Who bows and who to?

Posted by on Jul 10, 2013 in Buddhism | 566 Comments

Someone asked me to write something about devotion. It’s a difficult one to write about because, perhaps more than any other aspect of Buddhist practice, the sense it makes is beyond language.

It lives in its own world. It’s easy to belittle.

We live in a skeptical culture. This is understandable and I think generally sensible.

At the same time I believe the universe is a magical place.

I don’t find the idea of multiple lives any weirder than the idea of one life. I don’t find the idea of non-physical beings any weirder than half the stuff I see on nature programmes on TV.

Rationality and Buddhism

A lot of people think of Buddhism as a fairly rational religion. No God to worship. Meditation seems pretty psychological in its approach. Sensible. It’s even been measured with electrodes. Meditation is good for you. It’s been proven by computers and stuff.

Yes, Buddhism is the kind of religion that normal, rational people can get behind.

But what if I told you there were loads of gods in the Buddhist view of the cosmos. And hell-beings, and ghosts, and pretty much anything you can think of?

The Buddha supposedly taught gods as well as humans. The Buddha, on the eve of his enlightenment, was besieged by all kinds of demons.

In a world filled with forces beyond our perception, and beyond our control, it’s perhaps unsurprising that devotion has always been part of Buddhist practice.

Not so rational now, is it!

Buddhism, ritual and reality

The thing about Buddhism is, it’s not a particularly literalistic religion. It’s not very black and white when talking about reality.

Cosmic dramas have psychological counterparts. The line between the mind and the world, between self and other, is pretty blurred.

It’s a western thing to want to classify it all and to know definitively what is me and what is not me.

Even a proper look at scientific knowledge shows us that those kinds of firm boundaries are a fiction – the result of a particular way of seeing the world which isn’t really how the world is.

Buddhist devotional ritual should be seen in this context of vagueness and blur.

It isn’t simply the worshipping of external invisible beings. And it isn’t simply a way to access parts of our psyche that don’t respond to common sense and good arguments.

From a Buddhist perspective, the personal and the cosmic are fundamentally inter-related.

You can see it all as psychological. You can see it all as a dramatic dance of universal energies. You can see it as a prayer for protection, support, blessings and empowerments from actually existing cosmic beings.

I don’t know and I don’t really care. All I know is devotional worship makes me feel good. And all societies everywhere have communal ritual as a fundamental characteristic.


We can think of ourselves as above such things. We can decide it’s silly, primitive nonsense, only still practiced by those uneducated enough not to realise that anything that can’t be measured by existing scientific instruments doesn’t exist.

But to me that’s a little small-minded. Arrogant, even.

Science measures stuff and bases its view of reality on what it has currently managed to measure. New kit comes along and measures new stuff, and science then accepts that reality is a bit bigger than it previously thought.

Scientists don’t think they know everything. That’s not their job. They test hypotheses and see if they can find out some stuff that works again and again. That kind of knowledge is useful. A chair will support my weight if certain conditions exist (to do with physics I suppose). Cool! I like sitting on chairs!

Science is great at the stuff it’s great at. But my life is short and I must live it based on the imperfect knowledge of my time. I choose to be open to pretty much anything.

It wouldn’t surprise me if humans had never landed on the moon and it was all a stunt. That seems as fantastical to me as the idea that they did in fact land on the moon.

Life is big. And strange. And magnificent. I enjoy remembering that and giving expression to it through ritual. The sanest people I’ve met do the same.

We have our relationship with the universe. How (or even if) we decide to acknowledge that is up to us.


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