The truth is, all schools of Buddhism are devotional. Some are more so than others, of course. But even in Zen, which according to western popular culture is not noticeably religious, there is and always has been a strong element of devotional practice, including chanting and prostrations.
(In fact, just this morning I read about a Zen center somewhere in the U.S. that includes 108 prostrations as part of daily practice. That seems excessive to me, but I suppose it would save one the bother of a separate trip to the gym.)
Today I found an essay by the Reverend Ryuei (a.k.a. Michael McCormick) of Nichiren Shu, titled "Secularized Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra" that makes some interesting points about devotional Buddhism. A snip:
"While there are those in North America and elsewhere in the English speaking world that may indeed be open to Buddhism, this openness is very selective and in fact a majority of these potential new Buddhists are only open to those forms of Buddhism that can accommodate and remain meaningful within a secular and scientific, often bluntly atheistic, worldview."
He goes on to say something that is not entirely accurate of other schools of Buddhism, but there's still a point --
"[W]hy is it that Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism have attracted the most converts over the years? The reason is that these three traditions present to Americans forms of silent sitting meditation practices that do not necessarily need to be explicitly associated with exotic or ancient cosmologies and ritual practices. It is not that Zen, Tibetan, or even Theravada Buddhism do not have rich cosmologies or ritual practices, but that Americans are seeking particular meditation practices derived from those traditions in a way that downplays cosmology and ritual."
I have a hard time imagining Tibetan Buddhism without cosmologies or ritual practices. Zen tends to downplay the cosmologies, but doesn't eliminate them entirely, and we have ritual practices up the wazoo. As I understand it, western or "convert" Theravada has emphasized meditation over everything else, but that may be changing.
I think what is actually happening is that many people in the West are just learning the meditation and leaving out the rest of the practices. If that's what you are doing that's OK with me, and I don't mind if you call yourself "Buddhist" if it makes you happy. But just doing meditation on your own isn't the same thing as engaging in Zen training or Kalachakra or the practice of a particular school.
Of course, what happens with a lot of us is that we start with just a nibble of the meditation practice and end up staying for the whole banquet, so to speak. But the more devotional schools such as Jodo Shinshu or Nichiren Buddhism have a very different starting point. That starting point is faith that there is some mystical merit one may attain through practices such as chanting and ritual.
I suspect that one's understanding of the fruits and merits of practice changes as time goes on. But for a westerner, entering this gate requires some suspension of acceptable scientific-rationalist understanding of reality at the very beginning, which makes it a bit of a leap. For a Zen student, it's more often the case that you wake up one day after some years of practice and realize you can't quite remember what the acceptable scientific-rationalist understanding of reality is.
But, shhh, don't spread that to the newbies.
The point is that I understand how people get the idea that Zen and some other schools are just about meditation, and you can just ignore the rest of it as cultural fluff. I think most of us who have been students of Zen for any length of time disagree with that, however.
I got to the Rev. Ryuei's essay through a blog post called "A Case for Devotional Buddhism." The blogger, Lisa Jones, writes,
"Most of the Buddhist-leaning UUs [Uniterian-Universalists] I've met are attracted to secularized interpretations of Buddhism -- the whole "it's-a-philosophy-not-a-religion," "there-are-no-gods-in-Buddhism," and "it's-all-about-stillness-of-mind" kinda thing. I don't see these people ever wanting to do prostrations, say, or chant their guts out in a frenzy of devotional passion. ...Whereas I prefer the sweaty, messy, uncanny kind of Buddhism, you know, for people with feelings."
I know how Ms. Jones feels. But traditional Zen gets pretty sweaty and messy, too. The sweaty and messy parts are opportunities to let it all drop away, to loosen your grip and fall freely into the ocean of dharma. Secularized Buddhism sometimes strikes me as being more about adding something to one's biography.
Many westerners hear the word "devotion" and imagine being enslaved to some superstitious god-belief, so they run away from it. An online dictionary defines "devotion" as "selfless affection and dedication." I like that, and notice it doesn't say what one must be devoted to.
Awhile back I wrote an essay here called "Atheism and Devotion in Buddhism," which says in part --
The Buddha taught that the biggest barrier to realization is the notion that "I" am a permanent, integral, autonomous entity. It is by seeing through the delusion of ego that realization blooms. Devotion is a upaya for breaking the bonds of ego.
For this reason, the Buddha taught his disciples to cultivate devotional and reverential habits of mind. Thus, devotion is not a "corruption" of Buddhism, but an expression of it.
So, some traditions begin with a devotion-upaya, which can take the form of faith in the mystical powers of the Lotus Sutra or the grace of Amitabha to bring one into the Pure Land. And in other traditions, devotion is "grown" by the practice, and the object of devotion may be harder to define. There's no right or wrong to this. If it works for you, then it's a good practice for you.