

If we can see this fairly simple conjugation we will see too that the next step is to opt for the (seemingly) more sophisticated position of the agnostic. Herein we will believe that while denial of belief may well be of the same nature as assertion of belief, yet denial (or doubting) of both belief and disbelief is (somehow) of a different nature. Whatever may be the object of the agnostic’s position, his involvement with the assertion of that object will underlie his ability to doubt both its assertion and its denial. While maintaining this (precarious) stance he will not yet have seen that he is still bound up with belief and has not yet gone beyond. For if he does not put faith in his agnosticism, then he puts disbelief in it; and if neither, then he is doubtful about agnosticism. But in any case, he only succeeds in becoming more deeply enmeshed in an ever-expanding hierarchy of faith. As with mirrors reflecting one another, one cannot get beyond the reflections by trying to go deeper.

Now, if we are intelligent we will perceive that for as long as there is any concern whatsoever with faith, in any of its varieties and on howsoever sophisticated a level, we are not free from faith. Therein faith is not a matter of choice. And so perceiving we will also perceive that as long as concern, or care, exists as the foundation wherein faith gets its footing, we will never be able to transcend the level of faith. As long as there is care, faith will be able to arise. The way to go beyond belief, then, would seem to be not through non-belief but through non-care.

It will be seen, at this point, that care, like faith, demands an object. There is no abstract care, only care for this or that. We care for Beethoven, for our family, for a fresh tomato salad. We care about the next election, about nuclear disarmament, about our rosebushes, which are being destroyed by aphids. So to achieve non-care (and hence to transcend the level of faith) it might be supposed that each of these various cares will have to be transcended. But wait; a problem exists: for it will soon become apparent that however assiduously we may abandon specific cares there still remains … care.

Reflexion reveals that when care fails in, or is prevented from, seizing upon its object it will then cast about, like an unmoored ship seeking an anchorage. And that very casting about will then become care’s object — a casting about that is bound up with the belief that it is necessary. Indeed, until care does seize upon a new object, casting about will seem (to care) to be necessary, for care has not yet seen an alternative to it. And to this extent faith can be said to be well-founded even though it is poorly-founded, inasmuch as it does not succeed in anchoring care to a position that is (what is continuously sought) stable, immutable and secure. Care cares about that very instability — and hence there is anxiety. And the stench of anxiety both reveals care and impels it.

What are we to do? We accept one or another of the numerous answers hawked by the world. This is the believer’s position. Or we reject one or another of these answers. This is the disbeliever’s position. Or else we are confused and in doubt. This is the agnostic position. But whatever position we take, we take it in chains. For although anxiety flees from instability it never escapes. Anxiety is the casting about of care, and therefore anxiety has the nature of flight. And in fleeing, anxiety only succeeds in constantly encountering itself.

And what happens when care finds (as it will, sooner or later) its temporary mooring and seizes upon some object in the world to care about? Then faith, with avidity, will take up or hold to or fasten upon the object as its salvation. If roses are one’s pleasure, then roses are not merely seen and smelled and touched. More significantly, they are conceived, for when faith is present a rose is not just a rose. It is also, precisely, one’s pleasure. And this concept adds to the rose and overlays it so that in looking then upon a rose blossom one sees primarily the overlay or the significance of the rose, without which the rose would be merely … a rose. And therefore when faith is placed in roses (as being one’s pleasure) the rose becomes more than a rose, i.e., not a rose. And what is then seen is not roses but faith (in one’s pleasure) — a sight that pleases. And while the rose itself is manifestly impermanent, its significance — i.e., faith — is not so; for what is signified is not roses but one’s pleasure, and one’s pleasure is one’s own concept, one’s anchorage. Herein faith is founded, and herein it founders.

Why so? Because although the impermanence of roses can be seen with perfect clarity[1] what is not at all clear (until it is too late) is that the permanence that is conceived to inhere in the significance of the roses (“it is conceived of by me, and my concepts will last as long as I do, i.e., forever”) is in fact dependent upon … roses. The relationship of roses to their significance is hidden because the roses themselves are hidden behind their significance. The roses themselves can be seen only by setting aside their significance, i.e., by disassociating the roses from faith (in one’s pleasure). Thus, when the roses are seen, the relationship between the roses and their significance is not seen because the significance has been set aside and the relationship, at that time, does not exist. And when the significance is re-instated the relationship is still not seen because a relationship requires more than one, and when the relationship is present the roses are hidden.

There is, then, a self-concealing aspect to faith. Wherever faith is placed the dependence of that very faith upon its object is hidden, by faith itself. This is blind faith. (In Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, one character is spoken of as not knowing that he has flies in his eyes, for his having them is the reason he can’t see them. How can he see he’s got flies in his eyes if he’s got flies in his eyes?)

Faith, then, blindly believes itself to be permanent. It does not merely refuse to see that it is predicated upon the impermanent; it is, by itself, entirely unable to do so. In order for it to come to see its own nature, the flies in its eyes, it needs an outside indication — a point to which we will return.

Since faith believes itself to be permanent, faith already has faith in itself to that degree. Its supposed permanence lends it (at usurious rates) an attractiveness that encourages it to believe that there is nowhere to be found an object more worthy of faith than itself. It can be observed, however, that faith does not — cannot — believe in itself directly: it cannot be its own object. Rather, on reflexive examination there will be seen to be different levels of faith — remember those mirrors endlessly reflecting one another — and it is the faith that exists on a more general level of this hierarchy that invests itself in belief in faith of a more immediate level.[2] The more immediate level, however, is the shorter-term level (though more to the foreground); while the more general level (though to the background) is the longer-term. So if the immediate level of faith is, due to its supposed permanency, worthy of faith, what is to be said of the more general and longer-term levels of faith? And thus a hierarchy of faith arises, the more general the level of faith the higher its level of (ascribed) permanency, extending howsoever far we care to seek for it. By believing in itself faith perpetuates itself, and thereby actually does make itself eternal … until the bloom is off the rose. Then faith is disillusioned with roses, though not with itself, and will seek — with care — a new anchorage more worthy of its own estimation of itself.

Faith, then, believes in itself, and therein it achieves a circularity which has a degree of stability greater than faith itself. So too, care cares about itself, and achieves an identical stability. And beyond this we can see not only that (as already described) care is the condition for or foundation of faith but also that faith is the condition for or foundation of care. Faith cares about itself in the same mode that care believes in itself. For if we care about, e.g., the rosebushes that are infested with aphids, it is not only because we believe that the bushes may therefore fail to flower but, more fundamentally, because we believe that our world, our being, will be improved by those hoped-for flowers. (Imagine the chagrin and disconcertion that would result if, after spending much time and money freeing the bushes of aphids and watching them first bud and finally bloom, we discovered that rose blossoms made us nauseous and dizzy. The chagrin — more than mere surprise — would be the result of the undermining of established faith and the consequent displacement of care; and it would be a concealment of the displacement’s underlying anxiety. For although anxiety can never escape from care it can hide behind emotion, tension and other devices of its own manufacture.) Without belief in the efficacy of an object for bettering one’s life, care will not establish itself therein. And thus we have the circularity or inter-dependence of faith and care. Each sustains and supports the other. And this level of stability is higher than the circular self-dependence of each taken separately. No wonder it seems so impossible to relinquish faith!

* * * * *

We return, then, to our question: what are we to do? Faith is now seen to be not a matter of choice. Care is, likewise, not a matter of choice. What options do we have? We can only accept our modicum of faith for better or worse — for we see no alternative to accepting it — and proceed from there, i.e., from where we are. If for worse, we will declare ourselves to be but hapless victims of forces beyond our comprehension or control and, making the best of a bad job, seek what pleasures or anaesthetics we can in sensuality and distraction. This can be called bad faith. If, on the other hand, for better, we will recognize that we are no longer involved in a mere inquiry, a clarification of a few dubious points before we proceed to more important matters. No, we are now involved in a dilemma. And no mere philosopher’s conundrum either, but a dilemma that is both personal and pressing; for anxiety is the fundamental level of dissatisfaction. But for as long as care believes in its own necessity no escape from that fundament of dissatisfaction can be known. All belief in an escape from anxiety will be belief that is bound up with care and which is therefore false.[3] And so we choose to honestly and authentically face this impasse and examine (as best we can) its nature.

* * * * *

To do so, i.e., to maintain good faith with ourselves, we will find it necessary to cultivate the quality of reflexion. Herein there is, at the same time, observation of immediate experience and observation of the nature of immediate experience (as being, for example, with condition, not without condition). And in examining our faith it can be observed that howsoever good it may be, it is in its nature of a different quality than its object — so much so that were we to call its object positive we should have to say that faith is, in essence, negative.

Just as in breathing air we would call air positive as regards presence — it is there — so too we would call the breathing negative, inasmuch as it is not a presence but a filling in, a taking up of what is present. Its essence rests in its being an absence, i.e., in what it is not. (The value of a bottle of wine rests with the wine, not the bottle; the value of the bottle rests not in what it is but in what it contains.) Further, air is positive not only in its presence but also in its nature or qualities. It can be windy or calm, warm or cool, humid or dry, and each of these qualities, or percepts, is positive inasmuch as it too is there. The breathing, however, is in its nature not an absence that is mere nothingness but an absence that partakes of search, and search is negative inasmuch as it is a display of a lack. We need to stop breathing for only a very short time for this seeking quality to become vividly evident. Finally, while air is quite independent of the breathing and will persist even when it is not being inhaled or exhaled, the breathing is totally dependent upon air and will not persist unless there is air to be breathed. Thus the breathing gets its existence on loan, as it were, and is in debt. Therein, too, lies its negativity.

So too, faith is exactly as negative as its object is positive. But it is more than just a taking up of what can be held: it is a taking up of what must be held in order for faith to maintain its basis in being. For, as we have already noted, faith demands an object. Faith is not merely a negative, as is a bottle emptied of its contents. It is a negative which, in order to subsist, must feed on or ingest its object. In other words, faith is a negative that continuously strives to become a positive. Faith is a substitute for knowledge. Knowledge is positive. Faith, which is negative, tries to emulate that positivity. But since it cannot be itself positive (and still be faith) it alights on a positive object and hides its own transparent negativity by simulating the opaque positivity of its object. When there is faith in roses the roses, consumed by faith, are hidden and do not appear. What appears is faith. But faith appears in the guise of roses. Herein lies faith’s deceptiveness. The flies look exactly like eyes.

Faith, although manifest, appears only in the guise of roses. But this is not to say that faith is indistinguishable from roses. For were that the case then faith would be (on this occasion) roses, and it could rightly be said that faith had succeeded in transforming itself — impossible! — from a negative to a positive, and thereby in freeing itself of its entailment with care. But no, for when faith masquerades as roses then howevermuch faith may look like a rose, despite its best efforts it can never smell like a rose: it will smell like faith. The difference being: the aroma of roses (faith being uninvolved) simply smell, whether sweet or otherwise. The aroma is present, but not more than present. But when faith is disguised as roses these roses give off the aroma of promise, which involves not only the present but the future as well. The fearfully negative stench of anxiety has now been magically transformed, in the taking up of faith’s new residence, into the enticing and seductive promise of a sort of positive confidence or security. This is bliss and comfort. This is the harbinger of Spring. This is mine. Faith has its object: all’s right with the world.

But: is all right with the world? Does faith have its object? No, for it fails to attain that positive confidence that is seeks, and without which it must remain but a negative: less than nothing. It has achieved only the promise of security, which is to say, no security at all. Indeed, it has not even achieved that much; for it is the roses, not the faith, that are endowed (albeit by faith) with promise. And all that faith can ever retain (despite the hopelessness of its position) is its own native characteristic, hope. But hope is not promise; for promise is seductive and beckoning whereas hope is fretful and awkward. Promise is the fullness of the roses; hope is the hunger of faith; and faith is thus revealed as a starveling. Hope is faith’s momentum, as anxiety is care’s. Thus faith differs from the static thereness of roses. The roses, as such, don’t do anything: They are simply roses. Faith, having first endowed the roses with promise, does much — or at least it augurs much, which is already doing much.

Doing is action, and action, the Buddha has said, is intention, or choice.[4] So far, then, is faith from being a matter of choice that reflexion reveals the situation to be precisely the other way round: it is choice that is a matter of faith. Faith is a condition for choice, for action, inasmuch as it underlies choice. How are we to understand this?

Whatever choice one makes is made in the faith that it is in some manner the right choice. If one did not believe that scratching would allay (and not worsen) the itch one would not scratch. If one believes that scratching will worsen the itch but that using certain medications will effect a cure one will not scratch. (Unless, that is, one puts greater faith in the short-term relief of scratching than in the long-term benefits of restraint and medication, or unless one deceives oneself by adopting a posture of bad faith: “Other scratching would worsen this fierce itch, but not my scratching; I’ll be very gentle;” or perhaps: “I can’t help it, I have to scratch.”) Either one believes in scratching. Or one believes in not-scratching. Or one is doubtful, wavering, confused as to what to believe, in which case one believes in doubt and confusion. This is one’s faith. And everything one does depends upon that faith.

Every choice one makes presupposes a faith in that choice in particular and in choosing as a mode of being. For if one didn’t believe in choosing one would not choose; and if one doesn’t know how not to choose it is only because one does not know how not to believe in choosing. If we are hungry and want a banana it is because we believe that a banana will alleviate the hunger. At that time our faith is in bananas. Not only in bananas; in a very real sense we can say that at that time our faith is a banana. This of course sounds funny; but it should not be rejected on that account. The world would be bleak indeed if none of the truths found in it were happy truths.

Faith is a banana in the same manner that, earlier, it was a rose: faith is disguised as a banana. But, creature of a thousand guises, it appears one minute as a rose, the next as a banana, then as the completion — the publication! — of an essay, as the long-overdue rain, as the meditation which will lead to enlightenment, as the palliative for a slight nose-cold …. An endless series of projects and projections, ordered both hierarchically and temporally. Hierarchically, faith extends as far as the general faith that “life is worth living” (or at least preferable to dying). Temporally it includes the immediate faith in one’s own immortality. In one sense this can be understood as faith that this series of projects and projections actually is both endless and realizable, both individually and collectively. And for some this will cast doubt upon the validity of the hierarchical faith in life’s value. And each facet of faith is conceived, held to and, finally, lost or abandoned.

However, there is a sense in which we can say not only that choice is a matter of faith but also that faith is a matter of choice; for faith is not thrust upon us. We are not helpless recipients of faith as is a bottle of its contents. Not only do we choose to believe in Irma rather than Edna, or in a banana rather than a baked potato. We also choose to believe as such. And if we don’t know how not to believe, it is only because we don’t know how not to choose to believe. We must observe, though, that “choosing to believe” is not a choice distinct and apart from other choices. “To believe” is not a choice as such. Rather, it is a mode of choosing. Further, examination reveals it to be a mode of choosing which is inherent in every choice we make, just as — whatever their size, color, national origin, etc. — every circle we see has the inherent feature of roundness. “To believe” is that aspect of choice which is involved with hope — or, better here, expectation. For it is in the very nature of choice that it involves expectation. Every choice, then, is a choice to believe. Things in the world — roses, bananas, itches — are the occasions for choice; but belief is its substance, if something as negative and insubstantial as faith can be so designated. Faith, then, is not only a matter of choice; it is the matter of choice, its substance. Faith is inherently bound up with choice. And just as there is no choice without faith, so too there is no faith without choice. As with care, faith has entered into a relationship of mutual dependency with choice, with action.

Since every choice is a choice to believe, it may be thought, then, that the way to go beyond faith might be by not choosing. But, as with care, a problem exists: we don’t know how not to choose. Even when we attempt to refrain from choosing, that restraint is itself a choice; and hence restraint cannot by itself transcend choice. Even when we sit motionless, silent, allowing the mind to be no more than an observer, yet to the extent that there is (at least) still perceiving, feeling and cognizing, there is still action. There is still choice. Although going beyond faith would entail (as a matter of structural necessity) transcending also both care and choice, it seems that it is not by means of care or choice that faith is to be transcended. Yet inasmuch as the world is apprehended as a world of tasks to be performed, as a world of situations involved with care, it is also apprehended as a world to be believed in. Whatever we do, whatever we care about, we do and care in faith. And we are always doing, always choosing, always caring, always believing: endless mirrors, reflecting each other and supporting one another’s reflections.

Are we, then, condemned to faith?


1. It does not require a Buddha to indicate manifest impermanence. A poet will do:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
For time it is a’flyin’;
And those same buds ye seek today
Tomorrow will be dying. — Robert Herrick (1591-1641) [Back to text]

2. Not only faith but all experience is organized hierarchically. Reflexion reveals this, for reflexive experience is itself hierarchical, inasmuch as reflexive attention is an examination of that experience of which it is an inseparable constituent. Or: I am now writing a sentence, but also and at the same time I am writing a footnote and an essay. The sentence is more immediate than the footnote, for I have finished writing that sentence and yet continue to write this footnote. And the essay is more general than the footnote, for when I have finished writing this footnote I shall still continue to write the essay. To wit: [Back to text]

3. This is not to assert that there is no escape from faith and care but that there is no escape which takes them at their own valuation of themselves. [Back to text]

4. “Monks, I say intention is action. Intending, one does deeds by body, speech and mind …” — A.VI,63: iii,415 [Back to text]

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