“Having faith” is an idiom we often use to express unusual admiration or belief in someone or a set of principles. It’s a feeling we associate with freedom, fullness or an absence of resistance. And sometimes that’s how faith really feels—unyielding, ecstatic, perhaps even all-consuming.
In Pali—the language of the original Buddhist texts—the word for “faith” is saddha, literally translated as “to place the heart upon.” Here, where faith is a verb rather than a noun, it’s about offering, opening up and recognizing that we have an innate capacity to trust and understand.
Liberation Through Faith
This way of understanding faith reframes it as liberating, rather than constricting. Faith exists within us already, whether or not we are aware of it. Faith reassures us that in the face of disappointment, doubt, questioning and other discomfort, we can tap into the present moment with an open heart, and recognize that which we can’t control with more resilience and compassion.
One of Buddhism’s most foundational teachings is about the universality of suffering: because we are born, we experience suffering. Here, suffering refers not only to experiences of acute pain, but also everyday “lows” like frustration, fear of change or emotional instability. This teaching is known as the First Noble Truth, and the subsequent three Noble Truths help us understand that faith can liberate us to find freedom from suffering.
Faith is an underlying ingredient in this process of liberation; we must be willing “to place the heart upon” these teachings in order to open up to the possibility of healing. No, we can’t eradicate suffering with faith, but we can change our relationship to it.
Don’t Doubt Your Doubt
We may be conditioned to believe that faith strengthens when we are taught more about what to believe. But putting the Buddha’s teachings into practice in my own daily life continues to be one of my most profound spiritual practices.
On my first retreat in Bodh Gaya, India, in 1971, I struggled more often than not; my knees ached and I often felt distracted during meditation sittings. I remember asking myself, “How can I have faith in anything if my practice is always interrupted by my mental habits?”
One night during a lecture, my teacher, Goenka, gave me an answer. Though I always sat inconspicuously at the back of the room, I went to the front where the most eager student always sat raising his hand. Though I tended to remain quiet, I charged ahead that night and found myself opposite Goenka, ready to express my doubt head on: “Isn’t there an easier way?” I asked, frustrated that my meditation practice hadn’t yet automatically paved the way to enlightenment.
Goenka laughed. “If I knew it, I’d tell you,” he reassured me. He didn’t need to explain more, and I trusted him. I am sure he knew, though he didn’t tell me, how important my experience of doubt in the practice was.
Freedom in the Heart and Mind
Since that night, I continue to learn more about the flexibility of faith. It is not one state we can identify and call forth whenever we feel like it. Saddha is the act of opening up to what’s before us—even if it contains elements of suffering.
Because we are always moving and growing, we are also always responding to these changes. With faith, we allow ourselves to rest in the truth of the present, no matter what that truth is. We “rest the heart upon” our experiences in order to understand them better, not to fix or change them. By cultivating more freedom in our minds, we can recognize the power of choice. And in that space of faith, we feel a sense of possibility.