Most religions, particularly the Abrahamic religions, present faith or belief in something outside of you as the answer to the great questions about life and death. It is beyond our capacity to know, so we are told to trust in a doctrine that is offered. Faith, however, is completely arbitrary; why pick one over the other if it can’t be proven? It is also contingent upon our location and era of living. Raised in a particular culture, you take what they believe as real. Raised five hundred miles away, you believe another system. There is nothing empirical about it.
Faith is contingent upon self-reflection and the mental process. If we are not exposed to a faith or belief system, we do not spontaneously come upon it out of nowhere. It is not a substantive experience like witnessing the sun or moon where we all see pretty much the same thing regardless of our culture and geography. It is completely supported by mental effort and has no real substance outside of the human mind. If one is raised in the Jewish, Christian or Islamic faith that is what one generally believes. For many of us, the faith we follow is an accident of birth. For others, it is something we are taught or learn about later, and it seems to make sense to us, but all of it is contingent upon being taught the faith. It does not spontaneously appear in our consciousness. What was there before religion? Is there a religious awakening that is prior to faith? Is there a religious experience that transcends all faiths? An experience that is trans-historical and trans-cultural? I would say that there is. Many in history have come to a religious or existential awareness that was beyond their faith and generally, when they expressed this, were then ostracized by their faiths for blasphemy or heresy. It is the awareness of self as the Universe and the Universe as self. Meister Eckhart may have experienced this when he proclaimed “I think the thoughts of God before creation” or Chuang Tzu when he said, “Heaven, earth and I arise simultaneously”. There is a thread of this type of experience throughout history. It transcends ‘words and letters’; it obliterates ‘Zen’.
A problem that I see with faith is that while a believer will expect others to respect his faith, rarely does he give this respect to others’ faiths. If what I believe is right simply because I believe it to be right, then how can I criticize another’s faith? That would give them the ground to criticize my faith. It’s a circular argument, I know, but it is the problem that faith-based religions do have. Just because we believe it doesn’t make it a reality, though this is a prominent idea with new age religions and the PBS gurus. They proclaim that what you believe to be real will become real; that reality is just a projection of our minds and therefore malleable to the focus of our minds. The most sincere believers in the world are children, and many of them believe in Santa Claus, but that does not make him real. He does not come into being due to the sincerity of their hearts and minds. On a harsher note, Muhammed Atta had great faith and followed his ‘heart’ (another bone of contention in religious thought) when he flew the plane into the World Trade Center. He died for his great faith. Why is faith and following one’s heart considered such a good thing?
What does matter is true religious experience. If an aboriginal who had never been exposed to a religion comes to a religious awakening, shouldn’t he then see the religion that is supposed to be true? Shouldn’t he see ‘Jesus’ or ‘Allah’ or ‘Krishna’? Has it ever happened that an isolated tribe had a belief in a faith they had never been exposed to? Not to my knowledge, although there are these terribly anecdotal stories of missionaries coming to tribes and being told that ‘they knew this already’ only to find they had been approached years earlier by different missionaries. So you don’t find someone coming to this type of experience independently of being taught it. However, you do find those that have come to the trans- historical/cultural experience with no knowledge of other cultures. These experiences are recorded in Islam, Christianity, Taoism, Buddhism, Shamanism and many other traditions, and the experience flies in the face of the system the individual has been raised in.
Buddhism is not a matter of faith or believing in the ‘Buddha’ but a matter of realizing what the historical Buddha realized: the interpenetration of all things and interdependent co-origination. There is no worship of the Buddha or faith to follow but only the arduous work of the individual to overcome their dualistic consciousness to realize themselves as an expression of the Universe, here and now.