Sharon Salzberg has been practicing and studying Buddhism for more than 30 years. A renowned spiritual leader and meditation instructor, she is the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. The message in her latest book, "Faith," offers insight to practitioners of any religious tradition.

What does faith mean to you?

Faith means several different things to me. It means having the courage to go forward into the unknown. I think we spend so much of our lives trying to pretend that we know what's going to happen next. In fact we don't. To recognize that we don't know even what will happen this afternoon and yet having the courage to move forward--that's one meaning of faith.

Another meaning of faith is an engaged and open-hearted participation in life; it's not standing on the sidelines. So for example we might think that realization, compassion, or any of the beautiful qualities that spiritual traditions talk about are for others but not for us. To step right into the center of that possibility to see how we might evolve, the goodness that we might manifest--that's faith.

The way I use the word "faith" is not in terms of a belief system. When I started talking about faith I got many varied reactions from my students including a great deal of dismay.

As you quote your students in the book, "We came to Buddhism to get away from all this shit"

Right! I think so many people tend to think of faith as blind adherence to a dogma or unquestioned surrender to an authority figure, and the result is losing self-respect and losing our own sense of what is true. And I don't think of faith in those terms at all. I think we all have tremendous resources of faith within, that we can have an empowered faith, an idea of faith that's fresh and vibrant, and our own. So I wanted to write the book in part to help reclaim the word.

The traditional meaning in Pali is "to offer your heart, to place your heart." It is actually a verb, it's an action that we take. So the action of faith is that of opening, of connecting, of participating, and of moving forward.

It's also faith in an interconnected universe. That we are not alone no matter how alone we might feel. That what happens to us, what we do is part of the larger fabric of life. So what we care about, the actions that we take are very important because they ripple out throughout these threads of connection.

Would you say that faith is more important than beliefs?

There's a distinction that can be drawn. My understanding of beliefs is that they come from outside of us, from another person, tradition, or heritage; and that beliefs often attempt to make a known of the unknown. It's crafting a sense of certainty.

Faith, on the other hand, isn't a definition of reality but an active, open state that enables us to be willing to explore life and to meet what comes to us. So with faith we can move forward into the unknown, which is the truth of things--without pulling back or without closing our hearts.

The example from Buddhist tradition is of looking at the sky through the straw. We each look at the sky through our particular straw and we think, "Wow, how big, that's really vast." And we get attached to our straw and we compare our straws to other people's: "Mine's wider, mine has a better design on it." We hold on very tightly to the straw--that's like holding onto a belief--it's just one angle on the truth. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of faith actually to let go of that straw and just look nakedly at the sky. Then we say, "Oh, that's really big!"

From the Buddhist point of view the distinction between faith and belief would lie in the injunction to test what we are told. This is what the Buddha is so famous for saying: Don't believe anything just because I've said it. Put it into practice and see for yourself if it's true. See for yourself if a belief--this way of holding the world, this vision, this idea--actually decreases grasping and delusion and hatred or see if it increases it.

Is this what you mean by "verifying faith"?

In the Buddhist tradition-- I think this idea of faith does cut across traditions and cultures and belief systems, but that's my language--we talk about 3 levels of faith.

The first being 'bright faith' which is when we're intoxicated with a teacher or a new way of looking at life. Suddenly we feel uplifted; it's like falling in love--and we all go through that state, hopefully, where we have that kind of inspiration and opening happening.