Lion's Roar

The Issue of Faith in a Non-theistic Religion

What does faith mean to a Buddhist? Zen teacher Norman Fischer talks with Sharon Salzberg about the conclusions she draws in her new book.

By Sharon Salzberg

Norman Fischer

What does faith mean to a Buddhist? Zen teacher Norman Fischer talks with Sharon Salzberg about the conclusions she draws in her new book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.

Norman Fischer: One thing that struck me in reading your book was the story of your very difficult childhood. Your father left when you were four and went on to have severe psychiatric problems. Your mother died when you were nine. You went to live with your grandfather and he died shortly after. It was, as you say in the book, a series of “uprooting turns and incomprehensible losses.”

And because of all that you went through in your early life, faith loomed large from the very beginning. You had a tremendous incentive to give rise to faith, which is probably the case for many dharma students. In your book, you talk about the progression from bright faith to verified faith to unwavering faith. I want to ask you how faith arises and how one kind of faith unfolds into another?

Sharon Salzberg: Many dharma students can recall that period of bright faith, which is at first an intoxicating rush of falling in love—falling in love with a teacher or teaching, or falling in love with a brand new sense of possibility when we had previously felt confined or unworthy. Suddenly, this inspiration can turn our lives around. It’s incredibly exhilarating and wondrous. It’s the first step.

This state has some similarities to blind faith, and if you’re a skeptical type, you could view them as the same. Blind faith has that same kind of exhilaration and feeling of having a much larger sense of possibility. But blind faith implies that you can’t question, you can’t examine, you can’t investigate. Blind faith is the end of the road, while in Buddhist teaching, bright faith is just the beginning. It’s necessary and compelling, but it’s still just a beginning. Through questioning, putting things into practice and examining them, bright faith moves to the next stage, verified faith, which relies less on external sources and more on our own experience.

Verified faith comes from our own experience of the truth. The movement from bright faith to verified faith happens through putting something into practice and not just believing what we’re told. It’s about not being gullible, about questioning everything. What is frightening about blind faith, then, is that there is no maturing into verified faith.

Norman Fischer: How does verified faith move to unwavering faith?

Sharon Salzberg: Through constant deepening. It’s like something seeping into your bones. If you’ve seen the power of love enough, for example, then you know it so deeply that it becomes something that you don’t need to refer to externally. You know it so very deeply.

Norman Fischer: Usually when people talk about faith, as you say in the book, it’s faith in something, faith in something outside of yourself. Buddhism proposes faith not in something outside of yourself, but faith in reality and your own capacity to embrace it. At the same time, you talk about the faith you had in your teachers and you talk about prayer a little bit. Can you say something about the interplay between faith in oneself and faith in another, whether that’s in the form of a teacher, a transcendent god, or something else altogether?

Sharon Salzberg: I often think of Buddhism as being like a transparency. We look at the Buddha as a human being who exemplified boundless love and infinite wisdom. But really we look at the Buddha to see ourselves, because we’re looking at a potential that exists within us. We also look at ourselves not just to see ourselves, but to see all beings.

You can tell from the book that I loved my teachers and relied on my teachers, and yet I also rely on a Zen saying I once heard—that the goal of every Zen teacher is to have a student who surpasses them. I feel that has been true of all of my teachers. The goal of the relationship has not been their glorification but my freedom from suffering. The teacher-student relationship is about one’s own freedom—not because any one of us is so special or important, but because of the great capacity of the human heart.

Norman Fischer: That can also be tricky, because one could think that faith that is not in something or someone is really self-confidence. You seem to be saying, though, that it’s not that you’re confident in yourself, but that you see through yourself to something greater. In a way, faith in self and faith in other might in the end collapse into the same thing.

Sharon Salzberg: I think they would have to. Whether you’re starting with the other or you’re starting with yourself, ultimately it has to be about everybody.

Norman Fischer: You take great care in the book to distinguish faith from belief, and you also talk about the relationship between faith and hope. Can you say a bit about these important distinctions?

Sharon Salzberg: In the teaching of the brahma-viharas—loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity—each one of those qualities has a near and a far enemy. The far enemy is the state that is clearly different; it’s the opposite. Anyone could easily see that the far enemy of loving kindness is hatred, or that the far enemy of compassion is cruelty. But the near enemy is the state that’s close to and yet different from the brahma-vihara. The near enemy is often confused for the actual state of the brahma-vihara, and it’s easy for it to masquerade as that. For example, the near enemy of metta, or loving-kindness, is attachment.

So when I was trying to think of a structure for the topic of faith, I asked myself what the near enemy of faith would be. It occurred to me that it would be two-fold. One aspect would be belief and the other would be hope.

Hope in this case means a kind of fixated hope. It’s like when we say, “I have faith that everything will turn out all right tomorrow,” which means according to the way we want it to turn out. That isn’t faith at all. That is fixated hope, where we’re dependent, attached and full of fear. We can’t have that kind of fixation without the accompanying fear that what we hope will happen might not happen.

Belief is more of a conceptual overlay. We contour our perception of reality rather than admit that we’re walking into the unknown. It’s having something to hold on to. It’s much more abstract than the heartfelt sense of faith.

Norman Fischer: You don’t seem to be saying that this is about faith in dharma or external teachings, so much as it is faith in reality. Faith is to confront every moment with openness and acceptance. It’s something that even goes beyond Buddhism.

Sharon Salzberg: I have great faith in dharma; it’s the means to develop this other kind of faith. But people can use any teaching, any system, as dogma. Even Buddhism, when treated in that way, can lead to tremendous separation from reality.

Norman Fischer: Another important idea that you talk about is doubt. You say that a certain kind of doubt is needed in order to have verified faith. We have to question, but there’s also a doubt that corrodes our faith. Could you say something about the distinction between good doubt and bad doubt?

Sharon Salzberg: When we move from bright faith to verified faith, as I said, we have to question in order to put something into practice. We cannot simply adore the object of faith externally; we have to grab it and test it. We have to look, examine, investigate. We have to find what’s really true, not just accept what someone else tells us. That’s the right kind of doubt, and it’s essential. There is a famous quotation from the Buddha about this in the Kalama Sutta, in which he says, “Do not believe anything just because I said it. Put it into practice. See for yourself if it’s true.”

The other kind of doubt is more like cynicism. It doesn’t allow us to see for ourselves what’s true, because in the very act of cynicism we remove ourselves from the process. We stand at some distance and look at it mockingly or ironically and say, “It’s not worth even checking out, because it’s so misinformed, so stupid.” When we remove ourselves that fully, we don’t allow something to speak to us and reveal whatever it may have to offer. Such distancing, which is often seen as a badge of sophistication, allows us to avoid trying. It can also be a mark of some very deep-seated fears.

Norman Fischer: Is there a danger that the good questioning doubt could, without your knowing it, lead you towards cynicism or a negative kind of doubt?

Sharon Salzberg: The two doubts are very different. In the right kind of doubt you’re moving forward into what you’re doubting and getting it all over you, checking it out. With the other kind of doubt you’re moving aside.

Norman Fischer: I’ve heard my teacher talk about corrosive doubt as being negative doubt and the other as being the great doubt. The corrosive doubt is probably based on unacknowledged fear, and the great doubt acknowledges the fear and moves forward. Unacknowledged fear deflects you from where you’re going.

Sharon Salzberg: Yes, I think that’s true. Also, one of the things about the right kind of doubt is that it’s based on a sense that we have the right and the ability to know the truth for ourselves. Bad doubt doesn’t have that; it mocks that in a way.

Norman Fischer: Do you teach specific practices to cultivate faith? How would you advise a person to practice in a way that would strengthen faith?

Sharon Salzberg: I think it depends on the person. For some it’s loving-kindness toward themselves that would strengthen faith, because it’s the affirmation of their ability to know the truth and the understanding that they deserve to be happy that increases their faith. For other people, it’s being given permission to doubt that strengthens faith.

In the book, I put forth the idea that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but rather despair. For some people, all the things that ease despair help strengthen faith: having a sense of connection to others, working with compassion for others, seeing the universality of suffering. If we reflect on the universality of suffering, our own suffering doesn’t lead to a sense of isolation and specialness. We realize that we exist within a much bigger picture.

Norman Fischer: Your chapter on faith and despair made me think of an article that Susan Moon, the editor of Turning Wheel, wrote about dealing with depression after having spent many years as a practitioner. The article was very meaningful to people because after many years of practice some people experience a sudden despair that comes up and devastates them. You give an example from your own life in your book, where you talk very clearly about the time when your early childhood difficulties came rushing back all of a sudden, and you were really surprised and thrown by it.

In such a case, nothing works, nothing helps. You’re just in the pit. You’re an experienced dharma student and you’re disappointed. But something happens at that point. It is not a matter of your doing something, or applying your skill or your training, but somehow you are lifted up. Faith spontaneously arises from who knows where in the depth of despair.

This phenomenon reminds me of the kind of experience and attitude expressed in the Psalms, which I translated into a Buddhist context in Opening to You.

Sharon Salzberg: The Psalms use a theistic language, so I’m curious what it was like for you when you were translating them.

Norman Fischer: If you look at a lot of the theologies—of Judaism and Christianity, especially the mystical ones—it’s clear that the idea of God, as a supreme being other than myself and other than the world, existing as a separate being, doesn’t really work. God as a separate being would always be a limited being. By definition the divine is unlimited. Therefore, it also includes oneself and the world. One is very intimate with it, so there’s both separation and complete intimacy.

For me, the calling out that occurs in the Psalms is more like calling out to emptiness. You call out to emptiness when you are in despair. That’s the quality of despair. You can’t practice; there’s nothing you can do. You feel no empowerment. And from that pit of despair you call out. If you’re theistic, perhaps you call out some feeling for God; if you’re not, you call out to the depths of reality. Or perhaps finally you simply call out and you don’t know you’re calling out, and then you’re met.

That’s the seed of faith, it seems to me. The deepest practitioners, including yourself, have been there. It was probably no accident that two of your earliest formative teachers, Goenka and Dipa Ma—through illness in Goenka’s case and through tremendous loss in Dipa Ma’s case—found themselves in that pit and started practicing right there, just as you had.

Sharon Salzberg: As a matter of fact, that was another reason I wrote the book. One of the key Buddhist concepts is proximate cause, the likeliest springboard for something else to arise. The proximate cause for loving-kindness is seeing the good in someone, or failing in that, remembering that all beings want to be happy. It’s not the only condition that gives rise to something, but it’s the readiest. In Theravada Buddhism, it is taught that the proximate cause of faith is suffering. That was a mind-stopper for me. It was so compelling, because clearly everybody suffers, and yet not everybody emerges with a greater faith. Why is it that some people develop faith in the midst of their suffering, while others don’t?

Norman Fischer: The emphasis in the dharma on the end of suffering can be taken in the wrong way—as a reason to denigrate and doubt oneself. In other words, we think that we’re supposed to be ending suffering, and since suffering persists as much as ever, we think there’s something wrong with our practice. By contrast, when you realize that suffering is the proximate cause of faith, and that faith is central to dharma study, then my suffering is my advantage. My suffering is something I have to connect with as positive. That is a very important aspect of your book. It demonstrates that without faith, you could engage in all of the nuts and bolts effort involved in practice and give yourself the idea that you’re doing it. That could be discouraging when you don’t see the results you thought you would see.

Sharon Salzberg: I was in Burma studying with Sayadaw Pandita and he asked me a question. We were discussing the five spiritual friends or powers—faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom—and he asked me, “Which of these five is most important?” So, trying to be a good student, I said, “Effort.” And he said, “Nooo.” And then given where I was, in the heartland of mindfulness, I said, “Mindfulness.” And he said, “Nooo.” We went down the list until he said, “Faith.” He said faith is most important because it is the ignition. Without faith, you can’t practice any of the others. Without faith, you don’t cultivate anything else.

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of many books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness; her seminal work, Lovingkindness; and her latest, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.
Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.