Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go”- Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
There are many, many beliefs and believers, but faith, as Watts uses the word here, is rare indeed, as are those who live in faith.
The word “faith” is used promiscuously in our culture and misapplied to all kinds of what are more accurately defined as beliefs, or even hopes. People say they have faith in God – generally as represented by their particular religion – or that their prayers will be answered if they are sufficiently “faithful.” Perhaps they have faith in a political figure or that their baseball team will win the World Series. This generally speaks to people seeking something they can hold on to, something to which they can attach their identity, that can help them find some specialness and meaning for their lives. They want to believe in something that makes their lives a little less a cipher. They want to be able to pray, chant, sing, dance, follow rigid precepts, burn candles, fast, do penance, laying-on-hands, diksha, participate in rituals that allows them to transcend their frightened sense of vulnerable separateness and merge into something larger. The issue is whether they are merging their individual ego into a larger collective ego or into the no-ego of life and the universe, of God in the universal sense of the word. This is the difference between belief and faith.
People misapply the word “faith” onto belief systems that are imperfect projections of their own egos, looking for specialness and security for their personal identity and those with whom they identify. They pit those of their “faith” and “beliefs” against those of differing “faith” and “beliefs.” This interchangeable use of these words can be applied to religion, but also political/economic ideologies, even dependent interpersonal relationships. These words ought not be considered interchangeable. This misapplication has made religion too often a scourge to human history rather than a refuge and balm. It has allowed deeply flawed political/economic systems to be followed blindly, and become sources of much human strife and misery. It can, as well, create deeply dysfunctional relationships.
This application of the word faith actually reveals a lack of faith. It simply means blind belief, and often a good clue to what is belief rather than faith is the suffix “ism” and just so there is no confusion, this can be applied to Buddhism as well. Buddhism practiced as a belief in the achievement of Nirvana, or for blessings in life if certain practices and teachings are followed by rote, is just as much a flawed belief system as any other “ism.” The word “Buddhism” is a convenience of language. The saving grace of the teachings associated with this word is the warning said to be given by the Buddha to not “believe” what he teaches – rather to let his words and example be pointers to what is real and true – that which can only be experienced in one’s own deep silent faith – that one is in fact seeking that which is already in them – a truth that is silent and is one’s own deepest nature. The teachings, the “ism” of Buddhism, are sometimes described as a boat that can take you to the further shore of awakened truth, Buddha-nature, and that having arrived, the boat must be left behind in order to explore the shore and the vast realm beyond. Clinging to the vessel of the journey is not the point of the journey. “It is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.”
Faith is saying “yes” in the face of life’s uncertainty and confusion. It is saying “yes” I know there is meaning and purpose deeper than events, that events are only servants of a deeper purpose. What is far too rare is faith in basic goodness and kindness and in our common humanity. Rarer still is faith in the perfection and sacredness of nature and the universe – that we, in fact, are expressions of that perfection and sacredness and that within us and through us that wisdom and perfection is expressed and manifested. We only need to quiet our insecure, seeking minds to find that which is already in us, in fact, is who we are. This is the essence of faith. It may not be able to be articulated, it may be a silent sense of “the peace that surpasseth understanding.” There may be any of the myriad names of God, or no God as a personification at all, attached to this felt sense that those who possess it have difficulty articulating. That this sense of faith may leave those who experience it speechless is perhaps its best indicator of authenticity.
The great Zen teacher, Dainin Katagiri, wrote two books, the first entitled Returning to Silence. The second was You Have to Say Something. This catches the conundrum of seeking truth through words or belief systems. So “Buddhism” is a word that points to what a person can only find by letting go of beliefs and words, words in the Dharma, its teachings that are pointers to silent truths behind the words. Yet, you have to say something. The something can only rise from the silent certainty of faith, the felt sense of oneness with the great Source. You can be of any or none of the religious “isms” and have this certainty. You can call it God, Jesus, Allah, Brahma, Buddha. You can call it Life, Nature, the Universe, the Moment, the Mystery, Being. You can call it “I am.” But when any of those names expresses a belief rather than a silent knowing and faith, it is more likely a projection of our ego.
Many would call faith as described by Watts foolish, but it is only through this kind of faith that we can truly find ourselves and our balance and place within life. This sort of faith opens us to truth precisely because it emerges with the realization that we are an expression of life and the universe and therefore, the true nature of life and the universe is like a resonant wave in our consciousness. This is the silent intelligence and capacity for discerning truth that is awareness.
When someone says they are a “person of faith” and you ask them to describe what they mean, and they begin describing the teachings of some “ism” by rote rather than hesitating and offering a disclaimer about how hard it is to describe, then you know you are in the presence of a believer who has not yet found the silent strength within that is “an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.”
But if they speak of some silent “knowing” that strengthens and fortifies them, that takes them beyond the feeling of separateness from life, that allows then to say “yes” to life in all its occurrences and manifestations, that is “a plunge into the unknown,” they have left all boats of belief behind and found the further shore of faith. Remarkably then, it is discovered the further shore is this very life we live, in its ordinary and mundane tasks and challenges, only now, released from preconceptions and clinging, it is experienced with, as the Jewish mystic Abraham Heschel spoke, “sublime wonder,” and with the peace and compassion that naturally arises in the oneness with life that is faith.