By Nyanaponika Thera
Faith involves not merely a belief in the existence of a thing or in the truth of a creedal formula, but also confidence in the power of its object. Religious faith is the belief and confidence in the power of the Supreme Good, and in Buddhist faith in particular, belief in the incomparable power of the Noble Eightfold Path and confidence in its purifying and liberating efficacy.
Among those calling themselves “believers” or “religious people” or, in our case, Buddhists, there are still too few who have that kind of genuine faith in the actual power of the Good to transform and elevate the life of the individual and of society, to protect them from the evil in themselves and in the world outside. Too few dare to entrust themselves to the powerful current of the Good, too many secretly believe, in spite of a vague sort of “faith,” that the power of the evil in themselves and the world is stronger—too strong to be contested. Many politicians throughout the world seem to believe this, particularly those who call themselves “realists,” implying that only evil is “real.” They think that submission to its greater power is inevitable. If they are not willing to challenge this idea, it is no wonder that they cannot achieve much good.
To be sure, in face of the great forces of evil and stupidity, this kind of genuine faith in the Good requires a certain amount of courage. But no progress of any kind is possible without courage. Progress means overcoming the natural inertia of present unsatisfactory conditions in the individual and in society. It certainly requires courage to take the first step in breaking through that resistance of the natural inertia and the self-preserving tendency of things and minds. But just that courage is the preliminary condition of success.
The ancient teachers of the Buddhist doctrine were well aware that courage is an essential feature of true faith. They therefore compared faith to a strong and courageous hero who plunges ahead into the turbulent waters of a stream to lead safely across the weaker people who timidly stop at the shore, or who, excitedly and in vain, run up and down the bank engaged in useless arguments about the proper place to cross. This simile can be applied to the social as well as to the inner life. In the case of social life, the “weaker people” are those who are willing to follow and support a leader but who cannot make a start by themselves. In the case of the inner life, those qualities necessary for spiritual progress are either undeveloped or isolated from their supplementary virtues in the “weaker people”..
Two factors of inner progress which supplement, support and balance each other are intellect (paññā) and faith (saddhā). If intellect remains without the confidence, devotion and zeal of faith, it will stop short at a mere theoretical understanding and intellectual appreciation of teachings which are intended to be put into practise and not merely thought or talked about. In the words of our simile, intellect, if not aided by the hero of faith, will merely “run up and down the bank of the stream,” an activity which looks busy and important but which produces few actual results. Intellect separated from faith will lack a firm belief in its own power to be the guide on the path of life. Without this inner conviction it will hesitate to follow in earnest its own conclusions and commands; it will lack the courage to make an actual start on the task of “crossing over.”
Faith as a supplementary quality, supported by the vigour and endurance of energy (viriya), will give wings to the intellect, enabling it to rise above the barrenness of unused knowledge and the futile wordy wars of conceptual thought. In exchange, intellect will give to faith discriminative judgement and reliable guidance. It will prevent faith from becoming exhausted, from wasting its energies on ineffective emotional outpourings and misdirected efforts. Therefore, faith and intellect should always work in harmony. With right mindfulness keeping them balanced, the two together will prove to be ideal companions, able to meet by their combined efforts any dangers and difficulties on the road to liberation.
Source: BPS, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Excerpted from Wheel 205 (1974). For free distribution only.