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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhism and Devotion

By October 22, 2012

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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.

October 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm
(1) Lee says:

my experience since beginning sitting has been that all has become sacred … sitting is like plugging into the universe … and bowing with deepest respect for all is the only thing to do.

October 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm
(2) Jeff says:

Good comments; I have one small correction to offer. In Jodo Shinshu there is no merit to acquire through chanting or ritual. In fact, it is the only form of Buddhism that explicitly teaches that these things are useless for the generation of merit. Shin Buddhists trust that all merits are already accomplished by Amida Buddha, so they are completely uninvolved in merit-making practices. Nembutsu and other practices are purely expressions of joy and thanksgiving. This differs from Nichiren, Zen, and other approaches.

October 22, 2012 at 11:23 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jeff — OK, although I got the bit about merit from a Jodo Shinshu website. I’ll have to look it up and read it again. And in Zen one hardly ever hears about merit.

October 22, 2012 at 8:42 pm
(4) Derek says:


I think the reason many western Buddhist might be put off by ritual and cosmologies, is that many different schools of Buddhism teach and believe (slightly) different things. Certain things that all the schools have in common, like meditation, appear more approachable. Why would westerners feel the need to immerse themselves in an eastern culture, as if that’s a prerequisite to understandings? Especially considering the wide range of cultural beliefs that go on with all the various Buddhist vehicles.

Like you said, I imagine that if they keep with their practice long enough, they’ll better be able to understand, and therefore practice, the more esoteric aspects of Buddhism. But to simply just believe and practice rituals before you’re ready is… credulous

October 22, 2012 at 11:44 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

I think the reason many western Buddhist might be put off by ritual and cosmologies, is that many different schools of Buddhism teach and believe (slightly) different things. Certain things that all the schools have in common, like meditation, appear more approachable.

Not all schools of Buddhism meditate. Instead, they chant. The chanting is a form of meditation. This is true of Nichiren Buddhism and mostly true of the Pure Land schools that dominate eastern China and Japan. In Theravada countries, usually only the monks meditate.

Why would westerners feel the need to immerse themselves in an eastern culture, as if that’s a prerequisite to understandings?

Devotional practices such as bowing and chanting are no more “eastern culture” than meditation. Seriously. Why is meditation, which comes to us from the ancient Vedic religions of India, acceptable and chanting not acceptable? Reflect on that. The answer, IMO, is that at the present time meditation has become culturally acceptable, although it wasn’t always, but chanting and bowing still make us squeamish because they feel foreign (I say “we,” although I never personally had a problem with them).

But the rituals and liturgy have a real role to play. It’s not just play-acting at Asian culture. See my articles on ritual and chanting for more explanation.

FYI, this stuff is not necessarily esoteric (see definition). It’s no more esoteric than meditation, really. If you ever go to a Zen meditation retreat, you will be expected to take part in lots of chanting and rituals and bows as well.

October 23, 2012 at 5:09 am
(6) Hein says:

…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.
The same this side of the ocean. If I am permitted to share something of a personal experience? Initially I liked the meditation practice and the “stories” (i.e. Dharma talks) was at that stage just and added “side show”. But I can still recall my first weekend retreat to a Chinese Buddhist Temple. Obviously (knowing the main emphasis of Westerners) meditation training was the most important feature. But that particular Saturday night one had a choice of attending a talk about Buddhism by a Western nun or “something for the more advanced people”. At that stage I did not consider myself “advance” and was rather more “adventurous” in “exploring” Buddhism. A talk on Buddhism would not have done it for me. So of to the “more advanced thingy” to see what that was about. And (like Piaf) I have no regrets for taking that course. The Zen Master (unable to speak a word English) let us do some bowing (only from the hip) and offering light (candles) to the Buddha. For some or other strange reason these small gestures spoke to my heart. But the most awesome thing was the chanting (or rather reciting) of Amitabha Buddha’s name (Namo Amitofou). The devotional aspect gave – in my experience – the meditation practice a much richer hue and today I am unable to really say which part of the practice I prefer. I guess for me there is no separateness of the devotional part and meditation part as I consider it all as part of my practice.
Thank you.
Namo Amitofou

October 23, 2012 at 9:14 am
(7) Jeff says:

I agree, I don’t encounter much talk about merit in the English-language Zen literature. But if you read the Japanese-language Zen writings being produced by Soto Shu, or visit with Japanese Soto temples or laypeople in Japan, merit and devotion are the starting places for the discussion and are the primary practices that people are involved in. It’s the same for Rinzai and Obaku Zen too, for that matter. I think this is a cultural difference.

By the way, your Jodo Shinshu page has some notable errors, perhaps inadvertent ones. For instance, it talks about Shinran and his teacher Shinran, which is clearly just a typo. There’s no way to comment on that page, so I’m leaving the comment here to be helpful. I’m a Shin priest so I try to help the general public get an accurate understanding of our teachings and practices.

The 108 bowing practice you heard about was probably a Korean Zen (Son) temple, as it’s quite common in that tradition. But maybe you already knew that. I’m glad you tackled the topic of devotion.

October 23, 2012 at 10:38 am
(8) CL says:


I think you (and the original Rev. Ryuei posting) make some great observations about the nature of devotion and ritual/tradition and how that might or might not interface with modular contemplative activities. Yet, I would just say that the ultimate ‘proof’ of devotion shows up not in elaborate rituals (traditional manifestation of the Tibetan schools) nor in the ‘just sitting’ lineage, but in our actions in this day-to-day world. When we see and, perhaps for some of us, actually move between various traditions and practices,when we experience that they complete a full circle, then we place a garland around the whole world and realize that what we don’t necessarily externalize doesn’t need to be necessarily externalized in order to ‘prove’ anything.



October 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

CL — yes, and I’ve heard it said over and over that you have to practice Buddhism for awhile to understand how it “works.” It makes no sense, you know. :-)

October 24, 2012 at 3:04 pm
(10) CL says:

I remain a beginner, that’s for sure.



October 25, 2012 at 2:27 pm
(11) Mila says:

For me, a devotional attitude has to do with interest, love, respect and trust — in the teachings and teachers. Even in so-called “mundane” relationships, these kinds of feelings are associated with a softening of egoic boundaries — with true intimacy and open, unencumbered communication. When I’m with a friend or lover, what makes it “work,” so to speak, is being able to relax habitual mental/emotional constrictions, to dissolve the armoring.

Devotion in the context of spiritual practice can work in a similar way. With feelings of love, respect and trust comes a willingness to allow and appreciate what is happening right now — to let it in, so to speak; to be enthusiastically content and satisfied.

This can be a skillful way of countering any tendency to postpone happiness — to be perpetually in the mode of waiting for a different (better!) experience. It helps me to engage in practice as an expression of who I already am (Buddha-Nature) — rather than practicing in order to (at some point in an undetermined and perpetually-deferred future) arriving at some other, better place.

After all, if I’m not able to enjoy and appreciate this moment right now (i.e. to be fully devoted to it, as a lover is devoted to his/her beloved), what makes me think I’ll be able to enjoy some distant/future Pure Land, when at long last I arrive there? So, even if I’m not quite there yet, at least I can practice enjoyment and appreciation, right now …. :)

October 25, 2012 at 5:54 pm
(12) Yeshe Zhonnu says:

My interest in Buddhism was sparked initially in college when I took a class on the world’s religions. The idea of suffering because of grasping made a great deal of sense to me. Later in life I took up meditation to reduce stress. I must have been a Buddhist in a prior life because I wasn’t able to just sit without exploring Buddhism. I bought all the books I could get my hands on to try to understand Buddhism. Shortly after I took a class at the Learning Center on Buddhism and connected with my present Lama. We study in the tradition of the Dalai Lama. Devotion to my Lama naturally followed for me as my mind was gradually awakening as I read the Lam Rim. I especially appreciate the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on logic before faith and how blind faith is not a desirable state. I seem to be naturally drawn toward devotion to all my teachers. They are so kind and loving I don’t know how I could have any other attitude.

October 25, 2012 at 11:06 pm
(13) George Deane says:

I would like to applaud and thank Lee for the wonderful comment that sitting in meditation isl like being plugged into the universe. and the feeling of the sacred this imparts. Shunryu Susuki mentions the “big” mind ” as one in which the ordinary “small” mind is transcended to include all of reality. He refers to this state of mind as a religious mind.
Very much like what Lee has stated in his own way.

October 26, 2012 at 4:05 am
(14) Dave Flint says:

Why do Americans use the word awesome. You could say full of awe
or aweful instead? I have loads of empathy. Once in a room someone jumped out of the window. I had no sympathy for him at all, but I have lots of empathy so my empathetic instinct was to jump out of the window too. I am interested in phallic Buddhsm meaning Nathayana Buddhism. Now ain’t that true ‘cos it cain’t be wrong! “That Hatfields and McCoys,” good God they are so damn English. Anyway Buddhists can practice lingapuja also, and also puja and pray to the eight Nathas such as Krishnanath, Shivanath, etc. What strikes me is that Yanks just ain’t English, but those Hatfields and McCoys ain’t nothing but a bunch or Brits abroad.

October 26, 2012 at 8:14 am
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Dave — I had never heard of Nathayana Buddhism, and FYI google hasn’t heard of it, either. What you describe — praying to Krishnanath, Shivanath, etc. — sounds more like Hinduism to me. About.com has a very nice section on Hinduism, if you want to check it out.

February 3, 2013 at 1:56 am
(16) Jafu says:

Zen believes that buddha nature is realized or expressed through sitting meditation, not via rituals or scripture. Zen was created about 500 years after the buddha’s death in opposition to the ritualistic and scriptural nature that buddhism had taken. Too much emphasis was placed on this, to the point where people didn’t meditate much. The purpose of rituals and chanting in zen are to strengthen ones meditation practice and to express physically, visually and verbally the path which they are devoted to. Enlightenment can be attained via western traditions as well and since they don’t meditate, their path towards enlightenment is similar to Eastern traditions who’s focus is also ritualistic and scriptural. If there is something we all share, buddha nature, that you wish to understand, it is best to devote yourself to meditation practice. With western traditions being theistic rituals are very necessary, but not so much in non-theistic traditions.

February 3, 2013 at 8:24 am
(17) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jafu — I have been a formal student of Zen since the late 1980s and have looked pretty closely at its history, and I don’t think you have it quite right. I don’t think Bodhidharma was opposed to ritual or scripture as much as he was opposed to intellectual interpretations of dharma, as opposed to the prajna of direct insight. But he was not alone in this.

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