In Buddhism, “truths are not accepted on the authority of scripture, but verified by direct experience.”1 Meditation is an important method of seeking truth and this practice is pursued in two different ways, through insight meditation and calming meditation. Buddhist devotional practices serve a similar function. They are the action mode of truth-seeking, while meditation is the contemplative mode. Each seeker is encouraged to use the methods—one might call them tools—that work best for her.
The calming style of Buddhist meditation most appeals to me, as I find it deeply refreshing to still my thoughts, even if only for a few minutes. Counting breaths is a simple and practical way to stop the running commentary in my head and give my mind a rest. I once considered that constant stream of internal chatter to be thinking. Now I have come to see that it is not thinking, but restlessness, which is disruptive to my ability to cultivate right behavior. While I believe I often have the right intention, I have difficulty translating that into right behavior when my mind is running like a hamster on a wheel, distracting my focus.
An intriguing facet of the Theraveda meditation styles is that they include elements of devotional practice, and those practices can be elaborate. Bhikkhu Pannawong writes that certain dedicatory preparations are required prior to meditating, including such things as making an offering of five piles of puffed rice, five pairs of candles, and flowers. If the devotee does not have those items, it is acceptable to place the palms together in the shape of lotus bud and prostrate oneself before the Buddha image.3
As for other types of Buddhist devotional practices, I have no direct experience of them, but I like the idea of reciting sutras. According to Gethin, “the recitation of certain sutras as protective charms”2 is an ancient Buddhist practice. Monks would circumambulate their monasteries while chanting because they believed the saying of the sutras would protect the Buddha when they felt his life was in danger. This practice is described in the Vinaya, which is the ancient document that describes the Buddhist religious rule—not exactly scripture in the strict sense of the word, but since it is said to have been written by Buddha himself, it is certainly a document that carries authority.
This concept of authority is interesting because, unlike what I understand about most religions, Buddhism acknowledges the authority of the individual adherent. It is the individual whose direct, personal experience of the divine—or truth, if one prefers—guides religious practice, although some direction is provided in Buddhist sacred texts. With this authority comes the primary burden of responsibility for reaching enlightenment, a condition that in Christian terms would be called salvation. This emphasis on individual experience feels deeply authentic to me and I admire the way it is reflected in Buddhist meditation and devotional practices.
1. Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1998),167.
2. Ibid., 168.
3. Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed. Buddhism in Practice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007), 139.
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Buddhism in Practice, abridged ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007