Buddhist devotional practices are diverse in form, though the intention always remains the same - to cultivate receptivity and openness to the sublime in reality. Whether we call it Nirvana - Buddha Nature or Enlightenment matters not, these are really just different 'brand names' for the same thing - a state of liberation from conditioned existence. For Westerners, to fully surrender to devotional impulses is not easy, it often has uncomfortable associations, because it too closely reminds us of Christian image worship, of a supreme Godhead. There are many representational forms of the Buddha, and extravagant portrayals of archetypal Bodhisattva's. To the outside uninformed observer a Buddhist lighting incense and prostrating themselves before such images, can look like we are worshipping them as Gods. But there is no Godhead in Buddhism, and what gods there are, are prefaced by a lower case, rather than a capital G. Mostly the gods and goddesses come to worship and bow down before the Buddhas and Bodhisattva's to honour and praise their achievement's, not demand it for themselves.
Buddhist worship is a mixture of reverence - for the Buddha's achievement - and aspiration - for ourselves to do likewise. I was reflecting on this whilst I was on the retreat 'Entering The Mythic Realm.' It struck me that most of the time we were operating in either of two modes - a mode of evocation - or a mode of invocation. We were either attempting to evoke higher meditative states, a fuller sense of Going for Refuge, or we were trying to invoke the Buddha's & Bodhisattva's to be present and witness our Going for Refuge. By the end of the retreat I'd come to the conclusion these two modes were coterminous, almost to the point of indivisibility. When we do anything that brings our own Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha more vividly to life, it simultaneously brings the Buddhas & Bodhisattva's more vividly present too. They appear like moths around the flame of our sraddha, to witness, bless and encourage our endeavours. We don't need to do anything more than practice effectively and wholeheartedly.
Sraddha is an indivisible response of body, speech and mind, integrated and focused on awakening. Sangharakshita describes sraddha as a response of ' what is ultimate in us to what is ultimate in the Universe'. Sraddha (faith is a poor comparison) is the driving energy, the fuel on the motorcade of devotion. This is neither a neat, logical or completely graspable thing, if it were, it would be a still born experience. Which is why its not always easy to just tap into our sraddha at will, though devotional practice can be a help, sometimes. However, there are times when it just will not be evoked, when our internal or external conditions just get in the damned way. I am quite a passionate emotional person, and even though I see myself as a 'faith type,' for some reason my devotional practice has previously been bedeviled by personal reservation's and petty resistances. I've tended to hold myself back from responding to the sudden inspirational impulse, the instinct for what I need to do is thus inhibited. On this retreat I began to stop stifling these impulses. I think my reservation's were disguised forms of doubt about whether the practices work, or perhaps fear that if I gave myself fully to them, they would. Puja and prostrations only work if you do give yourself to them, surrender fully and don't hold back.
There was a brief moment during the worship section of a Sevenfold Puja, when we were circumambulating the stupa. Instead of mindfully kneeling, bowing and offering incense, I began falling instantly to my knees. At one point I dropped so rapidly to my knees, that as they touched the ground, for a moment I was in a state of devotional confusion, I wasn't sure exactly what it was I was supposed to do once I got down there. Regaining my composure, I fumbled my anjali mudra together, bowed and got up. For that one moment I'd given up trying to control my every action and inspiration, I just surrendered into the feeling of that moment.
What I learnt, and it seems an obvious thing to state, is that for a sense of devotion to be evoked, I need to find a way to express this physically. Not just physically, but also using my imagination - my mind needs to be engaged visualising the content of the words of a puja and prostrations. Those words themselves need to be meaningful, poetic and evocative in order to lure my emotions into engagement. If all of these three things combine, devotional practice becomes something much greater than its individual constituent parts. If devotion is an indivisible action of body, speech and mind, to stir the desire for awakening, then one of these three on their own will not be enough.