Faith, Devotion and Wisdom

What is the place of faith in the Buddhadharma? Is it merely blind faith? And which comes first: faith and devotion, or wisdom? Sogyal Rinpoche embraces questions such as these in his address to the Conference of Buddhist Teachers in the West in California in June 2000

"Faith goes before, and, like a mother, gives birth;
It causes all virtues to rise and grow,
Clearing away doubts and rescuing from the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and death;
Faith reveals the city of happiness.

Faith makes the mind unsullied and pure;
It casts off pride and is the root of devotion.
Faith is like a treasure. It is wealth and peace unexcelled, and,
Like hands, is the chief means of gathering virtue."
Buddha, in 'The Jewelled Lamp Sutra'

In Buddhism, faith is indispensable: without faith, the teachings tell us, nothing positive can develop, just as a green shoot can never grow from a dried-up seed. Shantideva quotes Buddha in his 'Compendium of Trainings':

"They who long to put an end to sorrow and reach sublime happiness must firmly plant the root of faith, and stabilize their minds, in the quest for enlightenment."

What is faith exactly? The Abhidharmakosha tells us:

"Faith is full confidence in the law of karma, cause and effect, in the Four Noble Truths and in the Three Jewels. It is also aspiration for spiritual attainment, and a clear-minded appreciation of the truth."

How do we arouse this faith? The only way is to begin by using our ordinary intelligence. Through the wisdom of studying, reflecting deeply, and meditating on the teachings, we examine them, just as, in the famous example, Buddha says we must examine gold:

"O bhiksus and wise men,
Just as a goldsmith would test his gold
By burning, cutting, and rubbing it,
So you must examine my words and accept them,
But not merely out of reverence for me."

As we examine the teachings, it inspires in us a trust in the truth of the Dharma, that unfolds through four stages: vivid faith, eager faith, confident faith, and, finally, irreversible faith. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains: “When faith has become so much a part of you that, even at the cost of your life, there is no way you would ever renounce it, it is then irreversible faith. When your faith reaches that point, whatever circumstances you may meet, you will always be completely confident.

So in the Buddhadharma, faith is not blind faith, but one proven through reasoning and investigation. Nagarjuna says in his 'Precious Garland':

"By having faith, one relies on the Dharma;
By having wisdom, one truly knows.
Of these two, wisdom is the chief;
But faith is its prerequisite."

As it grows stronger, faith turns into devotion, and a tremendous gratitude to the teacher springs up, which carries us beyond the ordinary dualistic mind. So open is our heart that clinging at self falls away, and there awakens within us the transcendent wisdom of prajñaparamita. And so with that devotion comes the blessing that is the catalyst for realization. It is said:

"Innate, absolute wisdom can only come
As the mark of having accumulated merit and purified obscurations,
And through the blessing of a realized teacher.
Know that to rely on any other means is foolish."

At this point, devotion is what reveals the innermost nature of mind. Patrul Rinpoche explains:

"As you develop a faith quite beyond the commonplace, by its power the blessings of the teacher and of the Three Jewels will enter you. Then true realization will arise and you will feel an even more extraordinary and irreversible faith and confidence in your teacher and in the Three Jewels. In this way, faith and the realization of the natural state support each other."

Devotion then is the inspirer, that which moves and stirs us and unveils ‘the natural state’, the innermost nature of mind. To me, devotion is a kind of love, but a love suffused by wisdom, the most profound kind of love that can be known by the human mind and heart.

The path of devotion becomes a training of the mind in pure perception, and as it deepens, everything is experienced as a display of infinite sacredness and purity. This very world about us arises as our teacher.

However, devotion remains always intelligent. The teachings explain how, before taking anyone as a teacher, it is crucial that the student examines the teacher, and the teacher checks the student. The qualities of a true teacher are also spelled out in great detail in the scriptures.

Now, certain things must be clearly understood about devotion:

—Real devotion is not mindless adoration.
—It is not abdication of your responsibility for yourself,
—Nor undiscriminating following of a teacher’s personality and whims.
—Real devotion is lucid, grounded and intelligent.
—Above all, it should never be confused with the ordinary, afflictive emotions.

Then, devotion is for no-one’s benefit but our own. The whole point is to help us to free ourselves from the grasping of ego, so true devotion is not dependence, but on the contrary, a liberation.

Put most simply, devotion is a skilful and practical way of making us more receptive to the truth of the teachings of the lineage, as embodied and transmitted by the teacher.

In the modern world, I believe, devotion should be taught with great care.

—First, students should be allowed to find their own way, and find their own level. Devotion is not ‘expected’ by a teacher, and students should not feel compelled to cultivate it. Devotion needs to grow in tune with an individual’s spiritual development.

—Next, we need to be aware that people bring with them not only the preconceptions of society, but also their own emotional and psychological history. They may come, moved by all kinds of unconscious needs, troubles, and expectations. We know too that issues of projection and transference are very real ones today. A teacher must be aware of all of this, and slowly help a person discover the place of devotion in his or her own practice, free from afflictive emotions.

—Finally, misconceptions about something like devotion also occur when there is a lack of a complete knowledge of the teachings, or a basic education in the Dharma.

All this underlines what I believe is a vital point, crucial for the future of the Buddhadharma: the importance of a basic education, a thorough grounding in the Dharma, of a kind which enables people to arrive at an understanding which is not limited or mistaken, but honours the richness of the Dharma. The role of teachers, I feel, today is to think seriously of strengthening and deepening Dharmic education, both among themselves and for students. It highlights the importance of offering a serious study, grounding and training in Dharma for those who wish to follow a complete spiritual path.

And this is why I am doing my best to shape a curriculum of study and practice within our own Dharma community, in the spirit of ‘Rimé’, seeking the advice of masters of all traditions, both young and old.