Are there any benefits from devotional faith?

By Prof. Sunil J. Wimalawansa, Lanka Web, April 23, 2011

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Confidence in the Triple Gem; Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha is not the same as developing blind-faith based on hearsay.  Confidence is derived from the devotee’s reasoned conviction based on understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dhamma, which presents us the pathway to Enlightenment.  This emphasizes that along with confidence, development of the wisdom is paramount.

We may ask ourselves, “Isn’t it quite natural that feelings of love, gratitude, and devotion seek expression involving the entire personality, through acts of body and speech, and in terms of our thoughts and unexpressed sentiments?”  Should we hide feelings toward our parents and other loved ones, or should we expose these and demonstrate our attachments?  Should we express such feelings with loving words and deeds?  Would one not cherish the memories of loved ones in appropriate ways; for instance by preserving their pictures in one’s home, by placing flowers on their graves, by recalling their noble qualities?  Are these superfluous myths, rituals, and acts of devotional faith?

Are There any Benefits from Devotional Activities?

Many people ask this question frequently.  Does such a process facilitate purifying a tainted mind?  As with any other aspects of life, we should examine and understand the teachings of the Buddha in relation to devotional aspects of the religion.  We should take time to appreciate the outward acts of homage customary to Buddhist countries and cultures.  In these countries, flowers and incense are placed before Buddha images with respectful gestures and devotional texts are recited; not as prayers, but as a sort of a meditative practice and an act of homage with fervent faith of confidence (sharddawa) in Buddha. 

Nevertheless, it is important that such practices should not deteriorate into thoughtless routines, recite stanzas or verses like parrots without understanding their contents.  Unless these acts are performed with mindfulness that leads to focusing the mind and mental purification, what benefits could possibly arise, even if one chants such verses thousands of times.

Devotion or Worship

Buddhism teachings are not founded on the concept of a supreme God, and hence Buddhists are not required or encouraged to pray.  Buddhism does not in the least impose upon its followers any demand to practice or indulge in any outward form of devotion or worship.  The method of worship or homage is entirely left to the choice of individuals and their capacity.  This is in part because emotional characteristics, devotional needs, and intellectual capacities differ greatly among the population.  Nevertheless, no Buddhist should feel forced into dogmatic devotional practices.

Worship of statues and supernatural entities, indulgence in poojas, listening to chanting, use of holy water and chanted thread and other such practices are part and parcel of various cultures that have been adapt into ritualistic practices of popular Buddhism.  These are not unique to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, or any particular country.  Buddhism is not an inherited property of a certain country or an ethnic group; it rather is a valuable asset to the entire world.  Some likes to use discriminating terminology such as Bodu-hela to refer to Sinhela Buddhists, further emphasizing the ethnic and cultural preponderance of thinking.  It is unfortunate that such activities and attitudes are stirred-up by some monks and politically motivated laypeople.  Consequently, attempts and trends are created to reform Buddhism into a religion of ritualistic faith.  However, Buddhist philosophy discourages such actions of blind faith.

Buddhism can be invaluable for laypeople, self-cultivation, and discipline of the mind though meditation and the practice of Dhamma.  The benefit of Dhamma can be derived even if we adopt some of these devotional practices, to refine our personal temperament, social customs, life style and the environment.  Just as with the traditional Buddhist meditation practices, peaceful devotional practices can also be helpful in concentrating the mind if they are carried out with mindfulness.

As followers of the Middle-Path, Buddhists are indoctrinated to stay away from judgments of both extremes, appreciate and understand individual needs, beliefs, and preferences, which are likely to differ from those of others.  Although, some people misinterpret these qualities as weaknesses, they indeed reinforce the importance of tolerance in a pluralistic society.

Devotional Meditation

Devotional meditation practices also provide benefits.  In fact, they can become a vital step toward purifying one’s mind.  During the process of devotional meditation, one’s mind is automatically controlled to be in the present moment, and hence the mind is not engaged in lust, hatred, or delusions.  At the beginning, such practices presumably would allow the mind to be kept in the present moment for a significant length of time.   More importantly, these habits can be gradually transformed to deep Buddhist meditation practices.  It is well known that practicing meditation with the right mind has the potential to get rid of unhealthy desires.

Practicing Buddhist meditation or the use of subconscious memory to concentration, can lead to taming the mind.  This enables us to stay from undesirable thoughts and deeds, and shun unhealthy practices.  It is thought that the recollection of the Buddha, which produces an immense joy, is also an effective way of refreshing the mind, uplifting it from the states of listlessness, tension, fatigue, depression, and frustration that could occur during daily life. 

Thus, devotional meditation can serve as an aid or a tool to attain mental concentration, which is the basis of liberating insight.

Worshiping Sculptures and Images

Mental images, but not abstract concepts, are the language of the subconscious.  Thus, the image of the Buddha, the Enlightened One, is traditionally created within one’s mind as the embodiment of perfection.  Psychological analysis suggests that an image of the Buddha penetrates deeply into the subconscious mind and acts as a barrier against evil impulses and desires generated in the mind.  On the other hand, the subconscious mind is often the hidden enemy that creates misery.  Therefore, if the subconscious mind and spontaneous inappropriate impulses could be controlled, we would be prevented from thinking about and engaging in any wrongdoing.  This is likely to be one of the most important and easily accessible tools we possess in controlling our mind and behaviour.

Therefore, for the purposes of controlling and empowering the subconscious mind, many find it helpful to use a Buddha statue or pictur e as an aid in visualization of perfection.  “Take action on your ideas.  Procrastination is the mortal enemy of spontaneous brilliance”—Dan Zadra.

Samatha (calming) and Metta (Loving-Kindness) meditations are additional powerful tools that the Buddhists have to assist them in controlling their own minds.  This enables us to keep away from unhealthy thought processes and prevents us from engaging in unwholesome deeds.  It is thought that the mindfulness developed though Samatha meditation, together with the recollection of the Buddha’s qualities and his exemplary way of life are effective ways of refreshing the mind by uplifting it from the states of listlessness, tension, fatigue, depression, and frustration that can occur from time to time in our lives.  All in all, rather than rejecting devotional meditation as a mere ritualistic practice, one can adopt it as an aid in attaining mental concentration and purification, which can culminate in liberating insight.

Sunil J. Wimalawansa is Professor of Medicine, Endocrinology, Physiology & Integrative Biology