Devotion

Sometimes contrasted with the kinds of experience found in meditation is the more emotional experience found in devotional practices. In Theravada, the first tends to be more associated with monastics and the second with laypeople. However, the two may be very close, such as when meditation on an image of the Buddha is combined with making offerings. Devotion is probably a better word to use than ‘worship’ for the Indian word ‘puja’. The simplest form of devotion is to ‘take refuge’ in the Buddha, the Dharma/Dhamma or teaching, and the Sangha (the community, usually referring to the monastics), which is a way of declaring oneself a Buddhist. Watching a Buddhist make offerings (such as flowers, incense, food, water or lights) to an image or symbol looks like someone worshipping a god in other religions, but has a different meaning. In Theravada, it is showing respect for the Buddha and reminding oneself of his teaching, as he does not require offerings and cannot be asked for favours, having passed away completely into nirvana. Mahayana devotion is a little more like other religions, as the Buddhas and bodhisattvas have not disappeared but are available and can be asked for help. Yet there is still a difference – the bodhisattvas and Buddhas represent one’s own potential future state rather than wholly other beings, and the effect of devotion on the mind is important.

As well as making offerings to images, there are many other devotional practices such as bowing and prostrating. Chanting of Buddhist texts or the qualities of the Buddha can be seen as intellectual learning, or a form of meditation or a form of showing devotion. Chanting of mantras, short series of syllables or words, as found in various forms of Mahayana, may be directed at a particular Buddha, bodhisattva or even text, and can be seen as devotional and/or meditative. Relics of the historical Buddha, other important teachers, or even pieces of ancient texts are revered, stupas are circumambulated, and especially in Tibetan Buddhism, many artefacts such as prayer wheels, prayer flags, and mandalas are a constant reminder of Buddhist teaching as well as devotional practice.

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