Commentary on Summary of Faith and Practice

TEXT: Faith & practice cannot be differentiated



"Cannot be differentiated" means that one cannot tell one from the other. You can see a person's real faith in their practice. Practice is the outward sign of faith.For didactic purposes we can differentiate them, but this is a purely conceptual exercise. There have been those in the history of Buddhism who have had the view that 'if you have faith you don't need to practice', but this is a misconception. The word 'need' in the sentence betrays it. Need for what? Actually, to use the same word differently, whatever faith you have, whether good or bad, will generate a 'need' that one will have to put into practice.

However, people are deceptive, even of themselves. The persona or 'mask' that one wears for public appearance does not necessarily display one's real faith. The real faith is more likely to become apparent at times of extremity or when something unexpected catches the person off guard. Sometimes this is a surprise to the person him or her self. A professed atheist may start to pray when his life is seriously threatened. A supposed believer may realise that she does not really believe. The public philanthropist may suddenly exhibit a mean streak. The gangster might be compassionate. And so on. We do not necessarily know ourselves that well and who can see into the heart of another?

In the Jewel Mirror Samadhi we find the images of snow upon a silver plate and of a white egret againt the shining moon. Here the point is that although these are all 'white', still the 'whites' are not the same. We can see that although we might present ourselves as being 'white as white', we are not really. A certain humility is required if one is to learn anything. So the first step may be to recognise that one's faith is not complete. It is what it is. One might prefer it to be more or otherwise, but it is such and such. One might pray to be given more faith or shown things that will inspire faith, but it is in the nature of faith that one cannot force it. Faith that one manufactures is not the real thing - not the real white.


Walking the Walk

The term 'practice' is gyo in Japanese. The Japanese terms basically means 'walk'. The faith we have is in the way we walk. We can say 'walk the path'. How do we walk this path. What is it like to walk in a person's steps. We are walking in the tracks of Buddha. What does that feel like? What happens when one imitates Buddha or walks in his steps? What does it mean to really do so? Is it a matter of 'form' or is it something that transcends form? After all if Buddha appeared in 21st century London he might be a bit different in form, of would he? These have been important questions in Buddhist history. In any case, in some sense, Buddhist practice is to 'walk the walk' even more than to 'talk the talk'.

Theory & Custom

In English, the term practice has a number of meanings. The two primary ones are to do with theory and custom.

Putting Theory into Practice: Try and See

Firstly, practice means to put a theory into action. Thus a doctor practises. This means that he puts the knowledge of medicine into action. So practice is a matter of converting what is know into behaviour. Generally when one does this one learns as a result and so comes to know more, so this is a dialectical process in which growth occurs. In Buddhism, what one 'knows' is what one is mindful of and this derives firstly from what one has 'heard' and 'heeded'. If one has truly internalised what one has heard, then we say that one has taken heed of it. Putting into practice what one has heeded, one is, in effect, investigating it's truth. This is the Buddha's experimental method. Try it and see.

Now, when we talk of putting theory into practice, we should not forget that the word 'theory' comes from 'theos', the divine. The original meaning of theory is close to 'other power'. When we really put the spirit into practice, self-will and other-power converge. In fact, self-will is absorbed into other-power. This is what is expressed in the Christian prayer, "Thy will not mine".

So, in Mahayana Buddhism, the idea is to put the spirit of the Dharma into practice.

Custom: The Ritual or Dance of Existence

The second sense of 'practice' in English is custom. One can say, it is our practice here to say grace before meals. This means that it is customary. Here it is considered proper. This is the ritual of this time and place. Every circumstance has its ritual and the way to let go of self is to merge with the ritual. However, the true rituals are not artificial, they are prescribed by the gods. They are sacrifice. The purpose of sacrifice is to sacrify - to make sacred. To sacrifice is to conform to that which makes sacred. This is the fundamental meaning. Superficially, sacrifice means to give something up, originally in order to feed the ancestral spirits. It still means to give something up, but what is required in Buddhism is not to give up a goat but to give up one's selfishness. It is the ego that is sacrificed. Then one is able to enter the ritual of life.

Ritual is like dance. When you are on the dance floor you dance with others and to a music. When the record changes, the dance changes. Life is like that. Every so often the music changes. You are walking along chatting and joking with a friend and enter a room where everybody is in mourning for a relative who recently died. The music changes. One is required to comport oneself in a different way. One has partners in this dance and one helps them with their steps just as one tries to find one's own. This is the proper performance of ritual. When ritual is properly performed, the sacred appears and the egos disappear.


Generally, in Buddhism, a sangha has a primary practice. In Pureland it is nembutsu; in Zen it is zazen; in Tibetan Buddhism each group is likely to have a favoured sadhana focussed upon a particular yidam; and so on. This is the primary medium through which the sangha operates and it will be applied intensively and extensively.

Intensive practice means the practice that is done formally, mostly in the ceremony hall. There will be ceremonies, liturgy and contemplation. These practices include some performance of the primary practice and also of practices that are auxilliary (or supportive) to it.

Extensive practice is to carry the spirit of the primary practice and the intensive practice into everyday life situations. This might be saying the nembutsu when you meet another practitioner on the street, or preserving the attitude of zazen while doing the washing up, or having a sense of the yidam in one's heart while pruning the roses.


Having Faith in Faith

The ideal is that the spirit of the Dharma Vinaya is so integrated that one has it in one's bones. While the auxilliary practices are all helpful and life in a sangha community is a huge benefit, even if one were transported to a completely different situation one would have the faith so deeply 'in one's bones' that the same spirit would naturally re-emerge in new forms suitable to the new circumstance. This is the ideal of complete faith. Of course, mostly this kind of total faith occurs in most people lives only as little islands here and there that are not joined up. This is what it means to be 'bombu'.

One therefore needs to have faith in faith. One needs to know that it is precisely for bombu beings such as ourselves that the Buddhas come. We trust that we shall be shown what we need and that if we carry out the faith that we do have we shall surely be given more when the time is right. Actually, mostly we do not know how much faith we really have. Faith is mostly unconscious. It has little to do with the affirmation of particular beliefs; they are secondary. Faith is a quality, quite similar to courage, but also incorporating curiosity, generosity, gratitude and other features. It comes in several modes.

Modes of Faith

There are at least four different Indian words for faith, each of which highlights a different aspect.

Shraddha refers to 'wholeheartedness'. People 'put their heart into' the things that they have faith in.

Prasada refers to clarity. When one is clear about something one will go for it. This is a kind of faith.

Adhimoksha refers to spaciousness. Faith is to be big minded and big hearted. Here faith breaks the prison walls and gives one freedom.

Bodhichitta refers to willingness and inspiration. It is the mind of the bodhisattva who has the 'way-seeking mind'. This is to be inspired by all the Buddhas and willing to live out that inspiration.

Other Power

In a simple sense, faith and practice can never be differentiated. It simply is the case that the way a person lives their life betrays what their faith is. It may be a good faith or a bad one. In a more religious sense, we talk of 'true faith' meaning faith in the Dharma. When there is such faith the Dharma will be lived out. In that case, other-power will flow through the person. They themselves may not be aware that it is happening - most of the time will not be. Nonetheless, it is happening. They become a channel for the Buddhas' compassionate purpose in the world.

The fact that this is a largely unconscious process means that one just has to have faith in it. What is necessary will happen.

People will then ask how one can acquire more faith, and the answer might be 'live more dangerously!' When we live well within our 'comfort zone' our faith is never tested or extended. However, if we live closer to our edge then things happen. We shall change - perhaps for the better, perhaps not. In this business there are no guarantees. One can pray. One can pray that more faith be given. However, this may or may not be a sincere prayer. To have more faith can be alarming. One might have to do something with one's life. It might mean no longer moving along well-worn ruts. The music of life might change tempo. Does one really want that? Perhaps not just yet. 

When the time is right one will receive promptings. The hidden powers will nudge one along. One might resist or one might flow. In the end, true faith is simply to be perfectly willing. If one is perfectly willing then one will be able to die well. That is love.

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Replies to This Discussion

Everyday life situations are always challenging my faith and they prove my difficulty in letting me be absorbed by Other power…So that idea of living closer to the edge could mean really a possibility to enhance my faith…But I feel I am not yet prepared (again thinking that it depends on me?...this means a lack of faith…) Perhaps my faith is what it is, as you have said, and we can do nothing about, “it is not my will, but thy will be done”.

I feel I can only pray but I cannot know if I will let me flow with the promptings …

Thank you so much Dharmavidya .


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