Right View (samyak-dṛṣṭi) and Correct Faith (śraddhā): Correspondence, Distinction, and Re-Merging in East Asian Mahāyāna

A. Charles Muller, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo

November 6, 2015

As a religious tradition, Buddhism is distinctively epistemological in its articulation of the causes of human suffering and in the solutions it offers. The most fundamental problem in Buddhism is that of nescience (avidyā), manifested in such ways as the clinging to a constructed self, along with numberless derivative problems. Therefore the matter of mentally constructed frameworks (dṛṣṭi) is central to Buddhist soteriological discourse, with the first item on the eightfold path being “right view” (Skt. samyag-dṛṣṭi). Mahāyāna Buddhism furthermore contains two distinct levels of discourse regarding right views: that which occurs at the conventional (laukika/saṃvṛti) level and that which is seen at the transcendent (lokôttara/paramârtha) level of discussion. At the same time, the notion of faith (śraddhā), which in other religions tends strongly in the emotional/devotional directions, is in Mahāyāna philosophy of mind, a category intimately related to right view, and like right view, it has the two dimensions of conventional and transcendent. This paper starts out with the discussion of views and belief in the context of secular academic disciplines such as psychology and epistemology, and ends up with the most rarefied view in Zen, a distinctive Buddhist tradition, wherein, I argue, right view and correct faith become indistinguishable.

Table of Contents


In comparison with the situation in the study of Christianity and other theistic traditions, studies on faith in Buddhism are relatively sparse. When faith is taken up for examination, it is most often its devotional aspects that are discussed, as in the case of the faith in Amitâbha or another savior figure, or in the case of folk aspects of the religion, where prayer for personal benefit is made to some sort of deity.

But faith in Buddhism has another aspect, one which sets it a bit apart from other religious traditions, wherein faith is not related to the perceived power or grace wielded by an external deity, but rather manifests itself as a conviction in an internal Buddhist principle, or teaching, that reflects a perception of reality, and thus, is more related to one's cognitive orientation--one's worldview, rather than one's relationship with a deity. In Buddhism, the type of principles that are usually the object of this kind of faith are doctrines, such as the law of cause and effect, or dependent arising. Faith is defined, for example, in the Abhidharmakośa and the Cheng weishi lun as an acceptance of reality—represented by the law of cause and effect—on its own terms. In both texts, this confidence, or acceptance, serves to purify the mind: “Faith (śraddhā) purifies the mind. It is also said that faith implies acceptance of the reality of the truths and the fruition of karma.” 此中信者。 令心澄淨。 有說。 於諦實業果中現前忍許故名爲信。 (T 1558.29.19b2–4).{note} This reference is provided in Bauddhakośa with a slightly stilted translation by Pruden. See <http://www.l.u-tokyo.ac.jp/~b_kosha/html/index_75dharma.html>. {/note} The first part of this definition is basic and omnipresent in Buddhist texts—that of faith being a purifying power.

The power to purify the mind is also a defining characteristic of faith cited in the Cheng weishi lun, the locus classicus for the definition of faith found in many modern East Asian dictionaries of Buddhism. In one important passage, faith is explained as having three aspects: acceptance of reality, believing in merit, and providing the motivation to overcome obstacles to enlightenment.

What is faith? There is faith in reality, merit, and the ability for deep tolerance and will to attainment. Mental purity is its essence. Countering faithlessness and enjoying the wholesome is its function. Furthermore, faith has three distinct aspects. The first is faith in reality. This means that one deeply believes in and accepts true events and principles as they appear as phenomena. The second is faith in the existence of merit. This means that one has profound faith in and enjoyment of the true pure merits of the three treasures. The third is faith in ability. This means that one deeply believes that all mundane and transmundane forms of wholesomeness have a power that is able to produce hope. Through this one is able to counteract those thoughts of nonbelief, and one has a strong will to witness and cultivate mundane and transmundane forms of wholesomeness.{note} 云何爲信。於實、德、能深忍樂欲。心淨爲性。對治不信樂善爲業。然信差別略有三種。一信實有。謂於諸法實事理中深信忍故。二信有德。謂於三寶眞淨德中深信樂故。三信有能。謂於一切世出世善深信有力能得能成起希望故。T 1585.31.29b23–29c12 {/note}

Now, although faith has the functional power of purification, its starting point is that of acceptance of the Buddhist doctrine of cause and effect, and the belief that liberation is possible.

But while faith is clearly identified in these two encyclopedias of Buddhism, it is not something that is discussed as a central priority of practice. It is also not a concept that receives primary attention in early Buddhism, and in the Eightfold Path, there is no item called Right Faith. Or is there?

The suggestion that I would like to make here is that even though the word Right Faith is not explicitly stated in the articulation of the eightfold path, it is in fact included under the rubric of Right View. This can be explained by the fact that Buddhism, as exemplified in the theme of this panel and in the papers of my colleagues, is, most fundamentally, an epistemology-based religious tradition, and thus, in contrast to theistic religions, or other-power manifestations within Buddhism, right faith has to do with a proper epistemological orientation.

Thus, faith in Buddhism is something that is intimately related to one's view (dṛṣṭi). If we allow faith to taken as a kind of view, then it resides in the same plane of discourse as that of views and beliefs in general, and this is a field of discourse that is of interest to many different kinds of scholars, including those working in such fields as political science, behavioral psychology, marketing, and epistemology. One of the most influential of the modern scholars who studies views in the American epistemologist Barbara Smith, who, along with others, argues that views are in great part, formed based not on veridical facts, but on desires, emotions, and impressions on the part of their holders that make the views desirable. And they continue to be maintained primarily based on whether their holder believes that they are “working well” or not.

All scientists and philosophers recognize that many views are unhelpful or unwholesome, and are better off being removed, or replaced by “better views.” Most scientists and philosophers also recognize well that if someone is happy with a particular view that he holds, he is unlikely to be persuaded by facts that show his view to be incorrect.

When it comes to determining wrongness of views and their correction, our social scientists and philosophers tend to fall into two groups: most social scientists, and “realist” philosophers tend to hold that wrong views can be corrected by right views. But constructivist philosophers like Smith see another level of problematizing views, in that the problem with views being not with their content per se, but whether or not they are rigidly attached to. Thus, almost any view, no matter how effective it may be for a period of time, or in a given circumstance, or for a certain person, will very soon become unworkable.

We can see a similar bifurcation in Buddhism, as some versions of the Buddhist doctrine advocate only the removal of particularly identified wrong views, which are to be replaced by particularly identified right views. But other Buddhist traditions advocate the removal of all views. Examples of the latter approach are evident in the Madhyamaka tradition, and exemplified in the repeated exercises aimed at conceptual destabilization found in the Diamond Sutra. The tendency to emphasize the abandonment of views is brought to a distinctive degree of primacy in the Chan tradition, whose texts and practices are nothing but continual exercises in view abandonment.

This difference is explained in Buddhism through the two categories of mundane (laukika) and transmundane (lokôttara), which correspond to the two levels of perception of reality, saṃvṛti-satya and paramârtha-satya. At the mundane level, Buddhism recognizes that it is beneficial to have the understanding of right kinds of doctrines, such as that of anātman, anitya, karma, pratītya-samutpāda, etc., to correct various problematic non-Buddhist understandings of the world. These correct views are called samyag-dṛṣṭi; their content is, basically, speaking, an accurate understanding of reality, which is also the basic definition of faith given in the Abhidharmakośa and Cheng weishi lun.

But at the transmundane level, it is understood that any kind of view, once it has set in, reified, quickly using its uselessness, and thus akuśala. This is readily understandable when one considers the Buddhist understanding of the nature of reality, with all things being impermanent and dependently originated. Since views are assemblages of linguistic constructs, and linguistic constructs can never be anything more than approximate representations of things, their applicability can, even at its best, only have an extremely short half-life. Views become not only useless, but harmful, and thus numerous texts--both those categorized as Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna--contain exercises aimed at the ridding of views.

We have noted that the content of mundane right view (*laukika-samyag-dṛṣṭi) is close to that of the faith described in the ABK and Cheng weishi lun. But does faith have a comparable lokôttara iteration? It would seem so, but in order to discover it, it seems to be necessary to move beyond the Abhidharma, Madhyamaka, and Yogācāra traditions (unless one of our colleagues can point me to an example in those texts) into the Tathāgatagarbha, Buddha-nature, and ultimately, Chan tradition. As out of that tradition (primarily from the Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith ), there emerges a notion of a special kind of faith, a “correct faith” 正信 or “Mahāyāna faith,” which is not based on a conceptualized framework such as that of the law of cause and effect, but on a non-objectified confidence in one's own Buddha-nature. This form of faith becomes known in Korean Buddhism as “patriarchal faith” 祖信, a term that derives from a treatise long attributed to the Goryeo monk Jinul called Direct Explanation of the True Mind (Jinsim jikseol; 眞心直說),{note} Recent research by Choe Yeonsik has called into question the accuracy of this attribution, arguing instead that the text should be ascribed to the Jurchen Chan monk Zhengyan 政言 (d. ca. 1184 – 1185). See Buswell, Chinul: Selected Works, p. 89, which refers to Choe's article “Jinsim jikseol ui jeojeo e dae han saero un ihae”, pp. 77–101. {/note} the author of which he clearly distinguishes two kinds of faith:

The Direct Mind of True Faith 眞心正信 (HBJ04.715c1-15; T2019A.48.0999b13)


Someone said: “ How does the faith of the patriarchal teaching and the faith of the doctrinal teaching differ?”

Response: “They differ significantly. The doctrinal teaching allows humans and celestials to believe in the law of cause-and-effect.”


Those who want to enjoy the fruits of merit believe in the ten kinds of wholesome actions as the marvelous cause, and that rebirth as a human or celestial is the happy result. Those who enjoy empty quiescence believe in arising and ceasing and causes and conditions to be the correct cause, and take suffering, arising, cessation, and the path to be the noble result. Those who enjoy Buddhahood believe that the practice of the six perfections through the three incalculably long eons are the great cause, and that bodhi and nirvāṇa are their direct result.


The correct faith of the patriarchal teaching is not like these. One does not believe in all kinds of conditioned causes and effects. It only demands the faith that one is originally none other than Buddha. This nature is originally replete in every single person. The marvelous essence of nirvāṇa is fully perfected in every case. One does not need to look at the provisional other to find what is originally endowed in oneself. The third patriarch said:

It is perfect, as is the great universe, with nothing missing and nothing left over

It is exactly due to picking and choosing that it is not like that now.

Now, this account of faith is not only presented in Chan, and not only labeled with the term “patriarchal.” Developing his understanding out of the approach to faith introduced in the Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith, the Silla scholar-monk Wonhyo repeatedly emphasizes that the real power of faith is shown in its ability to cut off the need for linguistic expression. It is not possible to abide in a state of no views, or no language, without the power of correct faith, and the power of correct faith is only expressed through the experience of maintaining a non-abiding in views. For Wonhyo the possession of correct Mahāyāna faith implies the condition of empowerment that enables one to abide in a state of wordlessness, ineffability. But not as a type of empty dullness or blankness, but rather a sparkling awareness that functions without needing the constraints of linguistic frameworks. And at this point, we have come full circle back to the lokôttara interpretation of right view, the maintenance of a state of mind where one is utterly uncompelled to cling to, or base oneself on linguistic constructions.

In the closing sections of his commentaries, Wonhyo regularly points out the futility of approaching the truth through language, and thus admonishes both himself and his readers to recognize that the only real recourse is to enter the domain of nonconceptual faith. As can be seen in his Doctrinal Essentials of the Sutra of Immeasurable Life (Muryangsu gyeong jong-yo), this non-conceptual experience is none other than the experience of absolute faith itself.

The incomparable, unequaled, supreme cognitive faculty (Yogâcāra mirror cognition) is established in order to overcome both these barriers—the doubt [about the possibility of omniscience] and the problem [of whether its attainment is sudden or gradual]. Therefore I want to clarify that this mirror-like cognitive faculty surpasses the other three kinds of cognitive faculties—there is nothing like it. Outside the two truths one resides independently, in non-duality. Both barriers and their two external expressions transcend the barrierless. One should just have faith, because it cannot be apprehended through reason. Therefore it is called the incomparable, unequalled, supreme cognitive faculty. (HBJ 1.562a6–10)

He makes a similar point in his Doctrinal Essentials of the Lotus Sutra, and this kind of admonition appears in various forms in his commentaries on the Awakening of Faith and Vajrasamādhi-sūtra.

Wonhyo says in the oft-cited preface to his Commentary on the Awakening of Faith:

Who, besides Vimalakīrti or the One-glance Gentleman,{note} A reference to Confucius and Wenbo Xuezi, who, according to the Zhuangzi, did not say anything to each other when they met, even though Confucius had wanted to meet Wenbo for a long time. When Confucius was asked the reason by his disciple Zilu, he replied: “With that kind of man, once glance tells you that the Way is there before you. What room does that leave for the possibility of speech?” This discussion occurs in Chapter 21 “Tian Zi-fang.” See Burton Watson, trans., The Complete Works of Chuang-tzu (NY: Columbia University Press), p. 223. {/note} can discuss the Great Vehicle without language, and produce profound faith in the state of severance of thought? (HBJ 1.698b13–14)