Faith and Doubt

Faith can be a surprisingly contentious issue in Buddhist practice, surprising in the amount of resistance that it can generate despite the fact that faith is regarded as one of the qualities and factors that are essential to our progress. But how are we to understand the purpose of faith and open ourselves up to it fully when it can be such a difficult concept for our minds to work with?

Part of the difficulty comes from, I suspect, the Western idea of faith as blind faith; an idea which is synonymous with slavish devotion and a total capitulation to the ‘greatness’ of some unseen power or venerated person. Many people now with a Western, scientific leaning background would think it incontrovertible that no one should have faith in something that there is no evidence for, so faith is cast in a negative light – it belongs in the realm of the irrational.

But wind the clock back a few hundred years and it was doubt that was the more unseemly attitude; the message from the bible about faith was clear – you simply must have it or be damned forever. Doubt was the most negative of traits, as seen in the Biblical about Thomas. Thomas, one of Jesus’ apostles, refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he saw him with his own eyes, and was eternally criticised for it, earning himself and every other unbeliever the moniker of ‘doubting Thomas’ for the next two thousand years.

The way faith is understood in Buddhist practice doesn’t fit with this Christian idea of faith and doubt at all though, in fact we might generally assume that Buddha would have congratulated Thomas for waiting to see from his own direct experience before jumping to any conclusions, especially about such an astonishing proposition as someone having come back from the dead. This isn’t to criticise other approaches to faith though, understanding how faith works in Buddhism is intrinsic to how the whole practice works so the differences need to be pointed out. The Buddha was clear that we can’t claim real knowledge of anything unless we have experienced it for ourselves, and yet at the same time he was also very clear that we needed faith too, there was no way to reach enlightenment without it. One way that might help us to understand this potential paradox is to recognise that while in the West faith is considered the opposite of empiricism, in Buddhism faith is the opposite of doubt –  we could say the Western understanding sets the two up as opposing philosophies, whereas the Buddhist understanding sets them up as alternate mindstates.

Faith and doubt are both core concepts in Buddhist practice: doubt is one of the five hindrances; faith is a vital component of the five indriyas and of the seven factors of enlightenment. Doubt is to be eradicated, and faith is to be cultivated, but a question we could ask to help us to understand what they do for our practice is which element is it that produces the benefits that allow us to reach enlightenment– having faith, or lacking doubt?

Let’s start by exploring doubt. Doubt is a hindrance, and like the other four of the five hindrances it does indeed hinder our progress by making it hard to settle our mind in meditation, but we do find other instances where it creates problems for other reasons too. In the Abhaya Sutta(SN46.56) the Buddha says that doubt is the cause and condition for being unable to know and see wisdom [1]. In the Faith Sutra (T 1670b 2.8) [2] the analogy is made that a mind with doubt is like to turbulent, muddy water and a mind with faith in comparison is like calm, clear water. This echoes the same issue raised in the Abhaya Sutta, doubt makes it hard to see things clearly.

In the famous Kalama Sutta (AN3.65) [3], which is one of the most frequently referenced to explain the Buddha’s stance on faith, we find another reiteration of this idea where the muddy waters of conflicting teachings have left the Kalamas doubting and uncertain. Their doubt becomes a source of confusion for them and they have to ask the Buddha for his advice to resolve the issue, so we can understand that it was the impact of doubt that stopped the Kalamas from taking up any of the practices that had been suggested to them because they couldn’t see which teachings and practices were useful. So we can also see how doubt could hinder our progress because our lack of clarity could mean that we wouldn’t follow the practices that would give us the necessary results.

But even though it is treated as its opposite, doubt isn’t simply caused by a lack of faith; in the Mentor Sutta (AN 5.56) we find that doubt has a less obvious cause:

“…a mendicant went up to his own mentor, and said, “Now, sir, my body feels like it’s drugged. I’m disorientated, the teachings don’t spring to mind, and dullness and drowsiness fill my mind. I lead the spiritual life dissatisfied, and have doubts about the teachings.”…

“That’s how it is, mendicant, when your sense doors are unguarded, you eat too much, you’re not dedicated to wakefulness, you’re unable to discern skillful qualities, and you don’t pursue the development of the qualities that lead to awakening in the evening and toward dawn. Your body feels like it’s drugged. You’re disorientated, the teachings don’t spring to mind, and dullness and drowsiness fill your mind. You lead the spiritual life dissatisfied, and have doubts about the teachings. [4]

The monk’s doubt arises not because he loses faith, but because he has slackened his practice. When his practice improves, as the sutta continues, his doubt leaves him, and one way to understand why this happens is because he has the outcome of his practice  as evidence to show him that there is nothing to doubt in the teachings.

In his article ‘Faith in Awakening’, [5] Thanissaro Bhikkhu supports this angle by suggesting that we only know our faith in the Buddha’s awakening is well placed at the point we have our own first taste of awakening, we need to see results to get past any doubts. He adds that the faith the Buddha asks us to have in him is conditional – we must take him on faith to begin with, but we must test the veracity of his claims for ourselves.

So doubt arises when there is no evidence from the outcome of practice to support its legitimacy. We can see this with the monk who let his practice slide, and we can see this with the Kalamas too. They had only heard the teachings of the wanderers, they hadn’t followed any of their practices so had nothing to evaluate the ideas against. This need for outcomes from practice to keep doubt at bay might also be a reason why the Buddha says that speculative thinking is so problematic. In the Sabba Sutta (MN2) [6] the Buddha lists a set of existential questions that he considers to be improper subjects to put our attention on, such as did I exist in the past? Will I exist in the future? Am I? Am I not? Where did I come from? Where will I go? He goes on to say that these questions will create self view, which is a problem enough on its own, but also that the ideas we have about ourselves will create a ‘thicket of views’ that our minds will get tangled in. There is no possible way that we can answer these questions, we can only tie ourselves in knots with them, and perhaps part of the warning from the Buddha was because unanswerable questions will leave us with unresolvable doubts.

But it is not only conflicting teachings of the type the Kalamas heard that can lead to confusion, even exposure to new ideas about Buddhism can create mental turbulence. Reading about the history of Buddhism recently I found myself exposed to a lot of new information  about how Buddhism developed, how elements have changed over the years, how and why certain practices have come about and others have fallen into obscurity, and how difficult it is for anyone to lay claim to being truly authoritative. This did present a challenge to my faith, but it was a useful experience because it allowed me to understand what assumptions had been propping up my sense that I was following the right practices. The niggling sense of doubt that was raised by the new information I had helped me to uncover that some of my faith was tied to ideas about the provenance of the teachings, and the supposition of my chosen lineage’s closeness to source as being evidence enough for the teachings to be unquestionably true.

For some people this can lead to a loss of faith, but what this allowed me to do was to drop any ideas and value judgements I had about the truth of certain teachings over others and focus on the outcomes of my practice instead, asking  ‘does this practice take me closer to my goal or not? Does this lead to peace? Does this lead to wisdom?’  The answer remained yes. There had been a complacency in my faith, a complacency that was highlighted in the Dhammapada Reflection email from Ratanagiri this week which inspired this post:

“What good fortune to have access to the teachings offered by the Buddha and the Awakened disciples. What a great blessing to find that we have faith in these teachings; a faith that encourages us to question, to enquire, and not to merely believe. When we merely believe, we abdicate responsibility for the consequences of our unawareness; and surely it is unawareness that is at the very core of all suffering – our own and that of the world. So let’s be careful that we are not becoming lost in feeling good just because we believe in the Buddha. Instead of asking, ‘Am I a good Buddhist?’, perhaps we ought to be asking, ‘Is my Buddhist practice helping me hear my heart’s deepest doubts and concerns?’ And, ‘Am I learning to rightly trust myself as I engage those true questions?’ “[7]

It is easy to rest on our laurels once we feel some confidence in the teachings and practices we are following, and I wonder if there is a particular type of complacency in faith that Westerners are at risk of. With our scientific, skeptical minds  we struggle so much to believe fully in anything that when we do, we feel like we have made it. Proficiency in Christianity is mostly measured by having faith, so do those of us from historically Christian countries have to be careful of not falling back into our old model of faith as simply believing, or as the end goal that we are working towards?

Having faith in something, anything, is a powerful and uplifting sensation, and even if we don’t have any kind of spiritual faith we all love the feeling that a sense of certainty can bring. But the Buddhist way of understanding the world says that the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty and change, so this kind of unconditional faith can’t be what the Buddha is telling us to have.

The five indriyas, or spiritual powers, balance faith against wisdom because without wisdom we will be at risk of having faith in the wrong things, and in practices we haven’t had any results from. In the Shorter Elephant Foot Print Simile ( MN27) [8] the Buddha uses the example of a hunter tracking a bull elephant to show why we need to be able to reserve our judgement until we have clear evidence and not just believe at the slightest indication. Although the hunter sees evidence of elephant activity, he doesn’t jump to the conclusion that it must be a bull elephant, he keeps in mind that there are large females who can also leave similar tracks. It is only after following the tracks and eventually seeing the bull elephant for himself that he commits to the view that the tracks were from the bull elephant. Thanissaro Bhikkhu feels this shows that the Buddha supports the use of healthy skepticism, he expects us to follow his tracks but only to fully endorse them at the point where we have seen the truth of them for ourselves. [5]  This clearly isn’t the kind of irrational, unquestioning faith that we understand historically in the West, not is it the kind of cynical skepticism that we usually employ either.

If we can take this to suggest that the benefits of faith don’t come from blind faith, then perhaps the important factors might be more to do with the negative impact of doubt on the progress of our practice – such as overthinking, diffusion of our energy in different directions, and a loss of focus. If we go back to the indriyas for an example of this, we can see how doubt would hamper the development of the other indriyas. If you have doubt in what you are applying yourself to your energy will have nothing to focus on and will be liable to be scattered into all kinds of ideas and practices. If you have doubt, then your mindfulness will have no dedication behind it to keep you working on it when it feels difficult. The growth of wisdom will be stunted by doubts in what you see and experience, and concentration won’t be able to develop as the mind won’t settle long enough with the constant mental turbulence that doubt creates. So rather than saying faith has a special quality that facilitates the development of the indriyas and that’s why you need it, instead we could say that doubt has negative effects that will make their development very difficult and that’s why you need to get rid of it.

As shown in the indriyas with mindfulness, doubt  makes it hard to stay with one thing long enough to get results from it, which is a very obvious major hindrance to our progress. This helps to make sense of something Dipa Ma said – pick one practice and stick to it. It’s not uncommon for newcomers to Buddhism to ask questions about which tradition they should follow – Zen, Tibetan, Theravadan, etc. But the answer they are usually given is that the differences between the traditions don’t matter so much for making the choice, the more important thing is to find which one you can stick with. So faith, or lack of doubt, in the path that we follow is again an important factor in how much we will be able to develop in it.

So in some situations I can see that the importance of faith is more about the problems that doubts creates than it is about having an unshakeable belief in something. It isn’t necessarily even the case that we need to get rid of all of our doubts, sometimes it is just about learning to not indulge them- park them to one side to focus on the task at hand like the elephant hunter.

When we can do this it not only  means we can apply ourselves in the moment, but leaving our doubts alone allows the mind to be clearer and less cluttered with ideas because we stop habitually noodling about every little question that our mind throws up. I’ve found that doing this has helped me to train my focus away from the content of my thoughts all the time, and has pulled me away from biasing conceptual thought as the primary source of proof and truth. When the mind is quiet it opens the doors to direct experiences of different kinds, and these are crucial because they show us that there are some things that the mind just can’t tell us.



1.     Bhikkhu Sujato (2018) Abhayasutta SN46.56: A Place Without Fear. Accessed 29 Mar 2021

2.     Guang Xing (2008) 2.8 Faith T 1670b 2.8. Accessed 29 Mar 2021

3.     Bhikkhu Sujato (2018) Kesamuttisutta AN3.65: With the Kālāmas of Kesamutta. Accessed 29 Mar 2021

4.     Bhikkhu Sujato (2018) Upajjhāyasutta AN5.56: Mentor. Accessed 29 Mar 2021

5.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2006) Faith in Awakening. Accessed 29 Mar 2021

6.     Bhikkhu Sujato (2018) Sabbāsavasutta MN2: All the Taints. Accessed 30 Mar 2021

7.     Ratanagiri Monastery (2021) Dhammapada Reflections: Dhammapada v179.

8.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2005) Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta MN27: The Shorter Elephant Footprint Simile. Accessed 29 Mar 2021

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s