Devotional Practice in Early Buddhism


Devotionalism goes back to the beginning of Buddhism:

The Buddha taught that the biggest barrier to realization is the notion that “I” am a permanent, integral, autonomous entity. It is by seeing through the delusion of ego that realization blooms. Devotion is an upaya for breaking the bonds of ego.

For this reason, the Buddha taught his disciples to cultivate devotional and reverential habits of mind. Thus, devotion is not a “corruption” of Buddhism, but an expression of it. Of course, devotion requires an object…

For more discussion of this kind of devotion, see the essay ”Devotion in Buddhism“ by Nyanaponika Thera.

Devotion in Buddhism
by Nyanaponika Thera

Here is Thanissaro Bhikkhu explaining how he came to the realization that devotional practice is a legitimate expression of Buddhism, rather than the corruption of it:

What are the discoveries that have broken the frame? Among the most interesting rediscoveries are some very early texts known as the avadanas [lessons]. These are stories about how the Buddha and famous arhats [those who have attained the penultimate stage of awakening] got started on the path many aeons ago. Like the jatakas [tales of the Buddha’s past lives], the stories are aimed at inspiring a sense of devotion.

A lot of these texts were written when the stupa cult was becoming popular in India. They were advocating the idea that in order to get started on the path one needs to have the merit field of the Buddha. By performing services to the Buddha or his relics, you plant the seeds of merit that will eventually result in awakening.

The avadanas changed my understanding of some the rituals and ceremonies I experienced as a monk in Thailand. Until the rediscovery of the avadanas, it was assumed that popular devotional Buddhism as practiced in Southeast Asia today was a corrupted form. But looking at the avadanas you see that the practices are in fact very old.

These texts, with their emphasis on Buddha-fields and vows for awakening, also provide the missing link between the early canons and the Mahayana, thereby rewriting the story of how the Mahayana arose.

Deathbed Experiences of the Pure Land
Deathbed Experiences of the Pure Land
Deathbed Experiences of the Pure Land

Yes - I think some devotional practice is very good! We have to really get our hearts into the practice somehow. Although I don’t think they are sufficient for taking you all the way to Nibbana.


Yes this is a good point.
But delusional devotion is to be avoided.


Anything which leads to humbling the false ego-self is ultimately conducive to Nirvana.

"As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’"

I think this might boil down to people of different temperaments requiring different forms of practice in order to attain the same ultimate realization.

Upāya: Skillful means
Bringing the truth to the level of the people for their benefit and liberation


Okay, you’ve posted this quote twice. I understand that you find what Thanissaro says here amenable to your ideas. But in truth, it is all kinds of misleading. I am honestly just confused at how he could be saying these things, and I wonder if there is some garbling in the interview. But I can only take it as it stands.

The Apadānas have not been “rediscovered”, they are a well-known and normal part of the Pali canon, with which every scholar of Pali or early Buddhism is familiar, at least in their general outlines. While the full text has not been translated, most of the content has been summarized and is found in the relevant entries in the Pali Dictionary of Proper Names. I know, because I went through each entry and removed all the late material from the DPPN on SuttaCentral.

Some devotional practices in SE Asia can be traced to Apadānas and similar texts, which were added to the Pali canon several centuries after the Buddha. Relative to us, sure, they’re old. But that has nothing to do with whether they are corrupt or not: something can be both corrupt and old. These texts and practices were not taught by the Buddha. Whether they’re corrupt is a value judgment, but it doesn’t change the facts.

The Apadānas, together with other late additions to the Pali canon, and similar late or post-canonical texts in other traditions, do indeed provide a connection between early Buddhism and Mahayana. But this rewrites nothing: it is Buddhist History 101 and is well-known to all scholars and students in the field.

As just one example, from TW Rhys Davids’ Buddhist India, published in 1903. This is far from obscure—it is probably the most famous work of classical Indology. And just about any scholarship on the subject would reaffirm this. Here, he discusses several of the later books of the Khuddaka, not the Apadānas specifically, but other works of a similar time and nature.

And the whole of this little book of verses [i.e. the Peta Vatthu], together with the Vimāna Vatthu (really only the other half of one and the same work), is certainly very late in tone as compared with the Nikāyas.
The same must be said of two other short collections of ballads. One is the Buddha Vaṃsa, containing a separate poem on each of twenty-five Buddhas, supposed to have followed one another in succession. The other is the Cariyā Piṭaka, containing thirty-four short Jātaka stories turned into verse. Both of these must also be late. For in the Nikāyas only seven Buddhas are known; and Jātakas, in the technical sense, are not yet thought of. This particular set of Jātakas is also arranged on the basis of the Pārāmitās, a doctrine that plays no part in the older books. The Ten Perfections (Pārāmitā) are qualities a Buddha is supposed to be obliged to have acquired in the countless series of his previous rebirths as a Bodhisatva. But this is a later notion, not found in the Nikāyas. It gradually grew up as the Bodhisatva idea began to appeal more to the Indian mind. And it is interesting to find already, in these latest of the canonical books, the germs of what afterwards developed into the later Mahāyāna doctrine, to which the decline of Buddhism, in the opinion of Professor Bhandarkar, was eventually so greatly due.


Let’s not forget that attachment to rights and rituals as the vehicle to liberation, is one of the things a sotapana abandons.

Devotional ritual is very useful to aid in a happy mind but not enough to realise the end of suffering.


Another thing to add is that Buddha-recollection falls under right mindfulness and right concentration in the Eightfold Path.


Buddhanusati is recommended as a means to bring up gladness. No different than silanusati. ‘The gladdened mind is easily concentrated’ says the Buddha.

Buddhanusati is not a means unto itself.


Another thing is when our mind is focused on wholesome things, like the Buddha, then it won’t be focused on unwholesome things that are a detriment to enlightenment. In meditating on the Buddha’s qualities, we can cultivate these same qualities within ourselves.


Can you show me an EBT quote? It doesn’t fall under those categories as far as I know. If you dig deep, I would go so far as to say a proper Triple gem recollection can only be done by stream entrants and higher - only they would find those terms used meaningful, to give rise to real joy.

with metta


Are you unfamiliar with the practice of recollecting the Buddha, and how that might fall under right mindfulness and right concentration in the Eightfold Path?


Here’s a basic sutta which defines each of the steps of the Noble Eightfold path:

SN45.8. Recollection of the Buddha doesn’t fall under Right mindfulness or Right concentration.


Are you saying because it’s not mentioned in that particular sutta, that recollection of the Buddha doesn’t fall under right mindfulness and right concentration in the Eightfold Path? Are you suggesting that only seated, silent meditation is included under the Eightfold Path?


The word Buddhanussati means “mindfulness of the Buddha,” if I’m not mistaken. It is a way of attaining “great faith, great mindfulness, great wisdom and great merit.”

1.2 THE BUDDHA RECOLLECTION IN PRACTICE. In the Pali Suttas, buddhânussati is rarely occurs
by itself, but usually in a set of three, four, five, six8
or ten recollections (anussati).9
It is a simple practice
that can be done in two ways:
(1) as a mindful recitation or ―simple recollection‖ of the Buddha‘s “nine virtues beginning with
araha‖ (navârah’ādi,gua),10 or (2) as a ―mindful recollection‖ of each of the nine virtues in turn, or any of them, in some detail.
Such a practice, in effect, is also a ―confession of faith‖ in the Buddha, a more detailed version of the going
for refuge to the Buddha.
11 Amongst those who are faith inclined, such a recitation or recollection is
an expressly psychotropic (psychologically effective) or apotropaic (magically efficacious) undertaking.12
Practitioners of early Buddhist meditation invariably would use the buddhânussati as a consciousness-altering
means that, by inspiring some level of joy, would displace a distraction or any of the five
mental hindrances.13…

67 [BENEFITS.] When a monk is devoted to this recollection of the Buddha, he is respectful and
deferential to the Buddha. He attains great faith, great mindfulness, great wisdom and great merit. He has much zest and gladness. He conquers fear and dread. He is able to withstand pain. He comes to feel that he is living in the presence of the Buddha.


I like Buddhanusatti - it does make you feel joyful and relaxed in my experience, and might help with the hindrance of skeptical doubt as well


Which Sutta was it, again?


Using the SC search function you find Buddhanussati listed in 3 suttas in AN and 2 in DN
AN6.141 no english online.
Bhikkhu Bodhi has '… for direct knowledge of lust these 6 things are to be developed. What 6?
Recollection of:

AN1.296 no English here BB has:
'Bhikkhus there is 1 thing when cultivated, made much of, leads exclusively to disenchantment, to didpassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibanna. What is that? Recollection of the Buddha. ’

It then repeats for AN297-305 goes on to repeat wth the other 5 things to frequently recollect

AN6.9 no English on SC. basically there are the 6 subjects for recollection…as above
AN6.10 then continues to elaborate how a stream entered often dwells. This includes recollection of iti pi so bhagava…
This refrain appears often through the suttas and might be worth surveying. I have a sutta specifically in mind the Aj. Brahmali talks about but I can’t recall it now

There are also mentions of buddhanusati in DN33 and DN34


I’m trying to make the point, that you have to be specific. The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s re-discovery of the path to Nibbana. I’m not saying there’s nothing outside this, that are valid teachings, but the N8FP is like a clockwork mechanism- you can’t just throw stuff into it hope it will run smoothly, IMHO.

with metta


I think this is via the N8FP, not directly. We need to consider the entire teaching, to put this sutta into context.

Stream entrants are able to easily give rise to joy when recollecting the qualities as in this sutta because they have seen for themselves that 1) either they are true in themselves in terms of the sangha or the dhamma 2) or having seen the dhamma he taught was true, has faith in the Buddha. Therefore they are more capable of using it as a ‘dwelling’ to be in.

True, it might help doubt as a hindrance, but not doubt as a fetter - not directly anyway, unless it leads to practice and then via the N8FP, leads to seeing phenomena (dhamma) where doubt is one of the three fetters abandoned at stream entry.

with metta


If mindfulness of the Buddha didn’t fit under right mindfulness, why would the Buddha teach and encourage the practice?