In Pali (the language of the original Buddhist texts), the word for faith issaddha. While sometimes translated as "confidence" or "trust," the literalmeaning of saddha is "to place your heart upon." When we give our hearts overto spiritual practice, it is a sign of faith or confidence in that practice.
Faith opens us up to what is beyond our usual, limited, self-centeredconcerns. In the Buddhist psychology, it is called the gateway to all goodthings, because faith sparks our initial inspiration to practice meditation,and also sustains our ongoing efforts.
The concept of faith can be difficult for some people. Faith might beassociated with mindless belief, or it might imply the need to proclaimallegiance to a creed or doctrine and then fear of being judged, by oneselfor others, for one's degree of compliance. When we use faith in a Buddhistcontext it is quite different from this.
To "place the heart upon" does not at all mean rigidly believing insomething and thus being defensive about opening to new ideas. It doesn'tmean using that which we have faith in as a way of feeling separate from andsuperior to others. When we talk about saddha, we are talking about aheartfelt confidence in the possibility of our own awakening.
We experience faith on many levels. In a classical Buddhist text entitled "TheQuestions of King Milinda," a monk name Nagasena uses an allegory toillustrate this. A group of people gathered on the edge of a flooding streamwant to go to the far shore but are afraid. They don't know what to do untilone wise person comes along, assesses the situation, takes a running leap andjumps to the other side. Seeing the example of that person, the other say,"Yes, it can be done." That is one level of faith. After we have jumpedourselves, when we say, "Yes, it can be done," that is quite another level offaith.
The first instance is an example of what is called "bright faith." This isthe kind of faith that happens when our hearts are opened by encounteringsomebody or something that moves us. Perhaps we are inspired by a person'squalities of love or wisdom or kindness. Whether it is someone we know or ahistorical figure like the Buddha or another great being, we can begin tosense the possibility of another, happier way to live.
Bright faith is a wonderful feeling and an important beginning, but it isalso unreliable. We might encounter somebody one day and someone else anotherday, and be powerfully moved by each of them, but in opposite directions. Wecan get distracted by whatever influence comes into our lives next.
Mature faith is anchored in our own experience of the truth, centered int hedeeper understanding of the nature of the mind and body that we come to inmeditation practice. This deeper level of faith is called "verified faith,"which means it is grounded in our own experience, rather than coming fromsomeone outside of ourselves.
It is a great turning point in our spiritual lives when we come go from anintellectual appreciation of a path to the heartfelt confidence that says,"Yes, it is possible to awaken. I can, too." A tremendous joy accompaniesthis confidence. When we place our hearts upon the practice, the teachingscome alive. That turning point, which transforms an abstract concept of aspiritual path into out own personal path, is faith.
Sharon Salzberg is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society and the BarreCenter for Buddhist Studies, both in Barre, Massachusetts. Her books include:Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness
and A Heart As Wide As the World
(both fromShambhala Publications)