Religious Experience

Spiritual feelings such as awe, wonder and praise can play a major part in Buddhism. This is particularly true for followers of the Mahayana, where devotional activities aimed at transcendent Buddhas and bodhisattvas are an important part of religious practice. However, although Theravada has a reputation for being slightly colder and more rational, these feelings still have an important role to play. It is true that in the Pali Canon a Sutta criticises the monk Vakkali who, full of devotion and love for the Buddha, wanted to look after his physical needs. To him the Buddha said: “What shall it profit you to see this impure body? He who sees the Dhamma / Dharma, sees me”. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that the Buddha disparaged a reverential and devotional attitude of mind when it is the natural outflow of a true understanding and a deep admiration for what is great and noble. Similarly, “seeing the Dhamma / Dharma” should not be thought of as a mere conceptual grasp of doctrine, but rather a deep-seated heart-felt faith. Thus, Theravadins also take part in devotional activity, trying to avoid doing it out of habit or attachment to the process, but rather as an expression of faith in the teachings of the Buddha.

Feelings of awe and wonder are almost always expressed in devotional activities and are usually directed at the historical Buddha (Gotama / Gautama) or other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas (for members of the Mahayana).

There are several sorts of devotional activities Buddhists participate in, usually in shrines and temples in front of statues or images of the Buddha. The first of these is folding the palms together, and raising them to the level of the chest. This gesture is a general mark of respect in many cultures (for example, Thailand) and expresses deep reverence for the Triple Gem – Buddha, Dhamma / Dharma, and Sangha. The second activity is prostration before a Buddha image. This expresses deep veneration of the Buddha and helps to overcome egoistical feelings making one more receptive to hearing the Dharma with a clear mind. As Buddhists prostrate themselves, they attempt to recall qualities of the Buddha and develop respect for virtues such as loving-kindness, compassion, patience, concentration and wisdom. Finally, offerings can be made to the Buddha. These are not made because the Buddha needs them (as an Enlightened being, he certainly does not need incense sticks to be happy) or to win favour. Instead, offerings are made to show respect, create positive energy and develop qualities such as giving gracefully with a respectful attitude. The type of offerings made also symbolize key Buddhist teachings: lamps and candles symbolize wisdom; the fragrance of incense symbolises pure moral conduct and reminds one to cultivate this; water symbolizes purity, clarity and calmness, and reminds one to cleanse and calm the mind; fruit symbolises enlightenment and acts as a reminder that actions will have effects; and flowers represent impermanence with the lotus flower in particular representing the potential for Enlightenment

As can be seen above the relationship between questions of value and feelings is an intimate one. Blind devotional activity done out of habit and with attachment is criticised. However the correct response to the Buddha and the Dhamma / Dharma is to greet it with faith. This is not blind faith. In the Kalama Sutta the Buddha argues against ‘blind faith’ based simply on authority tradition or specious reasoning. The appropriate faith response is a quiet, heartfelt trusting in the Buddha and the Dhamma / Dharma (with the proviso that one will firmly penetrate it with one’s mind, experiencing its truth when one is able). The importance of faith is often emphasised in the Suttas / Sutras. In the Kasibharadvaja Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya the relationship of faith practice and wisdom is stressed:

Faith is my seed, practice the rain

And wisdom is my yoke and plough

Modesty’s the pole, mind the strap

Mindfulness my ploughshare and goad

Religious experiences in Buddhism are varied with the emphasis on the experience itself. The Buddhist aim is to see things as they really are, usually through empirical investigation – experience. Therefore, to a certain extent every experience has religious connotations, even to the most basic occurrence. For example, if I experience emotional pain through dropping my new laptop, I can apply mindfulness and reflect on the impermanence of all things. Equally, if I am particularly happy when my fixed laptop is returned to me, I should note that this state will not last and that it is caused by attachment to material possessions. Experiences which are more closely related to religion usually occur during meditation, particularly for Theravadins. These experiences can range from having a deep sense of calm or seeing a bright light, to psychic powers as one works through the jhanas. In Mahayana, religious experiences can also have a more mystical element, believers can experience Buddhas and bodhisattvas first hand.

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