I am attending a seminar organized by the Thousand Stars Foundation, and the topic being discussed by the panellists concern the role of faith in society. One speaker talks about faith in Buddhism. He used to travel to Kailash mountain in Tibet and experienced the tremendous faith shown by the Tibetans many of whom prostrated their ways for thousands of kilometers from their hometown to Kailash. He said that faith cannot be described in words. One has to experience it oneself; it is a kind of feeling. You believe that Kailash is the abode of the gods; Tibetan Buddhists believe that the mountain is the center of spiritual power of the world; Hindus believe that the Great God Shiva resides there; Jains believe that their liberated saints–those who have attained nirvana–take up their eternal residing place on top of this mountain. He tried to describe this undescribable feeling with tears welling up in his eyes when he did so. His main point that he would like to carry across is that one cannot get at the main message of Buddhism if one is not touched by the kind of faith that he is trying to describe.
They also talked about the role of faith and religious beliefs in modern society. How can today’s youths experience the kind of devotion and faith that the panellist talked about? Then I was reminded of the traditional question in philosophy concerning faith and reason. Is it really necessary that one has to have the kind of faith described by the panellist in order to fully understand the Buddha’s message?
I don’t think faith and reason cannot be separated. That is, one cannot rely on faith alone without making any effort at cognitive understanding and using logic to a certain extent. On the other hand one cannot rely on logic a nd understanding alone either. This is why the Buddha’s mesage can be exceedingly difficult. If either logic or faith is reequired then we would have much more “stream enterers” or “those who have totally defeated all defilements” than we do. The trick is to find a right balance. In fact not even a right balance, for that presupposes that faith and reason stands on the opposite sites, so to speak, and the right balance is where the two maintain an equilibrium.
That would be a good metaphor or heuristic device for teaching. But that might not be a totally accurate picture. Instead faith contains reason within itself and reason contains faith within itself too. The kind of faith that leads you to understand, to become one with the Buddha’s message, would have to be the kind that is already imbued with right understanding and reason. And the cognitive reason that we have about the Buddha’s message would not be complete if we did not have the right kind of faith, or in other words, the kind of feeling that arises within ourselves when one fully understands something right down to the core.
I said this is a difficulty, but alternatively this can be a strong point of Buddhism. There can be so many different ways to arrive at what the Buddha wants us to achieve. You can arrive at this end point through faith at the beginning, or you can start with reasoning and cognitive understanding. Or any mixture of the two in any measure. No matter. If any of these lead you to the final destination, then it is all right.