The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
This Tuesday I would like to explore the role of devotion in spiritual practice. Before I delve into this topic, however, I would like to remind you all of two upcoming events at NVIM that I hope you will attend.
First, on Tuesday November 10th Kevin Griffin will return to our Sangha. Kevin is an outstanding speaker on the subject of Buddhism and recovery, a topic that is relevant to us all. For more info: http://goo.gl/lv26SQ
Second, on Tuesday November 17th we will be holding our first Sangha Community Meeting. Please join us to learn more about NVIM and help us set a course for the future. For more info: http://goo.gl/WBVmG8
My wife and I spent 17 days in Thailand recently, visiting many ancient and modern Buddhist temples. Whether you’re in Bangkok, a city with an official estimate of 15 million people (26 million unofficially) or in the country, it is rare to look around and not see at least one temple within walking distance. They are everywhere, with their many large gold Buddha’s, massive stupas, candle shrines, food offerings and invitation to chanting with the monks at dusk. There are amulets and pendulums for good luck, safety, health, and long life that you can purchase for a small donation. At dusk many people come from the surrounding area of each temple to sit prostrate in front of a Buddha and listen to the monks chants.
This devotional side of Buddhism tends to be rare in the west. We tend to practice a much more secular form of meditation practice that emphasizes the benefits of mindfulness for stress reduction, clarity, letting go of worries, increasing self-esteem and engendering a sense of well-being. Using the teachings on the four noble truths and the multiple of lists discussed throughout the suttas (the five aggregates of clinging, the six sense doors, the seven factor of enlightenment, etc.) we can get to know how our minds work, see the causes of our dissatisfaction with life and the present moment, and begin to train our minds in ways that increase our happiness.
The cultivation of wisdom is important for any spiritual practice. Without wisdom we can fall into the trap of blind faith. The Buddha, however, taught that to realize enlightenment, a person must develop two qualities: wisdom and compassion. In the West, we’re taught to think of “wisdom” as something that is primarily intellectual and “compassion” as something that is primarily emotional, and that these two things are separate and even incompatible. But in Buddhist teachings, compassion is understood to mean active sympathy or a willingness to bear the pain of others. It is associated with the heart, with a sense of connectedness with all beings, and with a willingness to let go of the self as the center of the universe.
In Asia, devotion is seen as important for developing compassion and opening up the heart. While the Buddha repeatedly discouraged any excessive veneration paid to him personally, I believe that we in the west have mistakenly concluded from these words that he disparaged cultivating a reverential and devotional attitude towards what is great and noble. In fact, in many of the teachings it is expressed that one who is incapable of a reverential attitude will also be incapable of spiritual progress beyond the narrow limits of his present mental condition.
The Theravada monk Nyanaponika Thera says this about devotion in the Buddhist tradition. “Provided that such practice does not deteriorate into a thoughtless routine, a follower of the Dharma will derive benefit if he takes up some form of a devotional practice, adapting it to his personal temperament and to the social customs of his environment. Buddhism, however, does not in the least impose upon its followers a demand to observe any outward form of devotion or worship.”
In the end, I believe that devotional practices are about moving us from our head to our hearts. They can give us faith and confidence in our practice when times are hard. Devotional practice could be as simple as making the effort to get up every day and practice meditation at a specific time and place. It could include repeating prayers, chanting, taking refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), burning candles, making food offerings, circumambulating a stupa, repeating metta phrases, or prostrating before a Buddhist statue.
I do not believe that one needs a devotional practice to meditate or to follow the Buddhist path. There are many ways to use the teachings to gain insight and greater freedom in our life. Devotion, like other aspects of the teaching, is something that I believe we shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with. For some of us, opening up to this aspect of the practice may serve as a valuable aid in helping us connect with the compassionate heart and open up to the mystery of life. Such reverence can give rise to greater mental concentration, which is the basis of liberating insight.
At Tuesday’s gathering I would like explore this question of devotion and practice. Some question I’d like us to consider include:
- What are your feelings about devotional practices?
- What devotional practices, if any, have you found helpful in your spiritual/meditation practice?
- What in your practice has helped you to connect with your heart?