How Do We Develop Faith?

The Buddha once told this story about faith: A herd of cows arrives at the bank of a wide stream. The mature ones see the stream and simply wade across it.

By Sharon Salzberg

Photo by Daniel Maissan.

In Bodhgaya, at my first meditation retreat, I was like a newborn calf in my bright faith, and the Buddha’s voice, full of love, promised to lead me home. The voice of the dharma was showing me how to get there, step by step. The voice of the sangha was reminding me that I wasn’t traveling alone.

When I reflect back on the ten-day retreat and on all that I learned, I remember the fleeting moments of concentration and how peaceful they were. I remember the depth and beauty of the lovingkindness meditation. All that inspired me, with the vitality of bright faith, to become the best person I could possibly be.

Bright faith, with its exhilarating sense of discovery, makes for a wonderful beginning to a spiritual journey. But it can make for a faltering middle if it’s all we have to count on, and for a bad end if we are unwilling to go deeper. Bright faith is necessary, but not sufficient. Eventually that blaze of glorious feeling must be grounded and refined through some very hard work.

Intoxicated by the vision of possibility laid before us by bright faith, we can shallowly chase one dream after another, forgetting the steadfast effort needed to make any dream come true. In my own case, I had a strong tendency to place my faith in authority figures, in teachers I found fascinating and admirable, rather than working to develop faith in my own strengths through practice. Soon after my first retreats with Goenka, who was so exacting and precise, I fell in love with two other remarkable teachers. Munindra, an Indian man who had spent many years in Burma, was living in Bodhgaya. Whimsical and elfin, he dressed all in white and strongly resembled Gandhi. His relaxed style of teaching could be summed up in one of his favorite sayings, “Just be simple and easy about things.” Long hours of structured, disciplined meditation practice were not his style. Instead, he taught that every action in our lives can be meditation.

Munindra was so unassuming that children spontaneously gathered around him in the streets, especially when he stopped to rejoice at the sight of a tree or flower or pig. As I watched Munindra, all thoughts of clarity and precision vanished. I wanted to be as free and easy as he was, to marvel at the tiniest flower, to be surrounded by enraptured children.

When I met Dipa-ma, who had been a student of Munindra’s, I fell in love with her too. I saw her as the epitome of spiritual development. Dipa-ma was a little bundle of a woman wrapped in a white sari, but her psychic space was huge, radiating light and peace, filling whatever room she was in.

She would gently push me beyond my self-imposed limits. “You can do it.” “Sit longer.” “Be more diligent.” As I sat at her feet, basking in her loving presence, I longed to be like her. If only I could be so strong yet loving, so able to rise above my circumstances.

No matter which teacher I was around in those days, I lost myself in admiration. In the glow of bright faith I believed whatever they said without question. But bright faith doesn’t last. Like a crush on our fourth grade teacher, bright faith is meant to be a prelude to a more mature regard, in which love for the other is balanced by our own self-respect. For our faith to mature, we need to weigh what others tell us against our own experience of the truth. We need to honor ourselves enough to rely on our own experience more than the experience of others.

In Buddhism, the process of examining in a critical and discriminating way the teacher or teaching that awakened bright faith is called “verifying faith.” This is a crucial process of verifying or validating through our own experience what we previously have only heard of or seen outside ourselves. The Buddha likened this process of investigation to the method for analyzing gold. The gold is scorched with fire, then cut and rubbed to test its purity. Likewise, we test the attractive, shiny allure of bright faith by examination, to see if the teachings hold up in our lives. In this way we learn to trust our own experience of the truth rather than an abstract tradition or authority.

When faith means complying with someone else’s dictates, one either has blind faith or is considered to have no faith at all. This was reinforced for me many years after my initial sojourn in India, when I was leading a weekend workshop on the topic of faith and Buddhism. After opening with some of the classical definitions of faith in Buddhism—to draw near, to place the heart upon, to set forth—I asked if anyone had any questions. Everyone just sat there, with no response. As the morning went on, I detected a growing unease as the group continued to meet my comments and invitations to speak with an almost stony silence.

In order to deepen our faith, we have to be able to try things out, to wonder, to doubt.

When we reconvened after lunch, a man sitting in the front row of the platform suddenly burst out with: “I came to Buddhism to get away from all this shit!” Then, more calmly, he went on, “For some of us who got faith pounded into our heads when we were young, it brings up a lot of misgivings.” With that the group came alive, and person after person expressed their painful associations with “faith.”

Many felt they had been forced to believe something that couldn’t be proven, and had been discouraged from asking questions. “The authorities within my religion were very annoyed when I asked, ‘How do you know?’” one woman told the group. “They would just say, ‘Have faith,’ and I never could. Pretty soon I didn’t have any faith at all.”

For a number of people in that workshop, “lack of faith” in their childhood had meant having questions, being uncertain, or maybe even delighting in certain aspects of their religious doctrine while not in others. Essentially, what they had been denied in their experience with religious beliefs was the sense that they had the right to discover the truth for themselves. They didn’t lack faith; they lacked the opportunity to verify their faith by examining their beliefs.

In order to deepen our faith, we have to be able to try things out, to wonder, to doubt. In fact, faith is strengthened by doubt when doubt is a sincere, critical questioning combined with deep trust in our own right and ability to discern the truth. In Buddhism this kind of questioning is known as skillful doubt. For doubt to be skillful we have to be close enough to an issue to care about it, yet open enough to let questioning come alive.

Unlike skillful doubt, which brings us closer to exploring the truth, unskillful doubt pulls us further away. A story from the Buddha’s life illustrates the consequences of unskillful doubt. After his enlightenment, the Buddha arose from his place under the bodhi tree and set out walking along the road. The first person he encountered was struck by the radiance of his face and the power of his presence. Dazzled, the man asked, “Who are you?” The Buddha replied, “I am an awakened one.” The man just said, “Well, maybe,” and walked away. Had he shown curiosity, then taken the time to follow up his doubt by asking questions, he might have discovered something profoundly transforming.

This kind of “walk-away” doubt manifests as cynicism. Cynicism is actually a self-protective mechanism. A cynical stance allows us to feel smart and unthreatened without really being involved. We can look sophisticated, and we can remain safe, aloof and at a distance.

The cynic not only doubts, however, but also refuses to investigate the object of that doubt. Rather than engaging with a person or a problem, the cynic says, “What does that have to do with me?” Like the man who met the Buddha and walked away, the cynic says, “Prove it,” without bothering to stick around to question, to see just what proof might be forthcoming.

For faith to be alive and to deepen we need to use our power to inquire, to wonder, to explore a truth intensely for ourselves. This requires us to approach the practice with an inquisitive, eager, self-confident capacity to probe and question. It requires us to examine where we place our faith, and why, to see if it makes us more aware and loving people. To develop a verified faith we need to open to the messiness, the discordance, the ambivalence and, above all, the vital life force of questioning. If we don’t, our faith can wither. If we don’t, our faith will always remain in the hands of someone else, as something we borrow or abjure, but not as something we can claim fully as our own.

Reprinted from Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, by Sharon Salzberg, with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Sharon Salzberg.

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.