The broader meaning of faith in Buddhism
Religion, in its simplistic definition in the Western world, is synonymous with faith. Many religions talk about an afterlife and the path to eternity after death, but because these scenarios are beyond the understanding of ordinary human beings, faith in an almighty God, a supernatural power, or a deity who exists in the ethereal realms and can arbitrarily reward and punish, is inevitable.
Faith may be rooted in a belief in an eternal afterlife, but it cannot be said that this is necessarily the defining characteristic of religion. Many people have “faith” in teachings that have nothing to do with an afterlife, such as atheists who deny—without any scientific proof—the existence of a creator.
In my previous article, I noted that faith in Buddhism is the first of the Five Roots of Virtue—faith, zeal, mindfulness, meditation, and wisdom. The Avatamsaka Sutra tells us that, “Faith is the origin of all merits and virtues, like an embryo from which all the various roots of virtue grow.” In Buddhism, faith is the experiential aspect of one’s own belief; it is nurtured through zealous practice (mindfulness or meditation), repeated exposure to the teachings, and deep emotional experiences on the path to realization or wisdom.
Faith is also defined in the Doctrine of Mere Consciousness (compiled and written in the 7th century by the eminent 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.” What does this concise definition mean? It not only applies to the qualities of a religious founder, but can also be extended to his teachings. And the last sentence about purification leads us to the concept of unsurpassed Pure Faith.
Real, virtuous, capable—faith through interpretation
With reference to the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, faith means belief in the Five Precepts, the Ten Wholesome Deeds, the Four Noble Truths, the Three Studies, the Three Meritorious Deeds, the myriad practices for cultivating the Six Paramitas, and of course, in the Pure Land teachings, belief in the Buddhist sutras. Based on one’s own belief and understanding, one accepts and follows the teachings of meditative and non-meditative practices. With zealous cultivation, one attains the merits and virtues of these practices by dint of one’s own efforts, and nourishes one’s root of wisdom, which grows deep.
With a deeper root of wisdom, the practitioner’s faith in the Buddhist teachings is strengthened. One is delighted to pursue faith through interpretation through further practice in order to purify one’s mind. In this way, the practitioner aims to transform ignorance and delusion into wisdom, and attachment and selfishness into compassion.
With these roots of virtue, the practitioner should be able to transcend reincarnation, gain happiness, and end suffering; one should be able to purify one’s mind in order to dwell in the Pure Land, or even attain perfect Enlightenment and reach the state of ultimate purity in mind and body. The function of faith through interpretation of the Buddhist teachings is to nourish the practitioner’s virtuous root of wisdom. This is the whole idea of Buddhism—to achieve ultimate liberation.
Pure faith in Pure Land Buddhism
In Pure Land Buddhism, we utilize a broader and deeper definition of “pure faith,” characterized by reality, virtue, and capacity. According to the Three Universal Truths,* all phenomena in this world are impermanent and unreal; only the Buddha who dwells in the state of nirvana is ultimately real.
In Buddhism, as the nature of faith is purity, there are deeper meanings of “real,” “virtuous,” and “capable.” In the case of pure faith:
– “Real” means permanent, unconditioned, and not subject to change according to causal conditions.
– “Virtuous” refers to virtue related to liberation from the cycle of birth and death, in accordance with the Two Truths of Buddhist teachings—the mundane, related to blessings, happiness, health, fortune and intelligence in our human life, and the transcendental, related to wisdom, the afterlife, and eternal happiness.
– “Capable” means having the power that enables us to reach the ultimate state of purity.
Pure Land practitioners deeply believe that Amitabha is a real Buddha in his real Land of Bliss, as stated in the Amitabha Sutra. In addition, we deeply believe that Amitabha is a reward-body (Skt. Sambhogakaya) Buddha, with perfect and complete merits and virtues. With his unconditional kindness, he delivers sentient beings in the Ten Directions through his name in the form of light. His virtuous light embraces all those who invoke him or recite his name, as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Contemplation Sutra.
Moreover, we deeply believe that Amitabha Buddha has accomplished his 48 Vows, including the 18th Vow, so that sentient beings can be reborn in his land through recourse to his great karmic vow power, as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Infinite Life Sutra. Amitabha Buddha’s Fundamental Vow is powerful enough to deliver all sentient beings of different aptitudes who exclusively recite his name and aspire to be reborn in his land, as stated by Shakyamuni Buddha in the three Pure Land sutras.
The Land of Bliss is a “pure land” of unconditioned nirvana, totally different from the Saha World—this conditioned realm marked by the cycle of death and rebirth. An inhabitant of the Pure Land naturally possesses a “pure body” that is free from obstruction, with supernormal powers, and a pure mind that is free from attachment. That is what “purification of the mind” refers to, as defined in the Doctrine of Mere Consciousness.
As such, faith in Amitabha Buddha and his deliverance, established and developed through the exclusive practice of Amitabha-recitation in accord with his Fundamental Vow, is truly called “pure faith.” With recourse to Amitabha’s vow power, the devotee is assured of rebirth in the Pure Land, and dwells there in a state of non-retrogression, which leads directly to ultimate purity.
Pure faith is a unique feature of Pure Land Buddhism, differing from all other kinds of faith as it directly leads devotees to Buddhahood, the ultimate state of purity and perfect Enlightenment.
*The Three Universal Truths: the Truth of Impermanence, the Truth of No-self, and the Truth of Nirvana.