Faith (shraddha) arises in the condition of dukkha, says Buddha in the Nidana Vagga in the Samyuta Nikaya. Dukkha is the circumstance of our being sensitive to living in a world of suffering, a world of birth and death. If we were not sentient in this way we would not need faith. A rock does not need faith because it does not mind. If one takes a sledge hammer and breaks it up. it does not mind. Although the rock might have, in a sense, died, in this way, it is as nothing to it. We, however, feel such things and this presents a challenge. Inevitably, therefore, we proceed in some kind of faith. If we did not have faith we could not do anything as we would be too daunted by the risks of this life.
However, faith may be invested in many different things, some more wholesome than others. One of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, therefore, is to advise us to turn back from adopting a false refuge and, instead, have the confidence and courage to choose a secure one. Thus some people may take refuge in finding the right relationship, some in prosperity, some in social status, some in political power, some in devotion to a cause. None of these things are evil in and of themselves, but none constitutes a secure refuge. This is because they all themselves exist within the frame of conditional existence and are therefore impermanent. When conditions change, they change. The only true refuge lies beyond conditions, in faith in what is not impermanent. In Buddhism this is the Three Jewels.
THE THREE JEWELS BEYOND CONDITIONS
Modern people have tended to lose this understanding of the fundamental Buddhist message. This is because they tend to locate the Three Jewels within the world of conditions. They think that Buddha means a man who lived a long time ago and died; that Dharma is a set of ideas that can be revised from time to time as circumstances change; that Sangha means the community of people practising Buddhism at a given time. These three things, as so conceived, do not constitute a true refuge, because they too are subject to conditions and therefore to impermanence.
The true Buddhist sense of the Three Jewels, however, is different. It is, rather, a feeling for the Three Jewels as dimensions of a spiritual reality that is not conditional and not impermanent. In this sense, Buddha refers to the Dharmakaya, conceived as singular and personal, Dharma refers to the Dharmakaya conceived as impersonal and Sangha refers to the Dharmakaya conceived as a multiplicity. “Personal”, “impersonal”, “singular” and “multiple” are our ways of conceiving things. They do not belong to the reality itself which is beyond words. We have many other words for it too - the Unborn, the Deathless, Nirvana, the Tao, and so on. All these are merely fingers pointing. The moon shines on all alike, but only brings peace to the hearts of those who gaze upon it. However, when one has such a peaceful heart (anjin) it gives one courage to face whatever circumstances may come along.
It is in this sense that Buddhism is true religion and not merely just another secular philosophy. Turn back from false refuge in conditioned things and turn toward the Three Jewels. This is what Honen means by making a decisive choice. In Pureland, the Three Jewels are encompassed in the nembutsu. When one has made such a choice, one might go on to have a special relationship or one might not, one might be prosperous or one might not, one might have social staus or power or not, one might dedicate energy to a cause or one might not, but one will do these things within a framework of true faith and so one will not be defeated by their inevitable vicissitudes, nor will one feel a desperate need to have them at all. One will be liberated and in a position to choose. Faith brings freedom, confidence, courage and deeper equanimity. The faithful heart is not defeated even if thrown into gaol or, in a figure used by Shakyamuni, even if the body is cut in half with a two handed saw.
When, in the circumstance of dukkha, one turns back from false supports and finds true refuge, the path naturally unfolds.