Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Faith/Reason Divide



There seems to be a lot of posts lately that fall into the category of addressing faith vs. reason in Buddhism. It's not always a black and white division, but I kind of find myself scratching my head as to why so much energy is being spent parsing this all out.

Over at Sujato's blog, there is some really interesting thoughts about the intervention of, and support from, the State in religious affairs. However, Sujato also says the following:

The very notion of ‘Supernatural’ is one that, it seems to me, arises from Western philosophical assumptions. the basic idea is that there is ‘this world’, which is rational and subject to explanation according to the laws of physics, and the ‘other world’, which operates according to a quite different set of principles, and where the laws of physics no longer apply.

In Buddhism, however, the essential description of the world is not provided by the laws of physics, or other material phenomena. The most important ‘laws’ are the three characteristics – impermanence, suffering, not-self. And these describe any other state of being just as well as they describe ours. For theistic religions, ‘heaven’ is eternal – that is, not subject to conditions, and independent from Time. But for Buddhists, heaven is just as temporary as anything else.


Interesting - nirvana is often viewed as timeless as well, and Buddhists often split the world into the "relative" and "absolute." Now, relative and absolute are talking phrases, skillful means if you will to describe something that's functioning together in a way our words fail to describe. But I still think most Buddhists most of the time see nirvana as "somewhere else," at some "other time," even if that's a mistaken view.

And you reading this better check yourself before saying you don't because intellectual understanding is nice, but it ain't it.

The Tricycle blog has a link to a review of Stephen Batchelor's new book "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist," which is followed by a few comments, including this by a reader named Monica:

Buddhism is not about faith. At best, it is about the benefit of the doubt. Did not the Buddha tell us to test, try, and seek to understand through our own experience? Did he not warn us against believing anything someone (include him) tells us just because of who they are?

Even the Dalai Lama has stated that should science prove reincarnation a myth, that would be okay.


What is it with the word "faith" and convert Buddhists? Can't we learn to see it in a different light, seeing that it need not be the kind of faith of bowing down to an all powerful God in the sky? I have no issue with faith personally. For me, it's bound up in a radical trust in the functioning of Buddhist teachings, in meditation, and in the entire world itself.

Kyle, over at The Reformed Buddhist, attempts to address faith in a different manner in a recent post about the Kalama Sutra.

Some people say faith and belief are interchangeable, some people say that faith is trust based on confidence and some say belief is blind acceptance of a concept or proposition based is true with or without direct evidence. Whatever definitions we all choice to accept, I think it is the two rather opposing premises that are of interest:

Following a path because we see or know some truth in it, so we keep following it because we have some trust the next step will bare some truth that we can witness.

Following a path because someone or some book or some cultural inclinations tells us it is true, without any upfront direct experience or personal knowledge of the proposition.

Though I think these two descriptions are of the extreme's, in Buddhism, this always brings up that sutra that is debated over and over again, the Kalama Sutra. Barbara writes:

"Why does this understanding of "faith" not work with Buddhism? As recorded in the Kalama Sutta, the historical Buddha taught us not to accept even his teachings uncritically, but to apply our own experience and reason to determine for ourselves what is true and and what isn't. This is not "faith" as the word is commonly used."

Now as I understand it, the Kalama's were skeptics, confused by all the different religions and faiths being proclaimed by the myriads of wondering guru's, sages and various other "holy" men of the time. The Buddha, seemingly the first of these endless stream of wise men, offered up a teaching to the Kalama's that one should not accept a tradition or a teaching just because someone says it is true, or because others follow it, but only when it abides to ones good judgment and sound sensibilities through experience and reason, that they accept it and follow it through, with an open and pure heart.


Does anyone else feel like the lines about not trusting legends, scriptures, etc. from the Kalama Sutra are played out? They seem over quoted in some circles to the point of feeling like a crutch, even if they are ultimately true. In fact, one might argue that a lot of convert Buddhists have placed faith in these lines, running their practice from them as a basis.

Oh, and then there's Barbara's comment about "applying experience and reason," which it definitely helpful for dealing with many everyday activities, but doesn't really encompass the whole of our practice very well. Reason sure as hell fails me often, and past experience only goes so far as well. Maybe she's pointing to something else with the word "experience," but somehow having it paired with reason makes me think not. Anybody out there ever "break a koan" using reason and/or past experience? Drop me a line if you have because that doesn't seem to fit with what I've seen and heard.

I guess that ultimately, faith, reason, and even experience feel like red herrings to me. Fixing yourself to any of these is just another attachment. Faith, reason, and experience are made up of non-faith, non-reason, and non-experience elements. That's why we can call them "faith," "reason," and "experience." There's really no way to be rid of any of these elements anywhere. Even the most devout Christian, steeped thoroughly in faith, still also displays both a reliance on reason and also experience to some degree. And even the most "rational" Buddhist, like Mr. Batchelor, relies on faith, even if it's a faith in reason, science, and empirical methods.

The faith/reason divide is thus, as I see it, a creation of the human mind. To the degree that focusing on facets of this story helps us become more compassionate, awake people, I support it. But beyond that, it's just intellectual ball tossing, theorizing and speculation that ultimately doesn't really apply to our practice.

4 comments:

jmcleod76 said...

"Radical trust." I like that, very much. Yes, if I were to talk about faith in my practice - and I don't tend to talk much about faith, because it seems a somewhat awkward word, even if I do experience something akin to it - I would be talking about just that: "radical trust" in the process, in the practice, in my own awakened nature, right here waiting for me, any time I'm ready to embody it, and in the awakened nature of others and all things, too. We're not asked to believe things blindly, no, but it does require some radical trust to even set foot on this path. At least, it does for me.

spldbch said...

"I guess that ultimately, faith, reason, and even experience feel like red herrings to me. Fixing yourself to any of these is just another attachment."

I like that. We humans can become attached to anything, it seems!

JZ said...

jmcleod hit it the nail on the head, I think. Faith in terms of Zen practice, for me at least, means a faith in the methodology, if you can call it that, of our practice, and faith in certain core concepts such as original enlightenment and emptiness...things that reason may or may not be able to touch upon.

LuLu said...

I think you're first paragraph said it all. A good reminder not to talk so much and spend some time being quiet.