Are you devotional?

— Michael Erlewine

Sometimes I hear talk about a secular Buddhism, a Buddhism without spiritual overtones. There are many forms or types of Buddhism, but they all refer to the same Dharma. I can see that such a secular-style Buddhism will arise, but never a secular dharma. Dharma is already as secular as it can get and it definitely still has spiritual overtones. Many people I meet, especially younger liberals, are wary of devotion, which is a shame. Whatever we really care about, we are devoted to, so hear me out on this, please.

What on earth are “spiritual overtones” anyway? My guess is that this refers to any devotional aspect that either dharma-practice itself engenders or that is required to make dharma actually work. Both are true, and I favor the later, i.e. that without devotion, our particular dharma will remain fallow. And I have reasons to back this up.

My argument revolves around our determining what is the main point of doing dharma practice. Why are we doing it at all? Thankfully, I don’t have to guess at what that is, because the great Indian Mahasiddhas have made it expressly clear that the point of dharma practice is to prepare us to recognize for ourselves the true nature of the mind. As I understand it, that is the focus of all dharma practice; only recognition of the true nature of the mind opens the path to our eventual enlightenment. There is no other avenue I have ever seen mentioned.

If that is understood, then it follows that everything we do prior to our recognition of the true nature of the mind is done without such recognition. In fact, in dharma practice, such activities are appropriately called “The Preliminaries.” They are preliminary because they come before any recognition of the nature of the mind on our part.

As mentioned, if “Recognition” is pivotal in dharma practice (and the pith texts say it is), then everything we do up to that point is without “recognition,” done in the dark of the mind, so to speak. Without knowing the actual nature of the mind, we are just guessing, conceptualizing, and creating ever more elaborate expectations. We have never been otherwise, yet.

So, my question becomes: if we have not yet attained recognition, how in the world are we going to do that? The great Mahasiddhas clearly point out that in order to achieve “Recognition,” we must have it pointed out to us by a realized master, someone who has themselves achieved recognition. We cannot find it by ourselves, i.e. on our own. The teachings clearly point this out. After all, that is what the Pointing-Out Instructions are all about, to point out the nature of the mind to us once and for all.

And this just brings me back, face-to-face again, with the idea of devotion and the supplication to our guru, whoever that teacher is for us, and our request to them that they point out to us the true nature of the mind so that we can finally get it. Without that, we will be forever in the darkness of Samsara.

So, we need the attention of a guru to achieve “Recognition,” since without a guru, recognition will never happen. The connection with our teacher, which is called “Samaya” (meaning bond) is, to put it mildly, all important. Am I to think that such a connection will arise through distraction on our part, or does it require our attention and perhaps even our supplication? And do we want this recognition of the mind’s true nature enough to ask for it, to supplicate it, and should we devote energy to that end? In other words, are we devoted, and to whom and about what?

My point here is that when it comes to “recognition,” devotion is unavoidable, but need have no religious overtones of the blind-faith variety. As for faith and confidence in our teacher’s ability to point out the true nature of the mind? Yes, that is, by definition, required.

So, if you are one of those folks, and I meet them, who tell me that they don’t need (or want) a teacher and will do it on their own, I wish you good luck! We will wait for you, but when I say wait, I mean for a very, very long time. The Buddhists say the wait to chance upon recognizing the true nature of the mind will take untold Kalpas, and a Kalpa is, according to the texts, about 4.3 billion years!

The Tibetans also have another analogy for how precious and rare the opportunity of this human birth we have is. It goes like this:

The world is a sphere completely covered by water. On the surface of the water floats one small ring with a hole in its middle. In that water is one turtle, who only surfaces for air once every one-hundred years. It is more likely for the turtle to accidently poke its head through that ring when it comes up for air than for us to be born a human being.

Even with that human birth, it is still very rare for us to recognize the true nature of the mind. Metaphorically, successfully receiving the Pointing-Out Instructions is a bit like brain surgery, but without the brain. It involves someone with actual realization working with us and with “The Mind” itself. The guru must tweak our view away from all our distracting layers of obscuration, so that we snap into synch with the actual way the mind is, and that is not child’s play.

In my case, different teachers presented the pointing-out instructions to me, but only one was able to carefully get my attention until I actually managed to realize something. Do I feel some devotion and thankfulness to my teacher who took the time to care for me enough to assist me? Yes, I am very thankful for this help and, at the very least, I am devoted to him for what he has gratuitously done for me. There is no way I can hope to repay him for his kindness other than to help others, as I can.


As it turns out, the Karma Kagyu Lineage has what they call the “Lineage Prayer,” which is a short text with the requirements (and their supplication) for entering the path to Mahamudra Meditation. It is often the first prayer a practitioner says in the morning and it is a complete practice in itself. This prayer says it all so succinctly, and it is brilliant as well. The Lineage Prayer likens different activities to the parts of the body, and the head of the body is linked to devotion, which should tell you something. It goes like this:

“Devotion is the head of meditation, it is taught.
The lama opens the door to the profound oral teachings.
To the meditator who always turns to him,
Grand your blessing that uncontrived devotion be born within.”

[Photo of the Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, taken by me. This image is copyright and is not to be reprinted without written permission from me. It can, however, be used privately for personal use. This photo was taken in 2011, while Rinpoche was waiting for the arrival of His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa at KTD. ]