What is devotion? It seems to be central to the Vajrayana path, but what is it? Devotion is stressed in Shambhala. When we come close to a shrine, we bow. We offer incense, light, water, sometimes food, tea, and other stuff to pictures, with the understanding that what we are offering to is not mere pictures, but a representation of something deeper, more real than the pictures on the shrine. As beginning practitioners, we are told that we are offering “to the universe” perhaps, or to all beings. But the pictures are of our teachers or even of deities that we know are not actually real. What is the point of this?
Who are we offering to; what are we bowing to?
I came into the path with a sense of intense devotion to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: a great teacher who died more than twenty years before I had a chance to know he existed. I had read about him, and about how crazy he was, and I felt a sense of kinship. Upon entering Shambhala, the school he founded, I felt a sense of coming home. I looked up and saw the pictures of Rinpoche on the walls, and I interacted with the people there, and I felt that I was in Rinpoche’s mind. Even if he was not physically here, I felt that his mind continued on, and was broader than his body or his existence in time. And there is evidence that Rinpoche has had a huge effect on the popular culture, as well as founding a school that is international in scope. So, at least in that way, his mind continues on. Perhaps our minds intersect with his mind.
Early in my path at Shambhala, I took refuge in the three jewels: a vow that recognizes that all of existence has a kind of ephemeral quality that leaves me stranded with nothing to cling to. The three jewels: the Buddha as the example of how to undertake the path of enlightenment, the Dharma as the actual way the path works, and the Sangha as the community of other people on the path, are acknowledged as the only source of refuge in an existence that is fundamentally groundless. As a refugee, I work with the contemplation that former objects of devotion are not really useful – gods, lovers, organizations, are not solid, not able to be grasped or depended upon.
Lately I have been thinking about Padmasambhava a lot. He is considered the Buddha of Tibet. A teacher suggested I contemplate Padmasambhava as a way to work with difficulties I have with pain when I am traveling – I get aggressive around taking public transportation because my body is in pain. Rather than trying to grit my teeth and get through the situation on my own, he suggested, I could place my desperation onto someone else: specifically a Buddha who is thought of as being able to offer skillful means in any situation. “We practice following your example.” There is a kind of understanding that in leaning on Padmasambhava, I am actually leaning on the person I would be if I were not obstructed by my neurotic need to get a seat on the train. In tantric terms: I already am that person, I already am completely capable of dealing skillfully with the situation. I just don’t see that. There’s actually a sort of understanding that devotion to Padmasambhava is the same as devotion to my enlightened self (which already exists), as well as devotion to my teacher. It’s all the same.
I have also been working with my heart, developing a sense of fidelity to myself, a sense of positive self-regard. In short, I have been falling in love with myself. More on that practice here. The basic idea is that before I can give myself to others, I have to love myself, and that love has to be embodied. I have to actually feel that love. I can’t just say “I love you, Jinpa.” I have to work on that.
Devotion is work. Like meditation, in which we continually have to come back to our attention, devotion is a conscious decision to focus our love somewhere, and the discipline to continue bringing our love back whenever we stray.
And, with all these different focal points of devotion, there seems to be a question of fidelity. To whom am I actually devoted? Where has my love and regard been focussed all this time? Between Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Padmasambhava, all beings, and my own heart, not to mention my actual Teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, there seems to be a lot of devotion going around. I think the key to all of this is realizing, through practice and contemplation, that all of these objects of devotion are connected. In this interdependent existence, all loves are the guru. If I can love wholeheartedly I think I will find that love reflected back to the source.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a seminal figure in twentieth-century Buddhism and founder of this magazine, died on April 4, 1987. In this 2011 Shambhala Sun feature, Barry Boyce surveys his vast body of teachings and their lasting impact on how Buddhism is understood and practiced.