I have wanted to write about devotion ever since I first went to that Lam Rim course last year. However, I didn’t feel sufficiently qualified.
I don’t know if I’m sufficiently qualified now, but at least I’ve seen a lot more of Tibetan Buddhism and gotten to know my teacher a bit better as well.
Devotion is a difficult topic for us Westerners. Well educated westerners especially have been trained very thoroughly to distrust devotion and to rely on the mind and it’s questions only. There is nothing wrong with that. Thinking for yourself and being independent are essential even on the spiritual path (and the Buddhist path too).
However – if it’s true that the spiritual path is about traveling from the head to the heart as one of my teachers told us(*), the questioning mind can take us only so far.
I know I come across as being very cerebral, but as I hope my last post made clear, I have been working on my emotions for about 20 years. However useful that was however, there is a limitation to that process. Facing your emotions, purifying them, dealing with hurts and pains, getting over hangups and all that… it’s necessary work, but on the spiritual path it’s only the beginning. Those negative emotions have to be, and can be, replaced with more positive ones.
One of the ways that’s done is devotion. The most important form of devotion that is taught (yes, actively taught) in Tibetan Buddhism is devotion to the teacher, the guru. This is a complicated topic and for now it suffices to say that it’s not mandatory and there are various levels to it. The required guru devotion for most of us is simple respect.
Simple respect: I look forward to a difficult discussion on my Dutch blog about that, because the very word respect is controversial these days. How much respect does a police officer, a teacher or a doctor deserve? Culturally we’ve eroded the respect due to such specialists to such a bare minimum that for some people nothing is left.
However, without respect for a doctor’s knowledge, how can you trust what she tells you to do? Without respect for a school teacher, how can anything be learned? Without respect for a police officer, how can he do his work without resorting to violence?
Since respect is so very difficult to fit in, it’s no wonder devotion is controversial as well.
Let’s get back to that doctor: it’s well known in alternative circles that the placebo effect is very important in medicine. If we don’t respect the doctor we deprive ourselves of (part of) the placebo effect of the medicine we’re expected to take.
Similarly in Tibetan Buddhism respect for the teacher (ideally devotion) is necessary for the teachings to really take hold and transform our lives. This doesn’t mean avoiding thinking for ourselves. We’re not talking about the Catholic Church here: individual teachers are very different from each other, even within the same tradition. You get to choose WHICH teacher you take on and advised to look very carefully before you do take someone on.
I could go on of course (#), but since this isn’t a Buddhist blog I’ll go back to the general point instead:
I’ve seen devotion in some of my Buddhist friends and it’s a beautiful thing. What’s so beautiful? I guess because it’s beyond the usual emotions we’re used to seeing in people: frustration, attachment, passivity, boredom, skepticism etc. It’s as though there is a light shining in pure devotion that cleans up all such things.
Of course I’m not the most devoted of students. Skepticism is one I’m particularly good at. No wonder I picked a rather skeptic geshe as my teacher 😉 (%)
However, I do realize that somewhere between servility and mindless devotion on the one side and nihilistic skepticism on the other there’s a middle ground where something really beautiful can happen.
What do you think: is there a place for devotion in your spiritual practice?
Sources, notes and references
(*) Andrea (Ondy) Wilson taught Discovering Buddhism in Amsterdam for a few months.
(#) More about guru yoga and dealing with a spiritual teacher
(%) My main Buddhist teacher is Sonam Gyaltsen / Dhonden. He’s a bit of a skeptic. It’s not something he’s proud of, but it does help me in relating to him.