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Another Characteristic of Faith in Buddhism: Inheritance

Avatamsaka Sutra, Zhou Version, the First Tripitaka Koreana Edition, Volume 13; Goryeo period (918–1392). From

The root of virtue can be inherited life after life

In Buddhism, faith is the first of the Five Roots of Virtue—faith, zeal, mindfulness (invocation), meditation, and wisdom. It is said in the Avatamsaka Sutra that: “Faith is the source and origin of all merits and virtues, like an embryo from which all the various roots of virtue grow.” Also, faith is defined in the Doctrine of Mere Consciousness, which was compiled and written by the 7th century master, Xuanzang, as follows: “With respect to reality, virtue, and capacity, there is a kind of deep faith that one has delight in pursuing. The nature of this faith is purification of the mind.”

In this regard, it is generally said that faith in the Buddha and his teachings is the beginning of wisdom. Faith is a root of virtue that can be nourished by another root of virtue—wisdom—once the latter has grown deep through the zealous practice of meditation. Faith can also be nourished and deepened on its own through the zealous practice of mindfulness—in other words Buddha-mindfulness, or specifically, in Pure Land Buddhism, Amitabha-recitation. The former is known as faith through interpretation, and the latter, as faith through devotion.

Like wisdom, faith is called a “root of virtue” because it is a kind of deep belief that is related to transcendental truths and that can lead Buddhists to emancipation, liberation, enlightenment, and purity—rather than to mundane good fortune and blessings. Moreover, this kind of faith in Buddhism grows from within the devoted practitioner and can be “inherited” life after life without being destroyed. This is one of the characteristics of the roots of virtue, and is termed “indestructibility.”

Fourfold Indestructible Purity

In Buddhism, faith in (1) the Buddha, (2) the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), (3) the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order), and (4) precepts (purity in karma) is known as the Fourfold Indestructible Purity. This is because the substance of these four elements is permanent and ultimate in nature; thus, they are indestructible in purity. This means that faith is cumulative, life after life, and can be “retained” and perpetuated in our storehouse consciousness (Skt. alaya vijnana) without being destroyed or “drained” away, even after many lifetimes. It always grows from within us.

Every time we are reborn in the cycle of birth and death, either faith or wisdom, as roots of virtue, will form the intrinsic character of our “new” life. They are the fundamental factors that shape our personality, character, and value judgments. This explains why some, when they come across Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings, believe in them deeply, some harbor a mixture of belief and doubt, and some do not believe in them at all.

In Pure Land Buddhism, faith in Amitabha Buddha, faith in his teaching of deliverance, and faith in his name are forms of “indestructible purity,” too. Through repeated, zealous, sincere, and exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation, the reciter is embraced by Amitabha’s light and his root of faith is established and nourished.

The root of faith can also be utilized throughout one’s life without diminishing any of its merit and virtue. It is always freely and instantaneously available because of Amitabha’s omnipresent light, beyond any restriction in time and space. It is not established by our belief through direct experience, by our own effort, or through irrefutable deduction as an activity of the mind. This is the main difference between belief and faith.

Inherited deep roots of virtue through zealous cultivation

Pure Land Buddhism is founded on Amitabha’s vow power to deliver sentient beings through rebirth in the Land of Bliss. However, we are ordinary beings with heavy karmic obscurations, so we cannot see Amitabha Buddha and his Land of Bliss with our physical eyes.

Thus, Pure Land is a teaching that is difficult to believe in, so one is encouraged to develop a belief through testimony worthy of confidence: the golden words spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha in the three Pure Land sutras. This is the most direct and simplest, and probably the only, way to enter the door of the Pure Land teachings.

Master Shandao says in his Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra that, “Those who believe in the Pure Land teachings upon first hearing them must have inherited deep roots of virtue through zealous cultivation of this teaching [on Amitabha Buddha] in past lives. Thus, they hear this teaching again in their present life and deeply believe in it, accept it, and practice it with right mindfulness. Thus, they are certain to be reborn [in the Land of Bliss].”

From this paragraph we learn the following:

1. If someone who hears the Pure Land teachings deeply believes (i.e. has faith) in them upon first hearing them, he must have deep roots of virtue inherited through cultivation in his past lives, whether the root of wisdom or the root of faith.

2. If someone who hears the Pure Land teachings deeply believes (has faith) in them upon first hearing them, he must have heard and practiced them in his past lives. As he has practiced the Pure Land teachings, he is likely to have recited Amitabha’s name in his past lives.

3. Unfortunately, however, since he did not practice in right mindfulness in his past lives, he could not be reborn in the Land of Bliss. Nevertheless, as he has inherited a deep root of faith through Amitabha-recitation practice—which was not destroyed and did not “drain” away—he can believe in this Pure Land teaching that is difficult to believe in upon hearing it in this present life.

With regard to practitioners of exclusive Amitabha-recitation, they are praised as puṇḍarika (white lotus flowers) because they are future Buddhas, and therefore very rare and precious. Moreover, they are the good friends of Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta, the Bodhisattvas of Equal Enlightenment,* as it says in the Contemplation Sutra.

* The stage of a Bodhisattva of Equal Enlightenment is equivalent to a bodhisattva of the 51st stage, also known as a Buddha-to-be, or One who will Become a Buddha in One More Lifetime. It is the highest level that a bodhisattva can achieve.

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