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Faith & Devotion in Buddhist Practice

The energies of faith (Shraddha) and devotion (Bhakti) are extremely important aspects of Buddhist practice, especially in Asia.  Western practitioners often scoff at devotional practice as “primitive” (as do many Zen practitioners in Asia) but I think the concept deserves a closer look.

Faith in one’s path of practice gives us the energy that fuels our practice and encourages us to continue.  Because it is relatively easy to experience joy in meditation,
that gives us our initial impulse to engage in the practice.  Inevitably we shall hit some walls, some resistance, some obstacle, and we shall not so instantly feel the joy of practice.  Or we might feel the joy of calming the mind, but we might find that our transformation has not been as great as we might have expected.

In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali says that the goal of yoga (to end the modifications of the mind) is achieved through practice (Abhyasa) and non-attachment (Vairagya).  Practice is then defined as a steady effort, firmly established, long-term, and without
breaks (Yoga Sutras I.12-14).  People often ask what is meant by long-term (or commonly the question is “when do I graduate from the beginner level?”).  The traditional answer is 10-12 years of daily practice (interestingly, this falls closely in line with the Western idea that expertise in any field requires 10,000 hours of experience).

How are we to maintain a daily, uninterrupted, steady practice for 10-12 years?  We surely need some energy to sustain us.  That kind of sustaining energy comes when we
enjoy our practice.  No one is going to practice sitting meditation on a daily basis if they dislike it.  No matter how good meditation is supposed to be for us, if we do not find it enjoyable, we shall ultimately let it go.  The other energy that sustains us is faith: we have faith that the practice really does liberate us from suffering.

We can have faith in the practice because we have tasted the fruits of practice.  We have already seen some transformation, perhaps a small one, but we can now have faith that if we continue to practice steadily, without wavering, we shall taste even more profound transformation.

Patanjali says that some people have a natural ability to achieve what looks like great spiritual capacity, but most of us need to practice and we need faith (Shraddha), strength (Virya), Memory (Smirti), and discernement (Prajna-purvaka) (YS I.20)

Faith in this context is based on my own experience, it is not blind.

My faith can also be based on meeting someone who has practiced for a long time, and seeing that they have indeed established themselves in love, understanding, and compassion, that they indeed have insight.  That allows us to establish faith in the practice: we see that it is possible to transform oneself deeply and dwell in the Pure Land in the very here and now.

When we meet such a person, such a Teacher, that is when we can really take refuge (Saranya).  To take refuge is what it means to be a Buddhist: I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life.  I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and of love.  I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness.

I take refuge, in order to draw strength, and to protect myself from my habitual thinking that draws me away from my practice.  When I take refuge I feel connected.  We say that “the one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty, therefore the communication between them is inexpressively perfect.”  To take refuge is to find the Buddha in my own heart.  The historical Buddha serves as a catalyst for me finding the Buddha within.  As does the Teacher, who in the Buddhist tradition represents the Buddha, and is actually the Buddha but not in the form of Shakyamuni but in the form of a person living right now, living true insight, non-fear, love, and understanding.

When we take refuge we have enlarged our capacity: we no longer need to rely on our own energies, but we have tapped into the energy of all Buddhas, we are now being carried by multitudes of Buddhas, and our practice begins to take flight at a speed unimaginable beforehand: I have found a source of energy that is within my own heart and which connects me to all of humanity and to the capacity of all people to wake up. What an incredible gift it is to take refuge.

Once we take refuge, it is easy to accept devotion.  This does not have to be a devotion to an external deity, but rather devotion to the ideal of compassion (as exemplified by the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) or Insight (exemplified by Majushri), etc.

Patanjali suggests to us that the fast path to Samadhi is Ishvara Pranidhana (YS I.23), meaning giving everything over, surrendering to “god.”  To surrender is to connect.  That is why Buddhists take refuge in, “give over,” to the ideal of Buddha and Bodhisattva.  When I surrender, I recognize that this struggle is not mine alone, that many people have been on this path, I draw strength from that, I connect with all these ancestors who have walked the spiritual path, and I am no longer alone, a separate self.

The Tibetans take refuge, and surrender, in the most profound way.  The Vajarayana (Tibetan) path is very much about taking refuge in various qualities of a “deity.”  This allows us to feel the energy of that “deity” (such as compassion) and to let go of our own tendencies towards “small-mindedness.”  It is like going to a very fancy store and trying on a piece of clothing we might not be able to afford but it makes us feel very
special.  We then put the item back on the rack, but for a while the feeling that clothing item gave us stays with us.  When we take refuge in a “deity” we get that deity’s energy and for a while it pulses through us, as if we became an extension of that deity for a while.  And we do that again and again, until that energy becomes natural to us, part of us, and displaces our former mental habit energies.

Devotion is a wonderful energy that allows us to transform ourselves.  Devotion also has some problems, and we are very familiar with the problem of blind devotion, or ritualistic devotion.  Thich Nhat Hanh likes to tell the story of a woman who always chanted the name of Avalokiteshvara (Quan Yin, the Boddhisattva of Compassion), but was not really practicing except as a ritual.  One day as she was chanting, her neighbour called her name very loudly.  She tried to ignore him and rang the bell and chanted more loudly.  The neighbour called her even more loudly.  The woman got very upset, and the shouting competition continued until she eventually stopped chanting and said to her neighbour “stop bothering me.”  The neighbour asked “why are you so angry?” to which the woman retorted “why are you calling my name, don’t you see that I am chanting Avalokiteshvara now?”  The neighbour said “I called your name a few times and you get so angry, and you call Avalokiteshvara hundreds of times, imagine
how angry she must be…”

We have also seen how blind faith can turn into dogma and dogma can bring tremendous suffering, let alone spiritual blindness.  It is clear that empty devotion is not the practice we are seeking, but we need to be careful that we do not throw away this wonderful tool out all together.

As Western practitioners we have been given the gift of the practice without any cultural trappings.  Thus we have been free to search for the deeper meaning of Asian practices, and we ought to demand those deeper meanings: we cannot possibly follow blindly, as it is not in our cultural context.

That is why we have the responsibility of looking deeply at faith and devotion, to see when they are useful, and to use them wisely.  We also have the responsibility of not
rejecting them as “primitive practices” and to really search within ourselves to see how these long-standing practices can transform us.

(prepared for the Buddhist Sangha at South Church)

June 2010