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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 José 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.
Faith in the Buddha’s teaching is in fact the basis for a mode of intellectual examination.
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.
Nichiren likewise developed and presented his teachings very rationally. He is well known for his scholarship and his willingness to debate. Many of his important writings take the form of a dialectic question and answer in which doubts are presented, responded to and resolved.
Sraddha, prasada and adhimukti are three Sanskrit terms translated in the Lotus Sutra 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. Daisaku Ikeda has defined faith as “an open, seeking mind, a pure heart and a flexible spirit.”
related article The Meaning of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren declared that to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was to activate its promise of universal enlightenment; he was establishing a form of practice that would open the way to enlightenment for all people--regardless of class or educational background. 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.
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.
[Courtesy October 2001 SGI Quarterly]