Buddhism is commonly known for the very austere tradition of self-reliance, found in the early Buddhist monastic community. Relying simply on yourself in order to achieve the experience of Nirvana. One example of this is the monastic practice in Theravada Buddhist countries of South East Asia, particularly Sri Lanka. There, the center of Buddhist activity lies largely in the monastery, among a group of yellow-robed monks who go out in the morning with their begging balls, walking from house to house holding out their balls, taking off the lead and inviting members of the community providing them with the aids that will sustain them for that day.
One of the classical rules in traditional Buddhism is that monks can’t carry food from one day to the next, so, every morning those monks have to go out in their robes with their balls to beg their food. That austere simple tradition is a tradition that really grows right out of the experience of the Buddha, from the earliest stages in the growth of the Buddhist tradition.
Self-Reliance in Zen
You find the same kind of self-reliance in the Zen tradition in Japan. I was just visiting in Japan a couple of weeks ago and visited a monastery with a Zen master. I was talking to him and taking photographs. As I focused my camera on him, I told him how important it was going to be for my students to be able to show them a picture of a Zen master, who was clearly so accomplished and who clearly embodied in a powerful way that tradition. He looked me straight in the eye and said: “I want you to tell them when you speak to them about this tradition: to be courageous, to stand up straight and to rely on themselves”. Like many people in my business have a little scholar's stoop, I found myself just standing a little straighter.
Devotion in Pure Land Buddhism
There is also another important aspect of the tradition that insists that is not possible and perhaps not even desirable to achieve salvation purely on your own merit. Instead, you have to rely on the power of some deity, some figure that is infinitely greater than you.
One example of this we’ll study in more detail in other articles is the worship of the Amida Buddha by Pure Land Buddhists in Japan. Pure Land Buddhism has come to North America, like many other varieties of Buddhism, and in some of its manifestations in this country in particular it looks often a lot like Christian devotion.
I was visiting not so long ago one of the Pure Land temples in Hawaii and being the curious scholar that I am, I opened a little hymnal in the back of the temple and looked at it. It had words that seemed mysteriously familiar to me. It began: “Buddha loves me, this I know for the Sutras tell me so”.
The Devotion to Guan Yin in China
Another example of Buddhist devotion with which we’ll occupy some of our attention is Chinese Buddhist devotion to the bodhisattva or Future Buddha, not a Buddha per say, but a deity that will become a Buddha in a future life. The bodhisattva Guan Yin.
Guan Yin is often pictured as a beautiful standing female figure holding a baby. In Chinese civilization, Guan Yin is viewed as being the emodiment of compassion, but of compassion particularly associated with the development of a healthy and happy family and the gift of children.
When I was visiting a Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage site in Shangai, I ran into a group of Chinese Buddhists, ethnic Chinese Buddhists who came from the Philipines and Indonesia. I asked why they had made the long and rather arduous, and rather expensive trip to pay homage to the deity Guan Yin, and they said that it was for the wealth of their family, and particularly as a way of fulfilling the hope to have children.
The Overlooked Aspect of Buddhism
Devotion is an aspect of Buddhism that for many people might seem unfamiliar, but it too is deeply rooted in the practice of the Indian tradition. We’ll also need to occupy some of our attention in Tibet. One of the most important aspects of religious devotion is focused not necessarily on these great celestial figures but on the human beings who embody their power. The Dalai Lama in particular is one of these. People think of the Dalai Lama sometimes as being a living Buddha, technically that’s not correct, he is a living manifestation of the compassion of the same bodhisattva who is manifested as Guan Yin in China. But he too has an extraordinary ability to make the power of compassion present for people. I’ll occupy some articles on the important figure of the Dalai Lama.
Devotion is an important aspect of the Buddhist tradition, not just relying on yourself, but opening yourself to the power that comes from a figure that embodies an influence much greater than you.