More Evidence of Buddhist Bhakti

I started reading Gil Fronsdal’s Ph.D. Dissertation, “The Dawn of the Boddhisattva; Studies in the Religious Ideal of Ancient Indian Buddhists with particular emphasis on the earliest extant Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.”. One of the questions he considers is the emphasis on ‘compassion’ vs. ‘emptiness’ in the early Indian Bodhisattva tradition. I can tell you from the table of contents alone that it’s “everything you ever wanted to know about the history of the Bodhisattva.” And here’s the opening paragraph—more evidence of a Buddhist practice of bhakti:

“Some years ago, while walking through the Buddhist temple of Svayamnbhu in Kathmandu at the time of a Buddhist festival, I came across a group of lay people chanting the Triple Refuge (trisarana). While the taking of refuge is a common practice for Buddhist laity visiting a temple, I was surprised by the passion and exuberance of the chant as it was repeated over and over. Accompanied by sitars and tablas, the Nepalese Buddhists were singing the Sanskrit refuges in the style of lively Indian devotional music. Having observed the refuges chanted in American, Japanese, Thai and Burmese temples, I had come to expect such chanting to be done in a sober, even-minded and tranquil manner. Instead, the Nepalese swayed back and forth, radiating with joy and excitement as they continued their devotion. Reflecting on the disparity between my expectation and the scene in front of me, I initially interpreted (and discounted) the chanting as being excessively influenced by (modem) Indian culture. But when I remembered that Buddhism was bon in India and has survived for 2500 years in Indian culture (if we include Kathmandu within the Indian cultural sphere), I looked at the scene with keen interest, wondering what it meant for an Indian to be a Buddhist.” (Fronsdal, 1998 p. 1)

Fronsdal describes the relief sculpture on the walls of a stupa in India;

The great surviving Buddhist ruins which were built from about 100 years before the Common Era (B.C.E.) to approximately 100 years after the Common Era, are all sites of communal worship. Taking the Great Stupa at Sanci in west-central India as the pre-eminent surviving Buddhist monument of the times, we see a structure whose primary human purpose was devotion. (Fronsdal, 1998, p. 2)

The elaborate reliefs sculpted around the turn of the millennium, at what must have been great expense, into the four ornate gates (toranas) at Sanci give ample evidence of the value its builders and sponsors placed on decorating such a place of worship. And when we study the reliefs themselves we find a common motif is acts of worship. While many art historians and scholars have focused their attention, and their varied interpretations, on what is depicted as the objects of this worship, we clearly notice that among the most common acts shown are acts of devotion. (Fronsdal, 1998, p. 3)

Humans, supernatural beings and animals are depicted worshipping trees, vacant thrones, dharma wheels, stupas and other objects. A relief from the north gate (torana) shows a stupa—very much like the Great Stupa at Sanci itself—placed centrally in the panel. Surrounding the stupa are twenty-two human and kinnara beings, all performing various acts of worship. In the foreground of the relief are seven musicians playing cymbals, drums, “trumpets” and a flute. Behind them on the left are three men, at least two with their palms reverentially pressed together in anjali. Directly behind the musicians is a man who appears to be dancing, with his hands raised above his head and his robe lifted (exposing his buttocks) and flung to the side of his body as if he is spinning. And behind the musicians, on the right, are three men in procession, possibly also dancing. One of them carries a banner and the other two cradle baskets in their arms, perhaps filled with flowers. Closer to the stupa, with offerings of garlands, are eight beings of which four appear to be human and four who seem to resemble heavenly kinnaras.

Another relief on the north (torana) similarly shows all the people on the panel performing acts of worship. In this case, the object of devotion seems to be an altar-like block placed in front of the entrance to a cave. In contrast to the more celebratory devotion in the first panel, here we see all ten men standing respectfully with their hands in anjali. (Fronsdal, 1998, p. 4)

On the stone “crossbeams” of the east torana, we find scenes crowded with more of the same devotional activity seen on the north gate: long processions, with banners, offerings, musicians, and people bowing with their palms pressed together. Depictions of devotional activity are so pervasive and often so tightly crowded into the reliefs that worship appears to have been expected, valued and normative for those who built the monument. Coming to a similar conclusion Susan Harrington writes: “ [T]hese reliefs reinforce the theme of devotion to the Buddha by his followers that I suggest is an important message of early Buddhist art.” (Huntington 1992: 120). Elsewhere she states that these reliefs express “concepts central to the practice of Buddhism during this period, particularly relating to the exaltation of lay worship.” (Huntington 1990; 407). (In Fronsdal, 1998, p. 5)

We could, however allow ourself to look at the account of Buddhist India by the seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang. Writing about how the monks, nuns and novices in Northwest India worshipped stupas, he wrote:

Every year during the three months in which long fasts are observed and during the six fast days of each month, the priests resort to these various stupas and pay mutual compliments; they make their religious offerings, and bring many rare and precious objects  as presents. According to their school they visit the sacred object of their veneration. Those that study the Abhidharma honor Sariputra; those who practice meditation honor Mudgalaputra; those who recite the sutras honor Pumamaitrayaniputra; those who study the Vinaya reverence Upali. All the Bhishunis honor Ananda;  the Sramaneras honor Rahula; those who study the Great Vehicle reverence the Bodhisattvas. On these days they honor the stupas with offerings. They spread out their jewelled banners; the rich (precious) coverings (parasols) are crowded together as a network; the smoke of incense rises in clouds; and flowers are scattered in every direction like rain. (Fronsdal, 1998, p. 8)

Fronsdal relates a report of Buddhist relic worship in Sri Lanka, recorded by Faxian in the fifth century: 

Faxian’s account goes on to relate that the populace took the proclamation to heart and for ninety days crowds of people burnt incense and lamps, and performed religious services day and night without stopping (Legge 1886: 106). That a ceremony of worship could go on for three months certainly reinforces the impression that devotion had a central role in ancient Buddhist culture. (Fronsdal, 1998, p. 9).


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