These days, for those of us new to Buddhism, our approach to the Dharma is often through our mental activity: we read and think about the Dharma and we like the ideas; we meditate with all that that entails of mental discipline; we look at our lives through the lens of the precepts etc. And this is excellent. But, there is another dimension of practice, the dimension of devotion. The word devotion has in it a sense of lovingly giving ourselves to a thing and is associated with the word consecrate which is to dedicate a thing to a higher or religious purpose. And by religious, I am thinking of those activities which help us to reconnect to that which is deepest and best within us.
We commonly think of practicing the Dharma as a sort of mental exercise or a puzzle to be solved but in this sense of devotion, practice becomes an expression of our appreciation for the “something deeper” or the mystery of our lives. We give devotion in the sense that we take care of a thing; we take care of our life through practice and this taking care gives a way to express that deeper thing. Traditionally, people would practice through this aspect of devotion by offering flowers, food, light or other necessities or by doing service or ceremonial. Of course all of these things have their functional aspects, which are useful, but to bring a sense of devotion to these activities gives us an opportunity to express the real impulses of love, gratitude and reverence that arise within us.
Doing these things out of devotion is different from doing them in order to make merit. At some point we come to realize we are much less motivated, in the realm of practice, by what we can get from practice, than we are by a sort of inward movement toward giving expression to the positive qualities of practice: it just seems better, more joyful, to give kindness and care, to give effort to our practice, than to constantly dwell on what we don’t have and what we feel we need.
Since it can appear that practicing from devotion is like just going through the motions, to practice in this way can seem innocent or naive and may be the butt of cynical criticism or derision (those silly superstitious people going to church and doing those seemingly empty rituals) which is a bit sad. To practice in a devotional way is to allow ourselves to step away from the limitations of a strictly logical or scientific view of life and allow ourselves to be influenced by compassion, love and wisdom in an inward and personal way. To allow ourselves to be influenced by these deeper things is to find a deeper more personal relationship with our own practice.
In all of this I am not trying to deny the value of science and logic, instead I want to point out that there are questions and aspects of our heart and life which are not answered by science and logic and those aspects can be approached and understood or known through devotion.