Devotion and Surrender

In class, we discussed what makes something a “religion” as opposed to a “philosophy,” what makes something a “ritual” as opposed to a habit, and what, then, makes something a religious ritual. Previously, I had committed to a set of elements that I felt couldn’t be left out when discussing religion, including: an understanding of the sacred; community; practice; belief/faith; ritual and ritual efficacy; a tension, division, or relationship between chaos and order; some kind of diagnosis that “all is not as it should be”; a critical emphasis on transformation; and devotion. When we were discussing what makes something a religion in class, I was thinking especially about devotion, which is the element on which I would like to focus here.

Sometimes the word worship is used synonymously with devotion, but because worship is generally associated with a deity, I think that devotion is a little more inclusive and flexible (though deities receive devotion too). Devotion is critical because it sacralizes many of the other elements of religion, and brings them out of the mundane experience and into the realm of something that can no longer be reduced to “habit” if it is a ritual, “philosophy” if it is a belief. Devotion sacralizes ritual, practice, community, etc. by offering and dedicating these things to something higher and/or greater.

The aspect of devotion that I started wondered about during Wednesday’s class is related to this idea of offering up: surrender. Most devotion that I can think of involves surrender to something beyond the self, maybe even crucially. Surrender to God is a common idea/theme in the Abrahamic traditions; in Islam, for example, the idea that we are incapable of understanding all of Allah’s plans and intentions features prominently, and that eventually we must acknowledge our own ignorance and surrender to Allah’s omniscience. In Hinduism, devotion is also crucial—the Hindu god Krishna spends a lot of time enlightening the Ksatriya warrior Arjuna about the yoga of devotion in The Bhagavad Gita, and Arjuna does experience surrender in his devotion to Krishna when Krishna reveals to him his cosmic and overwhelming true form.

In Buddhism, devotion is shown for the Buddha, for many bodhisattvas (and other Buddhas), for relics, for sacred sites like the Bodhi Tree, and probably for countless other things. Surrender is involved in each of these different kinds of devotion, but I also think that the entire interconnected idea of emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence involves an ultimate kind of surrender that seems fundamental. Letting go of the idea of self is a massive act of surrender. Self-grasping is so innate in human experience, and clinging to the idea of a permanent self and the conventional reality within which such a self is perceived is how we function in our daily lives. The fabric of our reality and everything that we understand seems bound up in a dual understanding of self and other—giving that up and truly understanding the interdependence of all existence is a kind of surrender that is difficult even to fathom, but that is essential to the Buddhist philosophy that we have been studying.

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2 Responses to Devotion and Surrender

  1. Gabriel Lincoln says:

    This clears up a lot for me! Taking it further, if emptiness is the element of Buddhism that detaches one from the self (by requiring that one let go of the whole concept of self in the first place) and amounts to surrender, and if ritual is one way of triggering that detachment in other religions, would you say that the centrality of ritual in other religions is replaced by the centrality of emptiness in Buddhism? Of course, the practices of emptiness (meditation, for monks the collecting of alms) become, at the very least, habits. But they inform emptiness, in the same way that many small habits of devotion inform larger rituals in other religions. Is emptiness itself a ritual, or does it stand in for one?

  2. Pikachu says:

    Reading about your comment about the lack of self made me realize that interconnectedness is greatly emphasized in the Buddhist faith. As evidenced by the Sangha’s reliance on the lay community for food and money and the importance of prayers from nuns and monks for better rebirth, the Buddhist faith stresses the need of a collectivist community, in which one’s identity is based on his/her roles and experiences within his/her group context. Consequently, the idea of self is clearly downplayed in order to show that peoples’ actions are interconnected, and therefore, impact the wellbeing of the overall community. But is it fair to conclude that interconnectedness prevents some people from forgoing their worldly attachments, and therefore, showing their devotion to the faith?

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