Faith in Buddhism?

Here in the West we have all sorts of baggage around the word faith. We tend to think it means believing without thinking or believing things that aren’t true or even just superstition.

By Daniel Scharpenburg

In Buddhism there was a development called Pure Land.

This movement started around the year 100, so…700 years after the life of the Buddha. It began in India but it really took off in China, and was a teaching that had some things that we might not normally associate with Buddhism.

The teaching was that Buddhism doesn’t work anymore, that meditation won’t bring us to enlightenment, or even make our lives better at all. The followers of this sect thought our only hope was to pray to be saved. They believed that an enlightened guy named Amida Buddha created a path for us and that by chanting his name and praying to him we can be brought to a place called the Pure Land.

Pure Land Buddhism became the most successful sect in China.

I’m not bringing this up to say Pure Land Buddhism is bad. I don’t think chanting and prayer are useless, although I do think they’re not for me. But what I want to talk about is what arose in response to Pure Land Buddhism and see if that can be meaningful to us.

Pure Land Buddhism is about faith. The Sanskrit word is “Shradda” and the Chinese word is “Xin.” People are sometimes confused when you bring up the word faith in Buddhism. We often hear stories about the Buddha and other figures saying things like “Come see for yourself.” And “Don’t believe in this just because I said it.” And those are really good sentiments. It’s for that reason that some people don’t want to use the word faith in a Buddhist context at all.

Here in the West we have all sorts of baggage around the word faith. We tend to think it means believing without thinking or believing things that aren’t true or even just superstition.

I wonder if we can save the word “faith,” if we can use it. I don’t know. I know people that hate that word.

Some people might say that Pure Land Buddhism isn’t real Buddhism because it’s about hoping someone will come save you. I disagree. I don’t want to kick anyone out of Buddhism. It’s a big tent and if we start drawing lines we’ll probably never stop. But I talked about all this to get to the point where I can talk about Faith in the Zen tradition. Faith is definitely what the Pure Land Buddhists rely on. They need faith to believe that Amida Buddha would save them.

The early Zen teachers in China saw how popular Pure Land Buddhism was and they wanted to show that there’s another way—another kind of faith. Not a faith in the sky, not a faith someone will come save you.

Your true nature is good. Your practice can help clear away your delusion so you can help yourself and others. You can bring yourself to a place where you suffer less.

It’s not about faith in gods and spirits. It’s about faith in yourself.

So, around a 1000 years after the Buddha’s time there was a Zen teacher named Sengcan who wrote a text that’s one of my favorites called “Xinxin Ming” which is usually translated as “Faith in Mind.” I’ve suggested before that we should call it “Confidence in Mind” instead. But the reason it’s always been called “Faith in Mind” is because he did write it in response to another way of looking at the world. Faith in yourself instead of faith in something else.

We can use the word confidence instead, but does the word confidence have some baggage too?

Sometimes confidence might not be a virtue. If we’re not careful confidence can express a lack of humility. Faith can express a lack of doubt. Humility and doubt are important virtues too.

Humility keeps us grounded, stops us from looking down on others and stops us from becoming arrogant. Doubt keeps us grounded too, stops us from being fooled, keeps us from chasing down every single idea we hear about.

There’s another important function of the word faith. It reminds us that what we’re doing is important. Buddhism isn’t just a group of ideas we’re talking about. Some people say Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion. I respectfully disagree. I think philosophy is usually something you just talk about and religion is something you do.

Of course people carry a lot of baggage around the word religion too.

So, what are the ways we don’t have faith in ourselves? I think the ways we talk to ourselves tell us a lot here. We might say:

“I’m a terrible Buddhist.”

“I’m not a good person.”

“I’m too angry/anxious/afraid.”

“I’m not a good meditator”

We all need encouragement sometimes and it’s easy to lose faith in ourselves. The path is hard. We all struggle. We all feel like we should meditate more, be more compassionate and be more aware.

We can have a kind of faith in ourselves when we realize we’re all in this together; when we realize the Buddha had no support system when he sat down under a tree by himself…and his mind was enough. How lucky are we to have each other?

At the deepest level you have Buddha nature. Your true nature is good. All of the things that make you feel worthless and broken are clouds in the sky. We are the sky and our feelings of inadequacy are the weather. The sky is always there.

I’m just going to close with some quotes from the text Faith/Confidence in mind.


Develop a mind of equanimity,

And all deeds are put to rest.

Anxious doubts are completely cleared.

Right faith is made upright.


It’s not about faith in gods and spirits. It’s about faith in yourself. ~ Daniel Scharpenburg Click To Tweet



Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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