If you ask a random sampling of people to define faith, chances are that they will mention God (or another deity/ies) in their reply. Jews will say “God,” Muslims will say “Allah,” Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans may reply “God” and/or “Goddess,” and Christians will answer “God” and/or “Jesus.”
So, what, exactly, do Buddhists have faith in since Buddhism is a non-theistic religion?
Buddhism is, indeed, non-theistic in that Buddha said that there is no creator deity, which is what most people are referring to when they say “God.” However, he confirmed that devas (gods and goddesses) do exist, though he said that they are subject to the same cycle of samsara (life, death and rebirth) as humans and other sentient beings.
Buddha instructed his followers not to worship him ― “Don’t follow the [pointing] finger, follow the way (path).” But it would be easy to believe that Buddhists do exactly that. After all, statues of the Buddha, complete with elaborate offerings, are the focal point of any Buddhist temple. The fact of the matter, however, is that Buddhists venerate the Buddha (and a host of other buddhas and bodhisattvas, beings aspiring to become enlightened for the benefit of others).
St. Thomas Aquinas explained that worship “…[i]s the manifestation of submission, and acknowledgement of dependence, appropriately shown towards the excellence of an uncreated divine person and to his absolute Lordship.” Veneration, on the other hand, “…is the honor and reverence appropriately due to the excellence of a created person.” While St. Thomas Aquinas was a Christian, the distinction drawn in these definitions clearly explains how Buddhists venerate the Buddha: as a human who reached enlightenment and taught his followers how they could do the same.
By venerating the Buddha, Buddhists place their faith in the path to enlightenment. By extension, they also place their faith in the dharma, Buddha’s teachings. Finally, they place their faith in the sangha, the Buddhist community of ordained and laypeople, both past and present, who carry and support the dharma.
Buddhists “seek refuge” in these three tenets of faith, which are known as the Three Jewels. Seeking refuge simply means turning to the Three Jewels for protection from delusion, attachment and samsara. They “go for refuge” by saying some variation of the lines below, either during a ceremony at a temple or meditation center or in their own home as part of their daily meditation practice.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the dharma.
I take refuge in the sangha.
The real test of faith, of course, is whether it works. Does Buddhism cause practitioners to speak and behave more compassionately towards all sentient beings? Does it give them the strength to deal with daily life as well as with inevitable crises? Does it provide comfort when they or a loved one are ill or dying?
As a longtime Buddhist practitioner, I can attest that it does. My Buddhist practice taught me to be mindful that my words and actions have an impact on others. As a result, my interactions with people are kinder. I became a vegetarian over a year ago so my actions would be more closely aligned with my belief system. When my elderly father became seriously ill about six months ago, I turned to my faith ― in the Buddha, his teachings and in my teacher and friends who comprise my sangha― for support. And when he passed away, I drew strength and profound comfort from these keystones of my faith and from participating in a Powa puja (Transference of Consciousness at the Time of Death) at the temple to request that my father be reborn in the Pure Land.
A non-theistic religion may sound like a paradox, but it’s easy to see that Buddhists have solid tenets on which to build their faith. And, most importantly, theirs is a faith that works, improving the quality of their lives while giving them hope for a better afterlife.