The Buddhist Concept of Faith

Evening Vigil at Wat Pah Boon Lawm

This passage on faith is found in chapter 18 of Buddhadhamma, by Ven. Phra Payutto, on the unique attributes of awakened beings:


Let us return to the first virtue of faith (saddhā) and examine how it is a crucial factor at the beginning of spiritual practice. Normally, faith is divided into three groups: faith in the Buddha, faith in the Dhamma, and faith in the Sangha. Occasionally, a single, precise definition is presented, especially when describing the faith of a noble disciple before the realization of stream-entry: (a person) has faith in the enlightenment of the Tathāgata thus: ‘The Blessed One is an arahant … the Awakened One.’ This form of faith is called ‘faith in the Tathāgata’s awakening’ (tathāgata-bodhi-saddhā).1 It is faith in the wisdom of the Buddha, who is considered the archetype, representative, or pioneer for all human beings.

Bodhi Leaf at Wat Pah Boon Lawm

The Buddha’s awakening confirms that all human beings are capable of realizing the truth and reaching the highest good through mindfulness, wisdom, and disciplined effort. The Buddha compared himself to a baby chick who is the first to peck its way through the eggshell of ignorance,2 and to a discoverer of an ancient path who reveals this path to humanity.3 Faith in the Buddha’s awakening is thus equivalent to faith in the capability and wisdom of human beings. Or more succinctly, it is self-confidence or faith in oneself. This confidence is not selfish belief or pride, but rather confidence in being human or an objective trust in humanity. One believes in the human potential for wisdom, that every person can reach the highest goal through spiritual training and fulfil the greatest of human aspirations.4 The Buddha is the symbol of self-belief; he was the first person to assert this human potential and the first person to not attribute enlightenment to a divine or supernatural power.

Effectively, faith in the Buddha’s awakening encompasses faith in the Triple Gem: there is trust that human beings can develop wisdom to the point of resolving even the most refined difficulties in the heart, and they are able to reach the highest liberation and complete happiness, just as the Buddha was able to accomplish as leader and guide; there is trust that these principles of practice and the highest goal are aspects of truth based on natural laws; and there is trust that there are people who have reached this goal, who comprise a noble community, have verified the truth, propagate the Dhamma, spread blessings, and are fully prepared to assist others in joining this noble community.

Although Buddhism advocates wisdom, faith is an essential quality at the beginning stages of practice, before a person realizes his or her potential and perfects wisdom. Faith here is different from what is commonly understood and should not be mistaken for blind faith; it is faith in wisdom, linked with wisdom, and leads to wisdom.

Buddhist Ordination Candidate Chanting

There are two important aspects to faith in the Triple Gem or to faith in the Buddha’s awakening. First, the entire teaching in Buddhism, including modes of practice and the highest goal, rests on the principle that human beings are capable of following in the Buddha’s footsteps and realizing the truth through their own effort and wisdom. There exists no external, supreme source of power surpassing that of human beings. If this principle were to be false, then the entire Buddhist system of practice and the stated goal would be meaningless and void. Second, if a Buddhist disciple does not have trust in this human potential, he will be unable to progress along the path of Buddhism. How would he be able to devote himself to practice? In fact, he would not be a true disciple of the Buddha. Faith in the Buddha’s awakening is thus an essential quality for a Buddhist.


1 Alternatively, ‘faith in the wisdom of the discoverer of Truth.’ It is noteworthy that the Buddha uses the term tathāgata here to refer to himself, because there are many epithets for the Buddha and each one emphasizes different qualities. The use of the term tathāgata here is consistent with the passage where the Buddha describes the laws of nature, which exist autonomously and are not dependent on the arising of Tathāgatas; a Tathāgata is merely the discoverer and revealer of these truths (see: A. I. 286; S. II. 25). On many occasions the term tathāgata is translated as a ‘being’ (e.g.: M. I. 426; S. IV. 395; explained, for example, at MA. III. 142). Interested scholars may compare bodhi here with the concept of Buddhahood in the Mahāyāna tradition.

2 Vin. III. 3-4.

3 S. II. 106; S. III. 66, 108-9; M. III. 4.

4 In answer to the question of whether human knowledge is limited, the knowledge of one who is well-trained is the highest possible degree of human wisdom. If this knowledge has limits, then no knowledge exists elsewhere that surpasses and augments it; even the knowledge belonging to the highest gods is imparted by human beings (see: Kevaṭṭa-sutta, D. I. 215-23; Brahmanimantanika-sutta, M. I. 326-31).


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