by Dr. Alfred Bloom, Emeritus Professor, University of Hawaii
Sometime ago, I heard a story from Tibet which offers insight into the nature of faith. According to the story, there was a traveling salesman—not one of those jokes—who lived with his devout but aged mother. Often, when he went on business trips, she would plead with him to bring her a relic tooth of the Buddha. Relics are highly venerated in some forms of Buddhism and in other religions.
The son would frequently go on his trips, but because he was busy, he forgot to bring her the relic. However, one day as he was wending his way home, he encountered the carcass of a dog on the road and he remembered his mother’s request. He removed a tooth from the dog, wrapping it in a cloth. When he returned home, he gave the tooth to his mother, saying: “Mother, I have finally brought you a tooth of the Buddha.”
The grateful mother immediately put her hands together in prayer and reverence. Thereupon, the room lit up with rays of light from the tooth.
The story is very instructive. Faith/trust is a matter of the heart. She perceived the Buddha-nature even in the dog’s tooth. Faith is intuitive and rooted in our human nature. Whatever the external reality may be, a real tooth of the Buddha or a dog’s tooth, it is faith that transforms and gives spiritual meaning to the object. It was for her a veritable tooth of the Buddha. We live by our faith and are enabled to negotiate our lives in the world because we have faith, faith in the order of things, faith in the people around us. Faith is the foundation of life.
The mother did not ask for a demonstration or proof that the object was in fact a relic of the Buddha. She did not put her son or the tooth to the test. She trusted and the reality was in her faith. Faith can be said to create reality. It is our subjectivity in encounter with the world. It is an experience. Our faith shapes the attitudes and actions we carry out in life.
Faith is a response of our being to something greater which calls for our commitment. Some call it God, Buddha, the Tao, Mana, Kami; each person’s faith wears its own garment. We are told that faith moves mountains; that faith is the evidence of things unseen; It is the assurance of things hoped for. Faith is an encounter with the mystery of life which cannot simply be objectified and placed outside us or in our hip pocket. We do not argue faith, we give witness to its power in our lives.
Faith is different than belief. We try to prove beliefs which may be right or wrong. We argue about or compare beliefs. Beliefs are highly diverse and give rise to strenuous debate. People unite in faith as they confront the same mystery of life, though under various guises. Beliefs are held but faith is shared. People can unite on the basis of their faith experience, while beliefs divide us and conflict. When beliefs are grounded in living faith, universal peace can become a reality in our conflicted world.