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Faith And Reason: The Belief And Understanding

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Posted by Glenn on November 25, 2003 02:10:00 UTC

Faith, or belief, and reason are commonly seen as being fundamentally in opposition to each other. Many people regard any kind of belief--and religious belief in particular--as some sort of paralysis of the faculty of reason, an intellectual crutch. Currently, however, this presumption of a sharp opposition between belief and reason, which has been the hallmark of modern thought, is being reexamined.

Twentieth-century philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Josť Ortega y Gasset have pointed out that each of us lives, acts and thinks within a system of beliefs that is largely unconscious but without which we would be incapable of any thought or action. "Our beliefs are already operating in the depths of our lives when we begin to think something," writes Ortega y Gasset. Reason, in this sense, is founded on belief. If belief is the foundation of life, we don't really have a choice of whether to believe or not. We can choose, however, what to believe, what the substance of our faith will be.
Within the Buddhist tradition, the relationship between faith and reason has been the subject of sustained inquiry since ancient times. While this tradition has always held that the Buddha's enlightenment cannot be grasped or expressed in its entirety by reason or language, Buddhism has consistently held that reason and language should be highly valued.

While the Buddha's enlightenment may transcend the realm of reason, it is not irrational, nor does it resist rational examination. Faith in the Buddha's teaching is in fact the basis for a mode of intellectual examination which enlists not only analytical capacities but also seeks to develop the intuitive wisdom found in the deepest spiritual strata of the human being. Learning and knowledge can serve as the portal to wisdom; but it is wisdom that enables us to use knowledge in the most Humane and valuable way. The confusion of knowledge and wisdom, arguably, is at the root of our societal distortions.

In the "Belief and Understanding" chapter[of the Lotus Sutra]describes how the voice-hearers, disciples of Buddha, believe and understand the Buddha's teaching, and rejoice at being able to do so. Hence,the chapter is -titled "Belief and Understanding." The Sanskrit for "belief and understanding" is adhimukti, which literally means inclination or intent, that is, to direct one's mind or will toward something. Since it involves direction of the mind, I think we could also call it an aim or a purpose. Mukti is thought to be related to the Sanskrit word for liberation, moksha.

The important point is that the fundamental issues for Buddhism of faith and wisdom, and faith and liberation (enlightenment), are distilled in the words "belief and understanding." In a broader sense, this relates to the universal issues of civilization and philosophy of faith and reason, and belief and knowledge. This is an extremely delicate problem, with relevance to many disciplines, including the cognitive sciences and psychology. Buddhism has traditionally considered these issues in meticulous detail.

Of course, we can hardly do this matter justice in a single meeting, but neither can we avoid it entirely. The philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) writes, "We must declare that religion is not irrational. These words, directed toward people without religious faith, remain alive today. Many people today regard any kind of belief--and religious faith, in particular--as somehow in opposition to reason, or at the very least as a sort of paralysis of the faculty of reason. There are, indeed, fanatical religions in which faith opposes reason. But it is an erroneous leap of logic to assume on this basis, and without any evidence, that all religions are so. That itself is irrational, and can be characterized as a kind of blind faith in its own right.

A higher religion does not negate rationality. No religion that suppresses human reason can earn the trust of humankind. Buddhism, the "religion of wisdom," is an extremely rational system of belief. In fact, it is so rational that many Westerners even question whether it can be classified as a religion, since it does not teach the existence of a supreme being in the image of humankind.

Each person's life is based on belief of some kind and, therefore, such beliefs should be duly respected. But unless that belief is subjected to the tests of reason and reality, it remains individual and subjective and lacks the universality to be communicated to others. The fact that the belief taught in the Lotus Sutra is one with understanding indicates that it is not simply subjective or arbitrary. Of course, the fundamental law to which the Buddha is enlightened is inexpressible in words, utterly beyond description, meaning that it cannot be grasped in its entirety with language or reason. Even so, Buddhism teaches that reason and language should be highly valued albeit with recognition of their limitations. While the Buddha's enlightenment may be beyond the realm of reason, it is not irrational, nor does it resist rational examination. "Understanding" in the term "belief and understanding" means wisdom. This wisdom is not reason itself but works in conjunction with reason, and reason is a part of it. It is reasonable to the highest degree, and at the same time it is holistic wisdom that transcends reason. Practicing "belief and understanding" means acquiring that highest wisdom through faith.

Sraddha, prasada and adhimukti are three Sanskrit terms translated in the Lotus Sotra as "faith" or "belief." Sraddha, defined as the first stage of Buddhist practice, means "to arouse faith" and also "to possess curiosity about." The term thus includes the meaning of a sense of awe or wonder that seems to be at the root of all religious sentiment.

Prasada expresses the idea of purity and clarity. It could be said that, from the perspective of Buddhism, the proper purpose of faith is to cleanse the mind in order to enable our inherent wisdom to shine forth.

Adhimukti literally means intent, that is, the orientation of one's mind or will. This is the mental attitude of deepening one's understanding, cultivating and polishing one's life toward perfecting the sublime state of prasada. Faith thus purifies reason, strengthens it and elevates it and is an engine for continuous self-improvement. As Dr. Daisaku Ikeda,a japanese buddhist philosopher, educator and prolific writer, has defined faith as "an open, seeking mind, a pure heart and a flexible spirit."

The above terms can be contrasted with bhakti, another Sanskrit term for faith. Bhakti, originally meaning "to become part of," is a faith associated with a practice of surrender to--and unification with--a transcendent deity. This term is seldom, if ever, used in Buddhist texts.

Buddhist practice begins by arousing sraddha. Then, as our practice progresses, we acquire the wisdom of the experience of that which was formerly inconceivable, and we proceed toward enlightenment and its benefit. Through the process of "belief and understanding" (adhimukti), we cultivate and polish our lives, and develop toward attaining the awareness that all living beings are equal and have dignity--the "pure faith" that is prasada.

Buddhist faith is the engine for continuous self-improvement. It is a force that motivates us to strive for the perfection of our entire being, including the intellect, and to develop our hidden potential to the fullest. That's why, in the Kegon Sutra, sraddha is described as the "basis of practice" and "mother of blessings." "Faith," in the Lotus Sutra's principle of substituting faith for wisdom, is sraddha.

Faith in Buddhism is definitely not blind faith that rejects the criteria of reason, or fanaticism. It is in fact a rational function, a process of the cultivation of wisdom that begins with a spirit of reverent searching.

The proper function of faith is to cleanse the mind and make it pure. Only when the mind is pure can our inherent wisdom shine forth. Some philosophers have considered reason the "slave of the passions" and believed that reason needed to be freed from the "pollution" of emotion. Others, such as Saint Augustine (an early Christian philosopher), held that faith was needed to cure and strengthen "ailing reason." What these many different positions have in common is the belief that reason must not be allowed to degenerate into a self-satisfied arrogance.

The impulse of true reason is to continuously and eternally transcend the confines of the present self. It aims to reach beyond its grasp, always higher, always transcending itself. The source of energy and foundation for that constant search is faith in something larger than oneself. Faith purifies reason, strengthens it, and elevates it. "Pure faith" is at once thoroughly polished faith and rigorously tested reason.

The modern age seems convinced that intellect is an independent faculty, operating independently from feeling or belief. Yet it is becoming clearer that many trends, such as efforts to exert technological mastery over nature, rest on highly subjective beliefs or value judgements.

What is called for now is new unification of belief and reason encompassing all aspects of the human being and society, including the insights achieved by modern science. This must be an attempt to restore wholeness to human society, which has been rent asunder by extremes of reason artificially divorced from belief and irrational religious fanaticism.

This synthesis must grow from a dialogue based on mutual respect. Both sides must approach this dialogue, not with the desire to establish dominion over the other, but with a spirit of learning, of mining deeper and richer veins of truth. This will only be possible if all participants keep firmly in view the goal of human happiness. Does a particular position, approach or belief advance the human condition, or does it drive it back? Only on this basis can a dialogue between faith and reason produce true and lasting value for humankind.

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