Here is a brief introduction approaching to clarify the terms “faith” and “devotion” in Buddhism / Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. To clarify the terms “faith” and “devotion” a sober definition from Buddhist scriptures is essential as a start for further investigation.
Faith and devotion are synonymous.
Faith / Devotion (skt. shraddha, tib. dad pa)
The essential key point is that faith has as its object an existent phenomenon. Also the faults of an object (like the faults of Samsara or the faults of delusions) can be the object of faith [they can be the objects of the faith of conviction but not the objects of the faith of wishing]; so, it needn’t be only existing qualities which are the objects of faith.
In the definition below given by Asanga in his Abhidharmasammuccaya one must pair the following types of faith with their respective objects:
(1) the mind of the faith of clarity (or inspirational faith) has as its object excellent qualities
(2) the mind of the faith of conviction has as its object existent phenomena
(3) the mind of the faith of wishing has as its object phenomena that have power/potential (one sees the potential and wishes to bring it to full maturation)
The faith of clarity is free of delusions and apprehends its object, which is really existent excellent qualities, therefore very clearly. This type of faith leads usually to a strong emotion; one is touched by what one has as the object of faith (e.g. the qualities of compassion, the qualities of concentration or the qualities of a person) and bodily responses can manifest like getting goose bumps, tears fill the eyes, the body hairs stand on end. That’s why it is also called “faith of inspiration”.
Here the explanation by Yeshe Gyaltsen from his Lorig Commentary (translated from the Tibetan by Toh Sze Gee)
[C1] Faith (dad pa)
Regarding the entity of faith, the Compendium of Knowledge [Asanga’s Abhidharmasammuccaya] says:
QUESTION: What is faith?
RESPONSE: It is a conviction, clarity, and wishing with respect to an existent that is endowed with excellent qualities and power. It has the function of acting as a support for aspiration.
Just as it has been said above, faith is a knower that has the aspect of conviction, clarity, or wishing, and it serves as the direct antidote for non-faith. When divided, faith is of three types:
1. clarifying faith,
2. faith of conviction and
3. wishing faith.
Clarifying faith is a clear mind engendered by seeing the excellent qualities of those so endowed, such as the Three Jewels. Why is it called “clarifying”? For example, when one places a water-purifying gem in dirty water, the murkiness of the water is immediately cleared away. Similarly, when this faith is generated, the murkiness of the mind is cleared away, whereupon all excellent qualities of realization become suitable to arise in one’s continuum.
Faith of conviction is the gaining of conviction through contemplating the modes of dependent-arising, cause and result, and so forth that are taught by the Conqueror.
Wishing faith, is, for instance, having contemplated the modes of the four noble truths, ascertained true sufferings and true origins as objects of abandonment, and true cessations and true paths as objects of attainment, and having understood that these can be attained if one makes the proper effort, the faith thinking, “I shall definitely obtain them.”
Here I have merely identified some illustrations of the three types of faith; it is not that all [instances] have been exhausted here. Nowadays, in our world, liking and faith are spoken of as if they are the same; liking beer is said to be “faith in beer,” but liking and faith are nevertheless not the same. Faith is by entity a virtuous mental factor, whereas liking has both virtuous and non-virtuous factors. If this is explained in detail, there are the four possibilities:
1. that which is liking but not faith
2. that which is faith but not liking
3. that which is both
4. that which is neither
The first, that which is liking but not faith is, for example, liking one’s son, one’s wife and so forth, and liking sources of misdeeds, such as drinking alcohol and eating meals after noon [when ordained].
The second, that which is faith but not liking is, for example, fear from one’s depths and faith of conviction regarding the drawbacks of the sufferings of cyclic existence.
That which is both faith and liking is, for example, faith from one’s depths and liking due to contemplating the excellent qualities of the spiritual guide and the benefits of wholesome actions and their results.
That which is neither faith nor liking is anger, suffering, and so forth.
QUALM: Well then, are liking and respect the same or are they different?
RESPONSE: Again, in the world we speak of them as if they are the same, but in fact they are not. Liking a spiritual friend is faith, but respect for him involves contemplating his kindness, knowing shame, and valuing him highly. Hence, when [liking and respect] arise in the continuum, they are separate mental factors.
If, in accordance with how they appear in the great treatises, you analyze these modes in detail with the wisdom of individual investigation, examining the way in which they are generated in the continuum by turning your mind inwards, then you will get to know them; you cannot know them merely through words. With these meanings in mind, the Foremost Omniscient [Tsong-kha-pa] repeatedly advises that, in order to perform wholehearted practice, you must rely upon a skilful spiritual friend and acquire much hearing on the meaning of the scriptures. However, nowadays, when these great textual systems are explained to foolish beings who are deprived of the gem of intelligence and are inferior in merit, they become frightened, terrified and flee faraway, as though a poisonous snake had sensed the odor of musk, or a little child had caught sight of a whirlpool.
Those who view the exalted speech of the great scholars and adepts from the Land of Superiors [i.e., India] as pith instructions seem like stars during daytime.
Here, the function of faith is specified as “acting as a support for aspiration,” because, as explained above, the cause of all excellent qualities is effort; in order to generate effort, one needs the aspiration that seeks; in order to generate aspiration, one needs to see the excellent qualities as well as possess the faith of conviction. For this reason, faith is praised more than once as the foundation of all virtuous qualities in the scriptures and their commentaries. In this vein, the Formulae of the Three Jewels’ Blaze (Ratnolka-dharani) also says:
“Faith is the forerunner, and, like a mother, is the procreator.
It guards and increases all excellent qualities.
It dispels doubts and frees you from the four great rivers,
Faith signifies the city of happiness and goodness.
Faith is without murkiness and clarifies the mind.
It abandons pride and is the root of respect.
Faith is a jewel, a treasure,
And the best of feet.
Like hands, it is the root of gathering virtue.”
Also the Ten Teachings Sutra (Dasa-dharmaka-sutra) says:
“Faith is the best of vehicles
Through which you will be guided and definitely emerge.
Therefore, intelligent people
Rely on following faith.
Wholesome qualities do not grow
In people who have no faith,
Just as green sprouts [do not grow]
From seeds scorched by fire.”
Thus, all wholesome qualities are companions of faith. [Shantideva’s] Compendium of Trainings (Siksasamuccaya), stating, “having made firm the root of faith,” also teaches that faith is the root of all paths. Even the Great Being, the Protector Nagarjuna, emphatically taught that faith is the foundation of all paths. With these meanings in mind, the Foremost Omniscient [Tsong-kha-pa] made the statement “Training in faith, the root” one of the outlines in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path, and stated that “the root of all happiness and goodness is the faith of conviction.”
 From the causal point of view, the four rivers are: (1) ignorance, (2) views, (3) existence, and (4) craving.
From the resultant point of view, they are: (1) birth, (2) aging, (3) sickness, and (4) death.
The key thing is to understand that faith in Buddhism doesn’t mean to project qualities onto animate or inanimate objects they don’t possess, and that faith includes to see the really existing faults of an animate or inanimate object, like the faults of Samsara.
Haribhadra (ca. 700–770) discriminates additionally between faith based on reasoning and faith not based on reasoning. The former is stable and the attribute of beings with sharp intellectual faculties and the latter is not stable and it is the attribute of beings with dull intellectual faculties. The Abhisamayalamkara and its commentaries explain that both types of person, sharp faculty Bodhisattvas and dull faculty Bodhisattvas, will reach their destiny.
This topic is quite complex and it has many consequences for Buddhist practice, spirituality and our society in general. A sober understanding and a careful thorough analysis of it, using different texts and angles, is therefore crucial.
To give some hints for further investigation & analysis:
- The meaning of faith includes to be able to see the really existing qualities in others, like to see the generosity of a child, the patience of person or the affection, compassion or care of an animal.
- Faith is the basis for striving and striving is the basis for joyous perseverance; from joyous perseverance comes the fulfillment of one’s wishes (Nagarjuna). If you suffer from the three types of laziness the right response is not to push and force yourself but to go back to cultivate faith in the qualities you are striving for, the more you are touched and moved by the qualities of the object you are striving for, the more you strive for it and the more joyous perseverance naturally will unfold to attain it.
- In western society we have lost somewhat to stress and to see real human values, like compassion, self-restrained, patience, generosity, contentment, respect, gratitude, a sense of caring for others etc. With this lack of focus on qualities and an overly emphasis on seeing and discussing the faults of others our western society tends towards to not see qualities therefore basis human qualities cannot be cultivated and will degenerate. That’s why, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on secular ethics and science is a real gift to the western world with far reaching consequences for generations to come.
- Self-confidence arises naturally when one sees one’s own qualities and faults realistically as they are. This needs introspection and honesty. That’s why the Dalai Lama stresses correctly that self-confidence comes from honesty: “If you conduct your life on the basis of truth and honesty, it gives you a sense of satisfaction and self-confidence.” Compassion itself gives us also self-confidence because it makes more open and strong; strong enough to admit our faults. Again the Dalai Lama: “Kindness and compassion give rise to self-confidence, which in turn empowers us to be honest, truthful and transparent.”
In 2014 I had the honour to be part of the opening discussion about »Cultures of Faith« at the International Festival of Literature in Berlin. The Danish writer Janne Teller spoke about ethics, power and confidence in the context of writing and the South African Bishop Dr. Ndanganeni P. Phaswana spoke about reconciliation and the ubuntu philosophy, which forms the basis for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in South Africa. It was a very inspiring fruitful intercultural discussion about these topics.
Its really worth to dig deeply into these topics and not to be satisfied with a mere superficial understanding of the terms faith, trust, belief or confidence. As the Dalai Lama put it: We need to be 21st century Buddhists.