Faith in Buddhism

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Faith in Buddhism (Pali: saddhā, Sanskrit: śraddhā) refers to a serene commitment in the practice of the Buddha's teaching and trust in enlightened or highly developed beings, such as Buddhas or bodhisattvas (those aiming to become a Buddha). Buddhists usually recognize multiple objects of faith, but many are especially devoted to one particular object of faith, such as one particular Buddha.

In early Buddhism, faith was focused on the Triple Gem, that is, Gautama Buddha, his teaching (the Dhamma), and the community of spiritually developed followers, or the monastic community seeking enlightenment (the Sangha). Although offerings to the monastic community were valued highest, early Buddhism did not morally condemn peaceful offerings to deities. A faithful devotee was called upāsaka or upāsika, for which no formal declaration was required. In early Buddhism, personal verification was valued highest in attaining the truth, and sacred scriptures, reason or faith in a teacher were considered less valuable sources of authority. As important as faith was, it was a mere initial step to the path to wisdom and enlightenment, and was obsolete at the final stage of that path.

In the later stratum of Buddhist history, especially Mahāyāna Buddhism, faith was given a much more important role. The concept of the Buddha Nature was developed, as devotion to Buddhas and bodhisattvas residing in Pure Lands became commonplace. With the arising of the cult of the Lotus Sūtra, faith gained a central role in Buddhist practice, which was further amplified with the development of devotion to the Amitabha Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism. In the Japanese form of Pure Land Buddhism, under the teachers Hōnen and Shinran, only faith and humility toward the Amitabha Buddha were believed to be fruitful forms of practice, as the practice of celibacy, morality and other Buddhist disciplines were dismissed as no longer effective in this day and age, or contradicting the virtue of faith.

Thus, the role of faith increased throughout Buddhist history. However, from the nineteenth century onward, Buddhist modernism in countries like Sri Lanka and Japan, and later also in the West, has downplayed and criticized the role of faith in Buddhism.

Role in the Buddhist teaching[edit]

Whereas in English language, the word faith is connected with a belief in the existence of a creator God, Buddhist notions about faith are different.[1][2] Faith is defined as serene trust that the practice of the Buddha's teaching will bring fruit.[1][3] It is a joyful surrender to enlightened or highly developed beings, such as Buddhas or bodhisattvas, or even certain highly respected monks or lamas.[1][4] Although Buddhism does not have articles of faith, it does have various practices to express devotion. Buddhists usually recognize multiple objects of faith, but many are especially devoted to one particular object of faith, such as one particular Buddha.[1] Buddhism has, however, never been organized around one central authority, neither as a person or a scripture. Scriptures have usually been more of a guidance, and consensus about practices has come about through debate and discussion.[5]

Several terms are used in Buddhism for faith, which have both cognitive and affective aspects:[3]

  • Śraddhā (Sanskrit; Pali: saddhā) refers to a sense of commitment or trust in someone else, or a sense of engagement and commitment to practise.[1] Traditional examples of this are the monks Ānanda, the attendant of Gautama Buddha, and Vakkali, another disciple. Śraddhā is often seen as the counteragent of ill-will in the mind.[3] The opposite of śraddhā is āśraddhya, which refers to the lack of capacity to develop faith in a teacher and the teachings, and therefore being unable to develop energy on the spiritual path.[6]
  • Prasāda (Sanskrit; Pali: pasāda) is more affective than śraddhā. Being used with regard to rituals and ceremonies, it refers to a sense of serene acceptance of the blessings and greatness of the object of one's devotion.[7]
  • Xin (Chinese) or shin (Japanese) can refer to trust, but also an unquestioned acceptance of the object of one's devotion. It is also used, as it is in Chan and Zen Buddhism, with regard to a confidence that the Buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha) is hidden within one's mind, and can be found as one suspends the habits of the mind.[7][8][3] In Pure Land Buddhism, it is used in the Japanese term shinjin to refer to the aspect of the mind which is faithful, and is which is awakened by practising devotion and humility to the Buddha Amitābha; and in the term shingyō, the joy and confidence of meeting the Buddha Amitabha.[8][9]

Faith is usually related to the Triple Gem, that is the Buddha, the Dharma (his teaching) and the Saṃgha (the community). Furthermore, it is seen to focus on or lead to an understanding of main aspects of the Buddha's teaching, such as the working of karma and rebirth, the nature of existence, such as its impermanence and conditioned nature, and finally, Nirvana and the path of practice leading up to Nirvana.[10]


In Buddhism, in the development of the understanding of faith two historical layers can be distinguished: an early and later stratum. Some early twentieth century scholars, such as Louis de La Vallée-Poussin and Caroline Rhys Davids, have been criticized for not distinguishing the two sufficiently.[11] Hajime Nakamura distinguishes two currents in Buddhism, which he describes as the devotional approach and the approach of "inner knowledge". Of these, the latter has usually been more highly regarded by practitioners. Nakamura does recognize two notable exceptions to this, that is, Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism, which have been more highly regarded, despite faith taking a central role.[5]

Early Buddhism[edit]

In early Buddhist texts such as Pali texts, saddhā is usually translated as 'faith', but has very different connotations than the English word.[12] Faith in early Buddhism, in the words of scholar John Bishop, is basically "religious without being theistic".[13] It is not just a mental commitment to a set of principles,[14] but also has an affective quality to it. Scholars in early Buddhism distinguish between

  • faith as joy and serenity and
  • faith as self-confidence producing energy, required for dealing with temptations and self-mastery.[3][15]

A Buddhist aspires to faith in the Triple Gem, that is, the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, as well as the value of discipline. However, in early Buddhism, such faith does not mean a hostile response or lack of recognition of other deities. And although the Buddha refutes the bloody sacrifice of animals, peaceful offerings to deities are in itself not morally condemned, but considered far less useful than alms offerings to the monastic Sangha.[16][14] Thus, everything is given its place in a hierarchy of usefulness, in which moral behavior is much more highly regarded than rites and rituals.[17]

Faith has an important role in the early scriptures. The Pāli Canon list faith as one of seven treasures (Pali: dhana),[18] one of five spiritual faculties (Pali: indriyas), and one of the spiritual powers (Pali: balas).[19][20] There are also other lists of virtues in which faith is included,[21][22] and faith is also given a prominent role in canons of other early traditions, such as the Sarvāstivāda tradition.[3] Moreover, faith is described as an important quality in stream-enterers, a state preceding enlightenment.[23][24] In standard descriptions of people going forth (taking ordination as a monk), faith is mentioned as an important motivation. Despite this important role, faith is not assigned the same value as in some other religions, such as Christianity.[25]

Faith is the consequence of a wise perception of suffering (dukkha), and leads to many other important qualities on the path to the end of suffering, Nibbāna (Sanskrit: Nirvāṇa).[26] Faith on itself, however, is never regarded as sufficient for the attainment of Nibbāna.[27]

A faithful Buddhist layman or laywoman is called upāsaka or upāsika, respectively. To become an upāsaka or upāsika no formal declaration is required.[28][29] Some Pali Canon passages, as well as later commentators such as Buddhaghosa, state a Buddhist layman can go to heaven only by the strength of his faith in and love for the Buddha, yet in other passages faith is listed together with other virtues, such as morality, as qualities that lead the devotee to heaven.[22][30]

In early Buddhist canons such as the Pali Canon, many examples are raised of the spiritual impact the Buddha had on people. Prince Nanda, the Buddha's cousin, is said to have ordained as a monk out of respect for the Buddha, even though he was not interested in the monastic life at first. Vakkali, a knowledgeable Brahmin, was so impressed by the Buddha that he ordained just to be around him. Kaccana, a minister of King Canda-Pajjota, was ordered to take the Buddha back to his former palace. He forgot about his mission straight away when he met the Buddha, and decided to become a monk under him as well. In some cases, certain character traits of the Buddha led to people's devotion. A man called Paripunnaka from Kapilavatthu was impressed by the Buddha's grace and simplicity, and became a monk as a result.[31]

On a similar note, devotion played a role in monastic relations as well. Newly ordained monks were expected to show trust and respect for their teacher, and if they did not, their teacher could formally dismiss them.[32]

Through verification[edit]

In the discourse called the Kalāma Sutta, the Buddha argues against following sacred authority, tradition, a doctrine of logic, or respecting teachers for the mere fact that they are one's teachers.[33] Knowledge coming from such sources should be considered impartially and not accepted blindly, though it should not be refuted either. A person should find out whether a teaching is true by personal verification instead, distinguishing what leads to happiness and benefit, and what does not.[22][33][note 1] Giving an example of such an approach, the Buddha states that the practice of abandoning greed, hatred and delusion will benefit the practitioner, regardless of whether there is such a thing as karmic retribution and rebirth.[2]

Thus, personal experience and judgement are emphasized in accepting the Buddha and Buddhism. A person should, however, also heed to the counsel of the wise.[22] Furthermore, although the Kalāma Sutta is often raised to illustrate the empirical nature of the Buddhist teaching, it can also be argued that the Buddha is teaching in it a form of moral consideration, rather than a rational, scientific approach to gaining knowledge: the sutta is teaching ethics, not epistemology.[2]

In the discourse called the Canki Sutta, the Buddha points out that people's beliefs may turn out in two different ways: they might either be genuine, factual and not mistaken; or vain, empty and false. Thus, when a person holds a certain belief, they should not derive the conclusion "Only this is true, anything else is false," but instead "preserve the truth" with the awareness "This is my belief".[34][note 2] Thus, the discourse criticizes, among others, divine revelation, tradition and report, as leading to "groundless faith" and as an incomplete means of acquiring spiritual knowledge or truth.[22][35] But in the Sandaka Sutta, the Buddha also criticizes mere reasoning or logic as a means of attaining to truth.[34][36] Instead, personal and direct intuitive knowledge are required to attain the truth, when such knowledge is not affected by bias.[37][38] Thus, belief and faith are not considered sufficient for arriving at truth, even in spiritual matters where other religious traditions would refer to faith. Indeed, The Buddha does not agree with traditions that demand blind faith in scriptures or teachers.[11][38]

In conclusion, moral judgment and truth should be verified by personal experience. This then leads to a provisional acceptance, called "preserving the truth". Faith goes hand-in-hand with an open attitude of willing to learn and try out, familiarizing oneself with the teaching. Through personal verification a person's faith deepens, ultimately changing from "preserving" to "discovering" the truth.[22][34] This verification process involves ordinary experience, but also the yogic experience of cultivation of the mind.[39] Furthermore, the Buddha applies these criteria to his own teaching: he has the right to teach his Dhamma because he has verified it for himself, not learnt it from someone else or reasoned it out.[40] Indeed, the Buddha states in several suttas, including the Vimaṁsaka Sutta, that his disciples should investigate even him as to whether he really is enlightened and pure in conduct, by observing him for a long time. Several people are described in the Pali Canon observing the Buddha in such way, and arriving at grounded faith.[41][42]

As initial step[edit]

Faith is an initial trust in the Buddha as a spiritual teacher and an initial acceptance of the Buddha's teachings. By listening to the teachings and putting them into practice, a Buddhist disciple can examine and realize through direct experience what is true and what is false.[43][44] Faith is therefore considered of great benefit to a beginning practitioner of the Buddhist teaching.[5][15] In the Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta, the Buddha describes the path of enlightenment as starting with faith in him, but continuing with the practise of virtue, meditation and wisdom, culminating in the achievement of enlightenment. Thus, the initial faith provides the confidence to continue the path up unto the final aim.[45][note 3] Faith in Buddhism can be said to function as a form of motor, which propels the Buddhist practitioner towards the goal of awakening (Pali: bodhi) and Nibbāna.

Besides saddhā, another word, pasāda, and its related synonyms pasanna and pasidati, are sometimes also translated as 'faith', but are given a higher value than saddhā. Saddhā deepens when someone progresses along the spiritual path, and this is sometimes described as pasāda.[46][47] Pasāda is faith, but is accompanied by clarity of mind and understanding. The practicing disciple develops and stabilizes his faith, basing it on spiritual insight. This leads his faith to become "unshakeable".[48][49]

Thus, faith is by itself not enough to attain deliverance, but is a first step on the path leading to wisdom and enlightenment. In many teachings in early Buddhism, faith is mentioned as the first step, whereas wisdom is mentioned as the last.[50] On the last stage of the Buddhist path, the attainment of arahant, faith is completely replaced by wisdom. At that point, the arahant no longer relies on faith at all. Indeed, the Buddha praised most of his disciples for their wisdom, rather than their faith. The only exception to that, the monk Vakkali, was praised by the Buddha as "the highest of those who had faith", was also taught by the Buddha to concentrate on the teaching, rather than the Buddha's person.[48][15][51]

In the Pali Canon, different approaches of faith are described. Developing faith in someone's person, even the Buddha himself, is of little use when it is too much connected with superficial features—such as physical appearance—and too little with the Buddha's teaching. Such an approach to faith is said to lead to anger and has other disadvantages. It is an impediment to attaining enlightenment, such as in the case of Vakkali.[11][22][52] On a similar note, faith is also described as needed to balance wisdom, and it is stated that both are needed together to prevent either one from leading to extreme character.[3]

Taking refuge[edit]

Faith in Buddhism is expressed in the act of taking refuge. In this, it centres on the authority of Buddha as a supremely awakened being, by assenting to a role as teacher of both humans and gods. This often includes other Buddhas from the past and future Buddhas that have not arisen in the world yet. Secondly, the taking of refuge honours the truth of the Buddha's spiritual doctrine (Pali: dhamma), which includes the characteristics of phenomenon such as their impermanence. The taking of refuge ends with the acceptance of the community of spiritually developed followers (Pali: saṅgha), which is mostly defined as the monastic community, but may also include lay people and even devās (heavenly beings) that are nearly enlightened. The Saṅgha is described as a "field of merit", because Buddhists regard offerings to them as more karmically more fruitful than any other offering.[53] Thus, taking refuge is a form of aspiration to lead a life with the Triple Gem at its core.[54]

In Buddhism, blind faith is not regarded highly. Faith can lead practitioners to take refuge in the Triple Gem, which opens them up to new spiritual experiences previously unknown to them. This is the devotional or mystical aspect of faith. But there is also a rational aspect, in that the value of taking refuge is rooted in personal verification.[5]

In the Pali Canon, the Buddhist monk is given a significant role in promoting and upholding faith among laypeople. Although many examples in the canon are mentioned of well-behaved monks, there are also cases of monks misbehaving. In such cases, it is described that the Buddha responded with great sensitivity to the perceptions of the lay community. When the Buddha set out new rules in the monastic code to deal with the wrongdoings of his monastics, he usually stated that such behavior should be curbed, because it would not "persuade non-believers" and "believers will turn away". Monks, nuns and novices were expected not only to lead the spiritual life for their own benefit, but also to uphold the faith of the people. On the other hand, they were not to take the task of inspiring faith to the extent of hypocrisy or inappropriateness, for example, by taking on other professions apart from being a monastic, or by courting favours by giving items to the laypeople.[55][56]

Taking refuge is done by a short formula in which one names the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha as refuges.[54]

After the Buddha's paranibbāna[edit]

Faith was that important to Buddhism, that the Buddha gave a directive on how to develop faith after his death (Pali: paranibbāna). He suggested to go and pay respect to four places, that is, the place where he was born, the place where he had first attained enlightenment, the place where he had given his first formal teaching, and finally, the place where he was to attain paranibbāna.[57] Indeed, to dispel any doubt about the usefulness of such pilgrimage, the Buddha stated that he accepted in advance all gifts presented to the cetiyas, stūpas and places of pilgrimage. Such offerings and pilgrimage were therefore just as fruitful after he died, as when he was still alive.[17]

Shortly after the Buddha passed away, minister Vassakara asked Ānanda Thera, formerly the attendant of the Buddha, how the Buddhist community would survive now. Ānanda Thera answered that devotion to one's virtuous fellow monks would become a driving force in the monastic community. This devotion would become increasingly important after the Buddha's passing, when there was no centralized authority anymore.[58]

Mahāyāna Buddhism[edit]

During the period of emperor Ashoka (second–third century BCE), more emphasis came to be placed on faith, as Ashoka helped develop Buddhism as a popular religion. This new trend led to an increased worship of stūpas and an increase of Avadāna faith-based literature. In the same period, it became more common to depict the Buddha through images, and there was a shift in emphasis in Indian religion towards teachings on loving-kindness and similar attitudes. This led to new perspectives in Buddhism, summarized by Buddhist studies scholar Peter Harvey as "compassion, faith and wisdom". These perspectives paved the way to the arising of Mahāyāna Buddhism.[59][60]

In general, the role of faith in Mahāyāna Buddhism is similar to that of Theravāda—in both, faith is an unavoidable part of practice.[2][47] However, with the arising of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the depth and range of teachings on faith intensified. A great number of bodhisattvas became focus of devotion and faith, giving Mahāyāna Buddhism a "theistic" side.[61][62] Although in early Buddhism there were already some passages that suggested enlightened beings had a world-transcending nature, in Mahāyāna this idea was taken much further.[63] After the Buddha's parinirvāṇa, there was a sense of regret among Buddhist communities about the absence of the Buddha in the world, and a desire to "see" the Buddha (Sanskrit: darśana) and receive his power.[64][65] The meaning of the Triple Gem was extended to include Buddhas that reside in heavens, later called sambhogakāya Buddhas ('embodiment of the enjoyment (of the Dharma)').[65][66] Five of these were particularly known, usually associated with the cardinal directions.[67][note 4] In Pure Land Buddhism, however, this was mostly confined to the Buddha Amitābha. Starting from this devotion to celestial Buddhas,[69][70] the advanced bodhisattva beings, representing Mahāyāna ideals, gradually became focus of an extensive worship and cult. By the sixth century CE, depiction of bodhisattvas in Buddhist iconography had become common,[69] such as the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara representing compassion, and Manjusri wisdom.[71]

Thus, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE the emphasis shifted from personal enlightenment to connecting with the universal Buddha nature and the realms in which the Buddhas live. This development led to the devotion movement of Pure Land Buddhism, whereas in Zen Buddhism it led to the emphasis of seeking the Buddha Nature within oneself.[72] Faith gained an important role in Mahayana: for example, it was seen as a necessary step in the developing of the intention to become a Buddha (Sanskrit: bodhicitta).[73]

Despite the important developments that took place in the arising of Mahayana Buddhism, it would be simplistic to state that no devotional movement existed before Mahāyāna. Devotionalism had become common in texts and practices in the same period that the Abhidhamma texts were compiled, even before Mahāyāna developed. And in the beginning period when Mahāyāna had just developed, it also had scholastic and monastic aspects to it. In its early forms it was certainly not only a devotional lay movement, as some scholars have classified it. Early Mahāyāna works, like that of the philosopher Nāgārjuna, have been described as scholastic and hard to access, and were not much devotional in nature.[74]


One of the greatest minds of the history of philosophy, Nāgārjuna was a Mahāyāna monastic and philosopher who wrote a great deal about the importance of faith. In his philosophical interpretation of Buddhism, Nāgārjuna regarded faith as the highest authority. Although Nāgārjuna held wisdom in high regard, he argued that wisdom presupposed faith. Faith and wisdom go hand-in-hand: happiness in the present life depends on faith, but final enlightenment depends on wisdom.[75]

Lotus Sūtra[edit]

Perhaps the most important text (Sanskrit: sūtra) in Mahāyāna Buddhism,[76] the Lotus Sūtra embraces the ideal of faith.[77] The sūtra has been credited with helping to reconcile the teachings of early Buddhism with the Mahāyāna teachings. although the extent of its inclusiveness is a matter of debate.[78] Being a sūtra that appeals to emotion, the text was used for several political purposes throughout Buddhist history. This does not mean, however, that the text had no religious impact. In medieval China and Japan, many miraculous legends were related to the Lotus Sūtra, contributing to its popularity. Scholars have suggested that the sūtra's emphasis on the Buddha as a father has helped make the sūtra popular. It also was a way to respond to the criticism of East Asians, who felt that Buddhism's emphasis on monasticism went against the ideals of family and filial piety.[79]

The Lotus Sūtra was composed in the first two centuries of the Common Era. Part of the Mahāyāna "Cult of the Book", the Lotus Sūtra was honoured and worshipped just like many other Mahāyāna sutras, similar to the worship of stūpas before the arising of Mahāyāna Buddhism. However, the Lotus Sūtra was worshiped more than most sūtras. It describes different types of devotion to the sūtra: receiving and keeping, reading, reciting, teaching and transcribing it, and was actually worshiped in a large variety of ways. In some copies, every letter was depicted similar to a Buddha.[80]

Although the theoretical implications Lotus Sūtra influenced traditional scholars, the devotional practices surrounding the sūtra affected Buddhism even more.[81] The Tiantai school (end of the first millennium) and its later Japanese form, Tendai, further promoted worship of the Lotus Sūtra, combined with devotion toward Amitābha Buddha.[82][83] The sūtra was believed to be supreme among all of the Buddha's teachings, and leading to enlightenment in the present lifetime.[84] Indeed, in some schools of the Kamakura period (twelfth–fourteenth century C.E.) reverence towards the Lotus Sūtra was taken to the extent that it was seen as the sole and highest Buddhist practice, and only this practice was believed to lead society to an ideal Buddha land.[85][86] For example, the Japanese teacher Nichiren (1222–1282 C.E.) promoted faith in and worship of the sūtra for this reason, criticizing other schools and types of worship sharply.[87] Seeing the sutra as a prophecy of the mission of his own movement,[88][89] Nichiren believed that through devotion to the sutra a Pure Land on earth could be realized.[90] He taught that worship of the sūtra led the practitioner to unite with the primordial Buddha, of whom he believed all Buddhas are manifestations.[81] Despite this great devotion to the Lotus Sūtra, Nichiren did not believe it was fruitful to actually study the sutra, believing that worshiping it was enough for people living in the Age of the Final Dharma.[91] Nichirens sharp criticism of other schools of Buddhism did not sit well with the authorities of the time, and he was banished and given a death execution order, though this was not carried out.[92]

In the present day, more than forty organizations continue upon the Nichiren tradition, some of which are lay organizations.[93][94] One of these is the Sōka Gakkai, who regard Nichiren as a Buddha, and emphasize the importance of Buddhist values and teachings on karma.[90][95] Nichiren faced much persecution during his lifetime by the authorities, but his resistance of state power has set a model for critical defiance based on ideology, for both religious organizations and political activists.[96]

Pure Land Buddhism[edit]

It is perhaps in the "Pure Land" sūtras that faith and devotion reach a pinnacle of soteriological importance. When devotion to celestial Buddhas developed, the idea arose that celestial Buddhas were able to create 'Buddha-fields' (Sanskrit: buddha-kṣetra), or Pure Lands.[60] In Pure Land Buddhism, it is one's faith in the salvific compassion of the Buddha Amitābha,[97] coupled with the earnest wish to enter his Pure Land (Sanskrit: sukhāvatī) that is said to bring deliverance there. This Pure Land prepares the devotee to entry into awakening and Nirvana.[98][99] Thus, Pure Land Buddhism differed in many ways to most forms of Buddhism at the time, which were based on personal effort and techniques of self-mastery.[100] Calling upon the Buddha Amitābha's help became the central tenet, when devotion to Amitābha practically replaced that to the Gautama Buddha.[101]

Thus, Amitābha (Sanskrit, 'limitless light') is one of the celestial Buddhas.[60][67] The Buddha Amitābha is described in the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra as a monk who, practicing under a Buddha in a previous age, vowed to create a land through his spiritual powers. Through this ideal land he would easily be able to guide many living beings to final enlightenment.[102] He therefore vowed that once he had attained Buddhahood, just calling his name would be enough for living beings to be born in this Pure Land.[103] Widespread in Japan, Korea, China and Tibet, devotion to the Buddha Amitābha arose around the beginning of the Common Era.[67][68] Scholars believe that the worship of Buddha Amitābha may have been influenced by Iranian sun worship, and developed parallel to devotion to the Buddha Akṣobhya.[67][68][70] Central to Pure Land Buddhism is the idea that the current age humans live in is the "Age of the Final Dharma" (Chinese: mofa, Japanese: mappō), the final stage of the current Buddha's dispensation. In this period, people are severely limited in their capability for attaining salvation. They must therefore rely on external power (the Buddha Amitābha) to find salvation, and delay their attainment of Nirvana to another life (during their rebirth in the Pure Land).[98][99] Before being reborn in the Pure Land, people who have committed wrong karma or are hesitant in faith must go through a form of purgatory first. But people with better karma can be reborn in the Pure Land directly.[104][105] All beings can then become enlightened as an arahant or become a bodhisattva of high level. Certain bodhisattvas are also described as living in such Pure Lands.[106]

Pure Land Buddhism was established as an institution by the teacher Huiyuan (334–416) on Mount Lu with the founding of the White Lotus Society.[65] Originally advocated in conjunction with teachings on doing good deeds (merit-making) and developing bodhicitta,[104][107] Pure Land Buddhism received a new interpretation in the teachings of the Chinese monk Tanluan (476–542 CE). Tanluan helped organize the Pure Land ideas and is regarded as the first patriarch of the tradition. He was followed by Daochuo (562–654 CE), who introduced the concept of the Age of the Final Dharma.[65][108] Shandao (613–681 CE) started emphasizing reciting mantras in honour of Amitābha Buddha (Chinese: nianfo; Japanese: nembutsu), combined with several other practices, such as visualization of the Pure Land and resolving to be born there, charity, vegetarianism and dying rituals.[107][109] There seems to have been a paradox in Pure Land faith from the start, in that two ideals were advocated simultaneously: on the one hand, Pure Land teachers taught that the bodhisattvas who created their Pure Lands were exemplary in their own efforts to make merits as a storehouse to create the Pure Land from. On the other hand, it was taught that practitioners should solely rely on their devotion to the Buddhas in the Pure Land, in particular Amitābha, who would come to their rescue. In Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, the latter ideal became prevalent.[110] But even in Japan there was much debate as to what emphasis had to be given to the active recitation practice on the one hand, and the passive reliance on Amitābha Buddha and trust in his vow on the other hand.[111]

Apart from the ideal of rebirth in a literal Pure Land, in Mahāyāna the Pure Land was often taken symbolically, either as a state of mind, the awakening of the historical Buddha, or as a perfect world to strive or wait for. In Chan Buddhism, the meditative mind that attained mental purity was equated with seeing the Pure Land.[112][111] Some modern teachers, such as Xingyun, have attempted to revive the idea of creating a utopian society in the present life as a Pure Land.[113][114] Indeed, whether taken literally or symbolically, Pure Land Buddhism is currently still one of the most popular forms of religion in East Asia, and is practised by most Chinese monks.[115][116] Also, most Korean temples still reserve a place especially for Pure Land practices.[99]


The Tendai scholar Genshin (942–1017 CE), Tendai priest Hōnen (1133–1212 CE) and his student Shinran Shonin (1173–1262 CE) applied Shandao's teachings in Japan.[117][118] Finding the Tendai path too complex to practice, they taught that mindfully reciting the nembutsu would be enough to secure the faithful person's entrance into the Western Paradise.[119][120] Genshin expanded on the horrors of hell and the attraction of the Pure Land, and concluded how beneficial the recitation of the nembutsu was.[117] And although Hōnen had initially stated that often repeating the mantra would make salvation more certain, Shinran later said that one utterance would be enough for salvation (Japanese: ichinengi).[note 5] Subsequent repetitions would be mere expressions of gratitude to the Buddha Amitābha, which also held for other religious routines and practices. Deep understanding of the Buddha's teachings and moral practice were not necessary, Shinran concluded.[122][123] Being a devout follower of Hōnen, Shinran took his teaching to the extreme: since he was painfully aware that he was destined to fall in hell without the help of the Buddha Amitābha, devotion to the Buddha Amitābha and trust in his vow was the single way to salvation.[124] Whereas Hōnen emphasized mostly devotion to the Buddha Amitābha, he did not do so exclusively: Shinran, on the other hand, taught a path of devotion to only the Buddha Amitābha.[125]

Thus, Pure Land Buddhism focused on a limited set of practices, in contrast to the many practices of Tendai Buddhism. Characteristic of this period in Japanese Buddhism was the selective nature of faith: Pure Land teachers taught that Pure Land was the only form of Buddhism that was the right path; other forms of Buddhism were criticized as ineffective for the Age of Final Dharma. (This development of 'selective Buddhism' (Japanese:senchaku bukkyō) would also affect Nichiren Buddhism.[126][127]) Thirdly, although early Buddhism emphasized letting-go of self-conceit by practicing the Dhamma, in the later Pure Land tradition this was drawn further by stating that people should give up all "self-power" and let the healing power of Amitābha do the work of attaining salvation for them. Faith was that much emphasized, that the awakening of faith was described as a transcendental experience beyond time, similar to a state preceding enlightenment.[123] A fourth characteristic of the movement was its democratic nature: as opposed to the more monastic nature of Tendai Buddhism, Pure Land was open to people of all walks of life, to monks and laypeople, men and women—many of which were illiterate.[2][117] Because some of these characteristics seem similar to Protestant Christianity during the Reformation, Japanese Buddhism during the Kamakura period, in particular Pure Land Buddhism, has often been compared to Protestantism. Some scholars have even compared Shinran to Martin Luther.[128][note 6]

The movement was highly condemned from its outset by the old Buddhist orders, despite its widespread popularity: the authorities prohibited the Pure Land school.[124] Hōnen was banished for four years, for teaching that faith could cancel out the consequences of an immoral life, and for reviling Gautama Buddha.[129][130] When Shinran started to teach against the custom of celibacy, stating it indicated a lack of trust in Amitābha Buddha, he was banished as well.[124][131][note 7]

In the fifteenth century CE, Rennyo Shonin (1415–99), a disciple of Shinran, tried to reform the latter's Jōdo Shinshu school, opposing Shinran's idea that morality was not required to enter the Pure Land and meet Amitābha Buddha. He believed that morality should go hand-in-hand with faith, and was a way to express gratitude to Amitābha.[134] Rennyo helped to popularize Jōdo Shinshu,[135] and it has become the most popular Buddhist sect in Japan today,[114][136] surviving as the Nishi Hongwanji and the Higashi Hongwanji traditions.[137][138]

Zen Buddhism[edit]

Just like in Jōdo Shinshu, some forms of Zen Buddhism arose as a reaction to Tendai Buddhism. And just like Pure Land Buddhism, faith also played a role here, that is, in Sōtō Zen. This form of Zen, also known as "farmer's Zen" because of its popularity in agrarian society, was developed by Dōgen (1200–53 CE). Apart from the emphasis on meditation practice as was common in Zen Buddhism, Dōgen led a revival of interest in the study of the sūtras, which he taught inspired to faith based on understanding. Inspired by Chinese Chan Buddhism, Dōgen was attracted to a return of the simple life as exemplified by the Buddha in the sūtras. He further believed that sitting meditation was not only the path to enlightenment, but also a way to express the Buddha nature within. The practitioner should have the faith that the Buddha nature is already within, Dōgen taught, although Dōgen did not believe this was in the form of a permanent self.[139]


In East Asian Buddhism, there has been a strong focus on worship of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. His name roughly translating as "Lord of Compassion", in many Buddhist countries he is honoured for his compassion, such as China, Tibet, Japan, Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia.[140] He is often depicted as a female, and in this female form is known as Guanyin in China. Guanyin is associated with childbearing and devotion. In a text called the Avalokiteśvara Sūtra, it is stated that Avalokiteśvara will help anyone who speaks his name with faith, fulfilling many kinds of wishes and awakening people to their compassionate Buddha nature.[141][142] Avalokiteśvara is strongly connected to the Buddha Amitābha, as it is believed he lives in the same Pure Land, and will come to the rescue of those who invoke the name of the Buddha Amitābha.[143] Devotion to Avalokiteśvara was promoted through the spread of the Lotus Sūtra, which includes a chapter about him.[81]

In Zen Buddhism, Avalokiteśvara's help is understood symbolically, Avalokiteśvara representing one's own compassionate nature. In many Buddhist countries Tibetan and other forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the name of Avalokiteśvara is called upon through the Om Maṇi Padme Hum mantra, which is done by using praying wheels, by printing the mantra on prayer flags and carving it on stones and other materials.[144]

Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

In the Nyingma "Vast Expanse Heart Essence" preliminary teachings, teacher Patrul Rinpoche has faith preceding refuge and it is the first step opening the refuge gateway. It is also the first of the seven noble signs of wealth (faith with the six perfections). Lasting and stable faith are important and there are three main kinds: vivid faith, eager faith, and confident faith. A forth to be aimed for is irreversible faith when it becomes integral to the person and is refuge's cause, like a house's foundation serving the jewels in Dharma. While lacking faith is one of the six stains in which the antidotes are the kinds of faith. Faith is a jewel that comes before all else blossoming in the heart’s centre. It is the essence of outer support power and Dharma’s root.[145][146][147]

According to the Nyingma school of Choying Tobden Dorje, the ennobling positive six forms of faith are:[148]

  1. Yearning faith stimulating renunciation of rebirth desire to attain awakening freedom. Arising from disillusionment from life’s suffering.
  2. Devoted faith leading to a dedication to supreme ideals. Arising from disillusionment from evil companion’s behavior.
  3. Respectful faith in body, speech, and mind with outstanding conscientiousness. Arising from disillusionment from life’s appearances.
  4. Lucid faith that uplifts the mind's positive qualities. Arising from contact with those who represent supreme ideals.
  5. Trusting (confidence) faith that ends doubts concerning the teaching’s base, path, and result. Arising from hearing of the principle of karma.
  6. Certainty in faith toward the doctrine, leading to the application, reflecting, and meditating upon it. Arising from hearing and reflecting on Dharma.

Gyatrul (b. 1924),[149] in a commentary on the work of Chagmé (Wylie: Kar-ma Chags-med, fl. 17th century), states:[150]

By the power of faith, we are able to eliminate the two types of obscurations (ie. conflicting emotions and obscuration concerning the knowable) .[151] Through the power of faith both ontological and phenomenological knowledge arises. It is also by the power of faith that both the common and uncommon siddhis arise.

Gyatrul (b. 1924),[152] in a commentary to this verse cited by Chagmé (Wylie: Kar-ma chags-med, fl. 17th century), conveys the importance of faith as a qualification of disciples who "listen"[153] to the Dharma:[154]

This injunction pertains to teaching Mahāyāna, Vajrayāna, and to Atiyoga in particular. Those without faith who are completely involved in the eight mundane concerns[155] are not suitable vessels, and they should not be taught these kinds of Dharma.

Many factors may instill faith, among these, four crucial circumstances are: 1) an authentic spiritual master attendance, 2) wholesome friends, 3) the three jewels and 4) reflection on existence's round of misery, according to Jigme Lingpa a Tibetan tertön of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism.[156]

Other historical developments[edit]


In Buddhism, Buddhas and other enlightened beings are the main focus of honour, comparable to that of gods in other religions. And although Buddhism does recognize the existence of deities, Buddhas and other enlightened beings are considered to be different, in that they are seen as outside of the cycle of existence. This does not mean that worship of deities did not exist in Buddhism. However, worship of deities has often been considered a form of superstition or a form of skillful means to guide the unenlightened to a better life, and not much more than that.[157]

In the history of the diffusion of Buddhism, the relation between Buddhism and local deities was an important aspect of success, but this has often been denied or ignored because of local movements for orthodoxy. Furthermore, the role of local deities has received little interest from scholars, since it is not covered by any of the standard academic disciplines studying Buddhism, such as Buddhist Studies or anthropology. Nevertheless, deities had a role in Buddhist cosmology from early onward. They were, however, seen as subordinate to the Buddha, and tradition relates many stories of them embracing the Buddhist teaching and even becoming protectors of it. A Buddhist cosmology arose when Buddhist teachers adopted existing cosmologies, but regarded the Buddha as on top of these systems.[158][159] Part of this process was depicting these deities as violent and disorganized, as opposed to Buddhism and its practitioners—this was not far from the truth, as Buddhist missionaries often came from more ordered and less violent cultures. In this way snake-like deities, bird-like deities and violent spirits that were the focus of pre-Buddhist cults became guardians of the Buddhist teaching. Some of these converted local deities came to be regarded as manifestations of more widely honoured, usually Indian deities.[160] In some Buddhist countries like Japan, a perspective arose of the human world as a microcosm of the macrocosmic realms of the Buddhas. This allowed for an increased tolerance of local traditions and folk religion, which were seen as connected with this macrocosmos.[8]

All of these developments led Buddhism to include many deities into its system of faith, but each deity was given his place and role, subordinate to the Buddha. Furthermore, ritual specialists of pre-Buddhist traditions were usually given a duty besides Buddhist monks. These specialists were usually laypeople, who performed these functions besides their normal lay life.[161]


Buddhism is the strongest form of non-western millenarianism.[162] In many Buddhist traditions, there is a concept of a time when the world will end. The concept of a millenarian figure arising in the world at an apocalyptic age exists in many Buddhist traditions, and may have pre-Buddhist origins. It may have been influenced by the ideal of the cakravartin, the king who is destined to rules and unite the world. It may also have been affected by Zoroastrian beliefs, although as of 2004, there was no scholarly consensus about that yet. In Buddhism, the growth and decline of the world comes in cycles, and the declining period is believed to end with the arising of the cakravartin and finally, the future Buddha will start a new prosperous period.[163]

In especially the East-Asian traditions, the end of the world was associated with the coming of the future Buddha, that is Maitreya. He is only briefly mentioned in the early Pali texts, but features prominently in later Sanskrit traditions such as the Mahāsāṃghika. In China, Burma and Thailand, he became to be honoured as part of millenarian movements, and it was believed that Maitreya Buddha would arise during times of suffering and crisis, to usher in a new era of happiness.[163][164] This movement was further strengthened when Maitreya Buddha was equated with the cakkavartin king. In China, millenarian movements were influenced by Daoist beliefs and the Chinese belief in the heavenly mandate of the king.[165][166] From the 14th century onward, White Lotus sectarianism arose in China, which encompassed beliefs in the coming of Maitreya during an apocalyptic age. Such beliefs would prove persistent, and survived all the way into the nineteenth century, when the coming of Maitreya's age was associated with political revolution. But the nineteenth century had not been the first century in which millenarian beliefs sparked political changes: during most of China's history, faith in Maitreya Buddha often inspired rebellions to change society for the better, to await Maitreya.[167][168] Some of these rebellions led to powerful revolutions, and were able to destroy royal dynasties.[162]

In Japan, millenarian trends can be observed in the idea of the Age of the Final Dharma, which was most prominent in Nichiren Buddhism. However, more full-fledged forms of millenarianism developed from the 19th century onward, with the arising of new religious movements.[169]

Modern developments[edit]

In nineteenth-century Sri Lanka, in response to the threat of colonial powers and Christianity, Buddhism changed its emphasis. Described by scholars as "Buddhist modernism" or "protestant Buddhism", Buddhism was advocated by the British-educated Sri Lankans as a rational philosophy, free from blind faith and idolatry, congruent with science and modern ideas.[170][171] Lay people assumed a larger and more independent role in Buddhism, and in some countries, for example Japan, the home shrine became more important as visits to temple were less emphasized.[172] In Japan, during the Meiji period and after that, Buddhism was heavily attacked as a foreign and superstitious belief system. In response to this, Buddhist schools such as Zen developed a movement called 'New Buddhism' (Japanese: shin bukkyo), emphasizing rationalism, modernism and warrior ideals. One proponent of this movement, D.T. Suzuki, would later become widely known in the West for his writings on Zen Buddhism. However, he went beyond rationalist interpretations and shifted to a more intuitive approach of understanding Zen.[173]

Still in Japanese Buddhism, in the twentieth century, a critical response to traditional Buddhism arose, led by the two academics Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shirō, called Critical Buddhism. This school of thought criticized Japanese Buddhist ideas for undermining critical thinking and promoting blind faith. They also believe that traditional Japanse Buddhism did not agree with early Buddhist teachings.[174]

Despite these widespread modernist trends in Asia, decline has also been observed: From the 1980s onward, it was observed that in Sri Lankan Buddhism honouring deities had become more widespread, as the effects of Protestant Buddhism were becoming weaker.[175]

With the spread of Buddhism to the West in the twentieth century, devotional practices still played an important role among Asian ethnic communities, though much less so in Western "convert" communities. The influence of Buddhist modernism could also be felt in the West, where lay-led organizations often offered meditation courses without much emphasis on devotion. Thus, in Western Buddhism, meditation is more emphasized than in traditional Buddhist communities, and faith or devotion less.[2][176]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The sutta can be found online at The Kalāma Sutta, translated by Soma Thera
  2. ^ The sutta can be found at: Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. "Canki Sutta: With Canki". Retrieved 2017-05-26. 
  3. ^ See "The Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 27". Translated by Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. Access to Insight.  Similarly, at "Kasi Bharadvaja Sutta". Translated by Bhikkhu, Thanissaro.  as well, the relationship of faith, practice and wisdom is described: "Faith is the seed, practice the rain / And wisdom is my yoke and plough. / Modesty's the pole, mind the strap, / Mindfulness my ploughshare and goad."
  4. ^ The idea of the celestial Buddha may have been influenced by the pre-Buddhist Indian concept of avatars.[68]
  5. ^ Nevertheless, in some texts Shinran argued that the number of times the nembutsu was recited, whether once or many, did not provide a complete answer to the question of salvation.[121]
  6. ^ However, other scholars have downplayed the role of the new movements in the Kamakura period, stating that reform also took place in old Buddhist schools, and that some of the new movements only gained significance much later.[128]
  7. ^ There is some disagreement as to whether Shinran was already openly married when still a Tendai priest, linguist A.W. Barber stating he was, but Japanologist James C. Dobbins stating he practiced celibacy before meeting Hōnen.[118][132] It has also been noted that Shinran lost his celibate status as soon as he was banished, thus effectively becoming a layperson.[133] Whatever the case, when he actually started teaching against celibacy, he started stirring up controversy.[131]


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  151. ^ The two obscurations (Wylie: sgrib gnyis) are:
    The obscuration of conflicting emotions ([Wylie:] nyon-mongs-pa'i sgrib-ma, Sanskrit: kleśa-varaṇa) and the obscuration concerning the knowable ([Wylie:] shes-bya'i sgrib-ma, Sanskrit: jñeyāvaraṇa).
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