The other day one of the monks at the Mahamevnawa Monastery in South Brunswick, NJ gave a dhamma talk (aka sermon) on the story of a low-caste woman who met the Buddha Gotama along the road. After listening to the Buddha’s message, she paid respect to him, and they went on their way. Soon after that a bull attacked the woman and killed her. She had shown such confidence in the Buddha, however, that she was reborn as a devata, a goddess, and given a beautiful heavenly mansion, with 100,000 other goddesses to attend on her.
The monk used this story to illustrate the power of having confidence in the Buddha. I set aside my own questions about rebirth and goddesses living in heavenly mansions. (For non-theists, Buddhists have many supernatural beings.) I also refrained from asking how the description of this woman as “low-caste” was consistent with the Buddha’s rejection of the Hindu caste system. Instead I asked the monk about the word “confidence.” For one thing he spoke about having confidence in a person, the Buddha, not about belief in a set of doctrines. I asked if this confidence included the teachings of the Buddha? Yes, it does. Does this confidence include the community of the Buddha? Yes, it does. We are talking about confidence, then, in the Buddha, his teachings, and his community? Yes.
Buddhists frequently recite a chant in which they take refuge in the Buddha, his teachings, and his community. I asked whether having confidence was the same as taking refuge in the Buddha, his teachings, and his community. The monk answered yes.
Finally, I asked what Pali word was being translated as “confidence.” He said saddhā. (The Sanskrit word is śraddhā.) I said that saddhā often gets translated as “faith,” but that I like “confidence” better. I added that one of my favorite suttas is the one where the Buddha tells the Kalamas not to take his word for it, but to gain confidence based on what proves to be skillful or wholesome in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. The monk said that just last week he had been talking about this sutta.
For those in the Christian tradition, I would recommend chapter 11 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews as a good example of the kind of trusting we have been talking about. Most translators use the word “faith” for the original Greek word pístis, but they could just as well use “trust” or “confidence.” The interesting thing about Paul’s expansion on what it means to trust is that he doesn’t talk about a set of statements in which one must believe in order to have faith. Rather, he lists examples of accomplishments achieved by the ancestors of the Hebrews “by faith” (in the NSRV translation), that is, through trust, by means of confidence. Through their trust in their God, Abel made an acceptable sacrifice, Enoch cheated death, Noah survived the flood, Abraham moved to the Promised Land, Sarah bore a child in her old age. And so on. They could accomplish these deeds because of their trust in their God. This trust constituted a personal relationship, a covenant between YHWH and his people, individually and collectively.
It is interesting that Paul’s list of the ancestors of the Hebrews does not include Job. If ever there was a story of a challenge to an ancient Jew’s trust in YHWH, it is the story of Job. Job’s trust in YHWH was not tested by finding out that YHWH said something untrue or even that YHWH had lied. Rather, YHWH let the Adversary torment Job who had trusted that YHWH would protect and care for him as long as Job praised YHWH and led a good life.
This is not the place to get into all the questions arising from the story of Job. My point is that in both the Old and New Testaments, as the Christians call them, there exists a strong tradition of trust and confidence in God that does not involve belief in a set of statements. This is the kind of trust or confidence to which the Pali word saddhā refers.
How the Christian idea of faith has become separated from this personal trust and confidence can be seen in a nutshell in Aquinas’ discussion of the opening verse of Hebrews 11. In the NSRV, this verse reads: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In his Summa Theologica (II-II, Q. 4, a. 1), Aquinas poses the question whether this passage is “a fitting definition of faith.”
His analysis of the question makes a few tweaks to Paul’s words and ends with:
Accordingly, if anyone would reduce the foregoing words to the form of a definition, he may say that faith is a habit of the mind, whereby the eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent. (original emphasis)
As Aquinas says a little bit later, “faith pertains to the intellect as commanded by the will.”
My only point here is to illustrate why I prefer “trust” or “confidence” over “faith” to translate saddhā in the Theravada Buddhist scripture and śraddhā in the Mahayana. I’m just trying to point out the associations with intellectual assent that the word “faith” has in our Western traditions, not to argue the merits of faith vs saddhā. But they are not the same. The associations of “faith” with creeds and “articles of faith” provide the ground for the conflicts between faith and science in the West. On that subject, however, I wish more Catholic fundamentalists would actually study what Aquinas has to say about faith. If something can be studied by science, then it’s not a matter of faith. As Paul says, faith is about “things not seen.”
The next day I experienced what it means to trust. As I was working out in the therapy pool at my health club, I saw a little girl, somewhere around two or three, getting swimming lessons. Over the last six months or so, I have watched this child. In her first lesson she clung to her mother and refused to get into the pool with the instructor. Once the adults had gotten her into the pool, she clung to the instructor and would not release her grip. By this week, however, the instructor could have her climb up on the side of the pool and jump in. It was the first splash that caught my attention. The child jumped again. The look of joy on her face as she launched herself into the air and cannonballed into the water lit up the large natatorium. The instructor did not catch her, but did help her climb back out to jump again. She was having fun. I said to myself, “That’s confidence. That’s trust.” She no longer had to trust that the instructor would take care of her in the water. She no longer had to trust what the instructor told her. Though she did. After six months in the water, she could also trust herself and trust the water. She could play in the water and become better and better at swimming. That’s confidence.