The meaning, role, and importance of faith (saddhā) in the Buddhist teachings is as follows:
Faith here does not mean handing over complete responsibility to something or someone without applying reasoned judgement. On the contrary. To do that would be an expression of simple emotionality.
Faith is merely one stage—and the first stage—in the development of wisdom. Correct faith is connected to reasoned analysis: it must lead to and be validated by wisdom. It is the opposite to handing over complete responsibility or to a total entrusting oneself to something or someone else without applying reasoned judgement, which is an expression of simple emotionality (āvega) and leads people to stop making inquiries. Faith based simply on emotion is a form of gullibility; it should be amended and ultimately eliminated. Granted, the emotion stemming from a correct kind of faith can prove useful at early stages of Dhamma practice, but in the end it is replaced by wisdom.
The faith included in wisdom development is perhaps better defined as self-confidence: a person has a strong conviction based on critical reasoning that the aspired-to goal or ideal is both valuable and attainable. This faith inspires a person to validate the truth which he or she believes to be reasonably accessible.
To help define faith in a correct manner, all teachings in the Pali Canon containing saddhā in a group of spiritual factors also contain wisdom as an accompanying factor, and normally, faith is listed as the first factor while wisdom is listed as the final factor in these groups. Teachings emphasizing wisdom, however, do not need to include the factor of faith. Because wisdom governs other virtues and is an essential factor, it is more important than faith. Even as a personal attribute wisdom rather than faith is the decisive factor: those individuals who are most highly praised in Buddhism, like the chief disciple Venerable Sāriputta, are those who possess the greatest wisdom.
There are two distinct benefits to faith: 1) faith conditions rapture (pīti), which gives rise to tranquillity (passaddhi), which in turn leads to concentration and finally to wisdom; and 2) faith generates effort—the endeavour to undertake spiritual practice and to put to the test those things believed in by faith, in order to witness the truth for oneself, which eventually leads to wisdom. Although these two benefits stem from an emotional basis, the process leading to their culmination must always contain an inherent aspiration for wisdom.
As the purpose of true faith is to support wisdom, faith must promote critical discernment, which leads to wisdom development. And faith itself is well-grounded and secure only when a person has established confidence and dispelled doubts through rational inquiry. In Buddha-Dhamma, the quality of faith thus supports inquiry and investigation. The methods of appealing to others to believe, forcing others to accept a prescribed truth, or threatening disbelievers with punishment are all incompatible with this Buddhist principle of faith.
Faith and devotion to an individual has drawbacks. The Buddha even encouraged his disciples to abandon devotion to the Buddha himself, because such devotion is heavily invested with emotion and can become an obstacle to complete and perfect liberation.
Faith is not classified as a factor of the Path, because it is wisdom, linked to and validating faith, that is the necessary factor for progressing on the Path. Furthermore, those persons with great wisdom, for example the perfectly enlightened Buddhas and the Pacceka-Buddhas, begin the Path at wisdom, without passing through the stage of faith. The cultivation of wisdom needs not always begin with faith—it may also begin with wise reflection (yoniso-manasikāra). Therefore, the Buddha inserted the concept of faith in the section on developing right view; he did not distinguish faith as a separate factor.
Even faith that passes beyond what is called ‘blind faith’ is still considered incorrect if it does not reach the stage of inquiry, of aiming for clear vision, because it fails to fulfil its function. Spiritual practice stuck at this level is still defective, because it lacks a true objective.
Although faith is of significant benefit, at the final stages it must come to an end. The existence of faith indicates that the true goal has not yet been reached, because as long as a person ‘believes’ in that goal, it shows that he has not yet realized it for himself. As long as faith exists, it reveals that a person still depends on external things, entrusts wisdom to external things, and has not reached perfect freedom. Faith is therefore not an attribute of an arahant; on the contrary, an arahant has the attribute of being ‘faithless’ (asaddha), which means that he or she has directly realized the truth and no longer needs to believe in another person or in a rational explanation for the truth.
To sum up, progression on the Path is gradual, beginning with faith (saddhā), developing into a seeing or understanding in line with cause and effect (diṭṭhi), and finally leading to a knowledge and vision of the truth (ñāṇa-dassana). At the final stage, the task of faith is ended.
The importance and advantages of faith should be clearly understood. One should neither give faith too much value nor hold it in contempt, both of which have harmful consequences. A disparagement of faith reveals a misunderstanding of faith’s role. A person may possess a high degree of self-confidence, for example, but this may simply be a belief in his own mental defilements and manifest as conceit and egoism.
In relation to moral conduct (sīla), faith is a vital factor. It provides people with supportive principles that act as deterrents, enabling them to resist temptations and provocations and to abstain from performing bad actions. Faith also provides a channel for thought. When a person experiences a sense impression that does not overwhelm the mind (does not exceed the power of the principles instilled by faith), the course of his thinking follows the path prepared by faith; thoughts do not stray in unwholesome directions. For a person who is still subject to mental defilements, faith thus sustains virtuous conduct. Although faith has many benefits, however, if it is not accompanied by wisdom then it can be harmful and it can even hinder the development of wisdom.
In reference to wisdom development, it is possible to give a rough outline of the various stages of faith, as follows:
- One develops views based on sound reason; one does not believe in things simply because one has been told by others (in accord with the Kālāma Sutta—see below).
- One safeguards truthfulness (saccānurakkha); one listens to the teachings, opinions, and doctrines of various parties with objectivity; one does not rush into making judgements about things that one does not yet truly know; one does not stubbornly insist that one’s personal knowledge and opinions represent the truth.
- When one has listened to the teachings and opinions of others, has seen that they accord with reason, and has observed that the person who offers these teachings is sincere, unbiased and wise, confidence arises. One accepts the teachings in order to continue an examination of the truth using reasoned analysis.
- One contemplates and examines these teachings until one is convinced that they are true and correct; one feels deeply impressed by the truth that one has witnessed and makes effort to further one’s investigations in order to deepen a realization of the truth.
- If one has doubts one hastens to inquire from others with a sincere heart; one inquires not to shore up one’s identity but in order to gain wisdom. Faith is consolidated by proving the truth of reasoned arguments. In this way the purpose of faith is fulfilled.