What is faith and devotion in Buddhism?


This article is an attempt to clarify the terms “faith” and “devotion” in Buddhism / Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. In order to clarify the terms “faith” and “devotion”, it is essential to begin with a sober definition from Buddhist scriptures as the starting point for further analysis and investigation.

Faith and devotion are not synonymous.

(1) Faith (skt. shraddha, tib. dad pa)

According to Buddhist psychology, summarised in the genre Mind and Mental Factors (Tib: blo rig) which is based on Asanga’s Abhidharmasammuccaya, faith is a mental factor. It is the first mental factor listed in the group of the eleven wholesome mental factors.

In the definition below given by Asanga in his Abhidharmasammuccaya one must pair the following types of faith with their respective objects:

(1) faith of clarity (or inspirational faith) has as its object excellent qualities
(2) faith of conviction has as its object existent phenomena
(3) 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’s excellent qualities 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”. So this type of faith is actually a strong, powerful but wholesome emotion that really moves you.

© Christopher Bannigan
© Christopher Bannigan

I think the essential key point to be understood is that faith has as its object really existent phenomena. Therefore, training in the faith of clarity doesn’t mean to project non-existent qualities but rather it is a seeing, a deep understanding or an intuition or wisdom that really sees or feels what qualities there really are and one is moved by these perceived, actually existent qualities.

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.

Here is the explanation by Yeshe Gyeltsen (ye shes rgyal mtshan) (1713–1793), tutor (tib. yongs ‘dzin) of the 8th Dalai Lama Jampel Gyatsho, from his Lorig (tib. blo rig) commentary “A Necklace for Those of Clear Awareness Clearly Revealing the Modes of Minds and Mental Factors”, 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[1],
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.”

[1] 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.

* Annotation by Tenpel: This example is given within a Tibetan cultural context at a certain time. It is not relevant in our time and cultural context.

Again, I think the key point to understand is that in Buddhism to have faith does not mean to project qualities onto animate or inanimate objects that they don’t really possess, and also that the mental factor of faith can include the perception of genuinely existent faults in animate and inanimate objects, 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 spiritual goals.

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 of discussion is therefore crucial.

To give some suggestions for further investigation and analysis:

  1. The meaning of faith includes the ability to see really existent qualities in others, like seeing the generosity of a child, the patience of a person, their affection, their compassion, their caring attitude… It also means to understand the resultant benefits of those qualities like the benefits of compassion – e.g. compassion overcomes egoism, fear… it makes you strong, warm-hearted, connects you with others etc. You can read a Dharma book about the benefits of compassion and being deeply moved or touched by it you aspire naturally to cultivate compassion.
  2. Faith is the basis for aspiration and aspiration is the basis for joyous perseverance; from joyous perseverance comes the fulfilment of all of one’s wishes (Nagarjuna). If you suffer from the three types of laziness then the right response is not to push and force yourself but to go back to cultivate faith in the qualities you are aspiring for: the more you are touched and moved by the qualities of the object you are aspiring for, the more you aspire for it, the more you aspire for it the stronger the mental attitude of enthusiasm becomes. In that way joyous perseverance naturally will unfold to attain the object of your aspiration and it will conquer the afflicted class of the three types of laziness. This is the reason why Buddhists text praise faith as the basis of all excellent qualities because without faith in really existing excellent qualities you are neither deeply aware that those excellent qualities really exist nor do you aspire and work joyfully to achieve them.
  3. In Western society we have somewhat lost the tendency to see or focus on real human values, like compassion, self-restraint, patience, generosity, contentment, respect, gratitude, a sense of caring for others etc. In tandem with this lack of focus on perceiving good qualities there is also somewhat an over-emphasis on cynicism, on seeing and discussing the faults of others, which compounds further the day-to-day failure of western society in general to see or celebrate good qualities and real human values. Then in a vicious circle of neglect, basic human qualities cannot be further cultivated and will highly likely degenerate – like the wearing down of the innate altruism (or “basic goodness”) which can be found even in very young children. Seeing this, the emphasis His Holiness the Dalai Lama places on the importance of secular ethics and science is a real gift to the Western world, with far-reaching consequences for generations to come.
  4. 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 you also self-confidence because it makes you more open and strong; strong enough to admit your faults without falling into extremes of self-denigration. 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 and fruitful intercultural discussion about these topics. I focused at that meeting on the Buddhist explanations of faith, because I think they are highly relevant to our lives and cultures.

Alexander Berzin translates dad pa (Tibetan) / shraddha (Sanskrit) as believing a fact to be true. He gives the following definition:

A constructive emotion that focuses on something existent and validly knowable, something with good qualities, or an actual potential, and considers it either existent or true, or considers a fact about it as true. Some translators render the term as “faith.”

Clarifying the details of dad pa (Tibetan) / shraddha (Sanskrit), translated by him as believing, Alex Berzin states:

The Buddhist discussion of believing refers neither to beliefs as mental objects that someone passively holds, nor to belief or faith as a general state of mind that characterizes a “believer.” Rather, as Asanga explained, believing is the constructive mental action of focusing on something existent and knowable, and considering it either existent or true, or considering a fact about it true. Thus, it does not include believing that an unknowable God or Santa Claus exists or that the moon is made of green cheese. Further, believing a fact occurs only while validly cognizing it and implies certitude. Therefore, believing also excludes presumption and blind faith, such as believing that the stock market will rise.

There are three ways of believing a fact to be true. (1) Clearheadedly believing a fact about something is a mental action that is clear about a fact and which, like a water purifier, constructively clears the mind. Vasubandhu specified that it clears the mind of disturbing emotions and attitudes toward its object. (2) Believing a fact based on reason is the mental action of considering a fact about something to be true on the basis of thinking about reasons that prove it. (3) Believing a fact with an aspiration concerning it is the mental action of considering true both a fact about something and that one can achieve the goal of an aspiration one consequently holds about the object.

Asanga further explained that believing a fact to be true acts as the basis for inciting intention. Intention, in turn, serves as the basis for positive enthusiasm to accomplish a goal.

Please note, that in the quote just given, intention and enthusiasm refer to two further mental factors. Intention (‘dun pa) is the first mental factor in the group of the five object ascertaining mental factors, also translated as ‘aspiration’ or ‘interest’. Enthusiasm (brtson ‘grus) is one of the eleven wholesome mental factors, also translated into English as ‘diligence’ or ‘effort’. To clarify confusion arising due to different translations of these terms, see When Mind Travels by Klaus Löhrer.

In the context of faith it is also helpful to consider still another mental factor, which is listed second in the group of the five object ascertaining mental factors: firm conviction (tib. mos pa) – sometimes translated as ‘appreciation’ and ‘belief’. Mos pa is defined as “apprehending the ascertained object just like that [and to] make it inseparable [from attention]” and “apprehending just the object of attained certainty”. Alex Berzin writes about this mental factor in the context of relying on a Spiritual Guide:

Being Firmly Convinced of a Fact

Believing the fact that one’s mentor has good qualities – clearheadedly, based on reason, and with aspiration – naturally leads to the principal mental activity intended for this phase of guru-meditation. The activity is to focus on the qualities of one’s mentor with a firm conviction (mopamos pa) that they are a fact. Let us look more deeply at this technical term. It appears as the first component of the Tibetan compound mogu (mos gus), the main attitude or feeling needed for relating to a spiritual mentor in a healthy manner with one’s thoughts.

Vasubandhu defined mopa as the mental action of apprehending an object of focus as having a good quality. The good quality he meant was the object being interesting enough that one would want to stay focused on it. As a general mental action, it accompanies focusing on anything and its strength may vary from strong to weak. Thus, the mental action corresponds to taking interest in an object while focusing on it.

Asanga, on the other hand, interpreted good qualities in the definition as meaning to be true. Thus, he restricted the scope of mopa and explained it as a mental action that occurs while believing a fact about its object of focus. Thus, Asanga explained being firmly convinced of something as a mental action that focuses on a fact that one has validly ascertained to be like this and not like that. Its function is to make one’s belief so firm that others’ arguments or opinions will not dissuade one. Shantideva added that firm conviction in a fact grows from long-term familiarity with the consequences that consistently follow from it.

Being firmly convinced of a fact, then, does not arise from blind faith. It requires valid cognition. In A Supplement to [Nagarjuna’s Root Verses on] the Middle Way, Chandrakirti gave three criteria for validating the cognition of a fact.

(1) Appropriate convention must accept the fact to be what one considers it to be. Here, the mentors’ features on which we focus must be those that the Buddhist literature agrees to be requisite qualities of spiritual mentors. If businesspeople consider these features as assets for teachers to possess in order to attract large audiences – for instance, that they be entertaining and adept at telling good jokes – their convention does not validate our considering the features positive qualities. The convention of people interested in fame and profit is inappropriate for the situation.

(2) A mind that validly cognizes the conventional phenomenon on which one focuses must not contradict what one considers true about it. Suppose that objective people who know us well correctly see that a certain quality of one of our teachers, such as an authoritarian, feudal manner, is having a negative effect on us. Their valid perception would invalidate our considering this feature to be self-assuredness and our believing it to be a positive quality.

(3) A mind that validly cognizes the deepest way in which things exist also must not contradict what one considers true. Regarding our mentors’ abilities as inherently existent in them, as if our teachers were almighty Gods, is an invalid cognition. A mind that correctly sees how things exist knows that good qualities do not exist in that way. Good qualities arise through behavioral cause and effect, by correcting deficiencies.

(2) Devotion (tenpa, bsten-pa)

Alexander Berzin rectifies the term devotion as follows:

The Tibetan term tenpa (bsten-pa) sums up a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor. The usual English translation is devotion, hence the term guru-devotion. Devotion, however, carries a misleading connotation. It conjures the picture of a devoted servant or a devotee of a god or a cult. It also implies a combination of emotional fervor and mindless obedience.

Tenpa, however, is a verb that means to come close to someone in one’s thoughts and actions, and to rely on the person with confidence. It does not imply, however, coming close to a charlatan or a scoundrel, or relying neurotically on someone, even if the person is competent to help us. Thus, I have translated it here as building a healthy relationship. One builds such a relationship not only with a spiritual teacher, but also with a doctor.

According to Difficult Points concerning Helping and Showing Respect to a Gurutenpa also connotes pleasing one’s guru in the proper manner. The proper or healthy way for disciples to please their mentors is to come close in the sense of modeling themselves after their mentors and following their advice to transform their minds and help all beings. It does not mean to try to ingratiate themselves with lavish gifts or to practice the Dharma only to please their teachers. As Buddha explained in Special Verses Grouped by Topic: “One may be close to a spiritual mentor for one’s entire life. Yet, if one does not learn the Dharma taught by him or her, [one’s experience of the teachings] is [as meager] as the taste of stew on a ladle.”

The glossary of his web site, http://www.studybuddhism.com (formerly The Berzin Archives), contains the following entry with respect to the Tibetan term bshes-gnyen bsten-pa (often translated as guru-devotion):

Entrusting oneself, through mind and actions, to a fully qualified spiritual mentor. Also called: relying on a spiritual mentor, entrusting oneself to a spiritual mentor, whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual mentor. Often translated as: guru-devotion.

In conclusion I hope that my analysis has made it clear that it’s really worthwhile 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.

See also

Secarianism within Buddhism

Last updated, November 9, 2016