89 – Buddhist Practice as a Lifelong Path of Growth and Transformation
91 – Unethical Buddhist Teachers: Were They Ever Really Enlightened?

In Part 1 (Episode 82), I defined Devotional Practice as extending beyond demonstrations of respect, gratitude, and reverence to practices believed to result in real benefits – perhaps intangible but often tangible – to the devotee, especially when performed in proximity to a holy person, his/her relics, or some other center or object of spiritual power. In this episode I talk about what early Buddhist Devotional Practice looked like, and then discuss the theology – or religious philosophy – behind it.

Read/listen to Early Indian Buddhism: Stupas and Devotional Practice Part 1



Quicklinks to Content
Recap and Introduction
Stupas as Power Centers
Devotional Practices at Stupas
Stupas and Relics in the Centuries After the Buddha’s Death
Other Objects of Devotional Practice
Focus on the Buddha’s Person and Body
Avadanas as Devotional Theology
Planting a Seed in a Buddha’s Merit-Field
The Significance of the Avadanas

Recap and Introduction

Today’s episode is the eleventh in my chronological Buddhist History series – it’s Part 2 of “Early Indian Buddhism – Stupas and Devotional Practice.” In Part 1 – Episode 82 – I introduced Devotional Buddhist Practice and talked about how it’s been a big part of Buddhism since the beginning. I defined Devotional Practice as extending beyond demonstrations of respect, gratitude, and reverence to practices believed to result in real benefits – perhaps intangible but often tangible – to the devotee, especially when performed in proximity to a holy person, his/her relics, or some other center or object of spiritual power.

In Part 1 I discussed how followers of the Buddha related to him both as a teacher and as a power figure, and how the Buddha’s teachings contain both admonitions to simply practice the Dharma without reliance on him as a person, and recommendations for devotional practices. In fact, according to the Pali Canon, it was the Buddha himself who instructed his disciples to create stupas – sacred burial mounds – over his remains, thereby providing opportunities for Devotional Practice that still exist to this day.

In the last episode I also talked about the apparent tension or contradiction between Dharma Practice and Devotional Practice. Modern Buddhists with a scientific worldview have often selectively emphasized the Buddha’s teachings about Dharma-Practice-only, but throughout history it’s clear that few Buddhists have made such a clear distinction between rational application of the teachings and devotionalism. If, as a modern student of Buddhism, you feel some suspicion or judgment about Devotional Buddhist Practice, you have an opportunity to cultivate tolerance for ambiguity, and embrace Buddhism not because it fits some ideal you hold in your mind, but because of the beneficial results of practice in your own life.

In this episode I’ll talk about what early Buddhist Devotional Practice looked like, and then discuss the theology – or religious philosophy – behind it. (In other words, what aspects of Buddhist teachings inspired Devotional Practice, and how did Buddhist thinkers explain its value?)

Stupas as Power Centers

The earliest and most significant form of Buddhist Devotional Practice was focused around stupas. Stupas are mounds or domes, usually built to contain relics but also occasionally to mark significant spiritual sites. Relics are partial remains of an important spiritual figure – most often a portion of the person’s cremains, including ashes, a bone fragment, a tooth, or a jewel or pearl-like object said to result from the cremation of a particularly holy being. Occasionally the relics inside a stupa will be a significant object associated with the person instead. In any case, the stupa emphasizes a physical connection to the being it memorializes.

Stupas vary in size, shape, and composition. They may be the size of a large gravestone, or as big as a temple. Sometimes they’re just a mound of stones, but often they’re a more elaborate construction (just search for stupa images online to see some of their variety). Ancient Indian stupas were typically a dome shape resting on a circular or square base, and this was often topped by a stone “umbrella,” or spire. The relics would be placed within the stupa in locations traditionally seen as centers of power – in the center of the base, and/or at the summit of the building.[i] Generally speaking, stupas are not constructed as buildings you enter, but rather as edifices you appreciate from the outside.

In Devotional Practice, stupas are perceived not just as memorials reminding you of a great person, but as centers of power. In Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction, Robinson et al describe how aspects of a stupa’s construction reflect this, and explain that even the name stupa implies it’s a power center, as the term was also used to refer to “the topknot that brahmans wore at the crown of the head, where divine inspiration was believed to enter the body.”[ii] Simply being near a stupa puts you within a beneficial forcefield or sorts, where you might experience physical or spiritual healing, insight, or clarity. Being near a stupa while stating an aspiration or vow, or saying prayers for good fortune and well-being – worldly as well as “spiritual” – lends strength to your intentions or wishes, and makes a good outcome more likely. The benefits of stupas were such that they were places for regular visitation as well as sites worthy of long pilgrimage (depending on their size and significance).

Devotional Practices at Stupas

Worship at a stupa includes decoration, making offerings such as food, flowers, or incense, chanting, and making donations to the stupa’s upkeep.[iii] A common practice is circumambulation – walking around the stupa, always keeping your right side toward the structure; in ancient India you traditionally would have kept your right side toward a revered person if you were walking around him. There are often walkways constructed around stupas for this purpose, and sometimes circumambulation will also involve repeated bowing.

Robinson et al[iv] describe several additional fascinating stupa practices. The first is to visit a stupa hoping for a vision of the Buddha. Pre-Buddhist traditional beliefs held that seeing a deity or power figure established a profound connection, and might even allow some of that figure’s power to enter into the one who sees. Another practice is “declaring one’s name,” a common way of showing respect in the Buddha’s time, perhaps done to declare one’s sincerity, or as a request to be acknowledged. At stupas, throughout the ages and even today, declaring one’s name has often taken the form of donors having their names inscribed in stone, or on offerings, that are then placed either inside the stupa or high up off the ground where no human being will be able to read the inscription.

Finally, although many stupas today are more or less abandoned, Buddhist literature and the bas-reliefs on some stupas suggest it was common for them to be sites of community connection and celebration, including singing and dancing. While the regulations for fully ordained Buddhist monastics forbid them from singing and dancing, there is no such restriction on lay devotees. In fact, the Pali Canon account of the Buddha’s death describes such activities taking place at great length at the Buddha’s wake. Buddhist stories long associated with stupas, called avadanas (I’ll talk more about them later) describe festivals taking place at stupas (this from Robinson et al):

“Pennants fly, music resounds, monks recite avadanas, lamps are lit all around the stupa. Rich guilds and individuals vie with one another to make the most lavish donations, people of all levels of society are welcome have their place in the gaiety – a happy change from the caste division of day-to-day life. Workers who actually built the stupa are promised the same rewards as the wealthy royal or mercantile sponsors who paid for them… Even the children who tag along with their parents are promised a smooth path to nirvana, together with their friends, simply by delighting in the spirit of the occasion.”

For many western convert Buddhists, singing and dancing at a stupa festival is probably not something we’d ordinarily recognize as Buddhist practice. However, this kind of Devotional Practice is common in Buddhism’s countries of origin, and most people born as Buddhists would marvel at how austere, serious, and restrained western convert Buddhist communities often are, relatively speaking. Robinson et al suggest that as we consider this history of Buddhism, “we must keep this vision of the stupa festival in mind, for it was apparently the gentle, joyous context in which many people were first exposed to Buddhism as children and continued to express their devotion to the Buddha throughout life.”[v]

Stupas and Relics in the Centuries After the Buddha’s Death

In the last episode I talked about how, according to the Pali Canon and other sources, the Buddha’s relics were divided up shortly after his death, and placed in ten different stupas spread throughout the entire area the Buddha had reached with his teaching. Before long, there were also stupas at the four major sites of the Buddha’s life, which he had mentioned as being important places for pilgrimage in order to inspire one’s practice: the Buddha’s birthplace (Lumbini), the place of his enlightenment (Bodhgaya), the location of his first sermon (Sarnath), and his deathplace (Kushingara).

Over subsequent centuries, the creation of stupas became a major preoccupation of a number of monarchs in India and, later, southeast Asia. According to the traditional Buddhist version of events (questioned in its details by scholars but nonetheless very significant to the Buddhist tradition), King Aśoka ruled a significant portion of India in the 3rd century BCE, and was a great patron of Buddhism. (According to Buddhists, he was a devout Buddhist himself; see Episode 49 -Aśoka, First Buddhist Emperor – Facts and Legend). It is said Aśoka opened the original ten stupas containing the Buddha’s relics and then divided them up and enshrined them in “84,000” stupas throughout his realm. While “84,000” is obviously an exaggeration, the underlying message is that through Aśoka’s patronage, Devotional Practice at stupas (sometimes called the “Stupa Cult”) was able to spread far and wide.

The fact that a stupa with only 1/84,000 of the Buddha’s remains would nonetheless be revered as a power center reflects the fact that relics, however small, are viewed as reflecting, in some way, the whole of their source. Historian John Strong calls this being religiously “synecdochical,” meaning “a piece or portion of something effectively stands for the whole.”[vi] This perceived characteristic of relics is why they are found in so many places but still revered. According to Strong, “In Sri Lanka… virtually every Buddhist monastery possesses a Buddha-relic (or what is believed to be one).” The degree to which a relic can be viewed as being or less equivalent to the physical body of its departed spiritual master can be seen in the treatment of the tooth relic at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Each day, the tooth is reverentially awakened, and then offered water for washing, a towel for drying, clothes to wear, flowers and perfumes, and food to eat – just as if the tooth were the Buddha himself, still alive.

Other Objects of Devotional Practice

Before I get to a discussion of the theology of Devotional Buddhist Practice, I’ll say a few things about forms such practice takes other than activities focused on stupas or relics.

One of the most typical objects of religious devotion is, of course, an image or statue of a deity or founder. For reasons still debated by scholars, there appear to have been no images created of the Buddha until about five centuries after his death. This is the case despite the fact that past-life stories of the Buddha are freely illustrated with anthropomorphic images, and other figures, religious and otherwise, were frequently depicted in India at the time.[vii] Instead, it seems the Buddha was visually symbolized by the eight-spoked Dharma wheel, a lotus flower, a pair of footprints, or an empty throne. Whatever reason these symbols were employed instead of images of the Buddha himself, they clearly functioned as objects of veneration.[viii]

Later devotionalism surrounding Buddha images and statues, curiously, has support in a very old legend about the creation of a statue while the Buddha was still alive. A Jataka tale (an ancient but non-canonical part of the Buddhist literature; see Strong 2002), tells the story of King Pasendi of Kosala, who decides to visit the Buddha and pay him homage. The king and his entourage find the Buddha is traveling, however, and they lament, “Friends, without the Buddha, this world is indeed empty, without protection or refuge!”[ix] When the Buddha returns, King Pasendi asks him if he can make an image of the Buddha, explaining, “Sir, even though you are still alive, when you go to another place, the people, unable to behold your body, become miserable, feeling that they are without a protector. This makes them wonder how they will ever find refuge and by happy, once you pass into the final nirvana and are no more.”

The Buddha gives permission for a statue to be made, and King Pasendi spares no effort or expense in creating a finely carved image of the Buddha out of sandalwood. The statue is adorned with robes and a great pavilion is built for it. King Pasendi gets such great joy out of worshipping the statue, he invites the Buddha to come see it. As the Buddha approaches, the statue starts to get up in order to show respect for the Blessed One. However, the Buddha holds up his hand to stop the statue, saying, “Friend, stay there. Soon, O statue, I will be entering parinirvana; therefore, you should remain behind so that my religion will last into the future for five thousand years…”

Over the centuries, Buddhists have obviously varied widely in the extent to which they perceive statues or other symbols as actually embodying the Buddha or other revered figures, or as being able to offer some kind of benefit beyond inspiration or moral support. Clearly, however, the potential for viewing Buddhist statues this way has been respected and preserved within most branches of the tradition; to this day, it’s typical for a Buddha statue to be consecrated in order to make it, in some sense, become Buddha, as opposed to simply being a representation of the Buddha. One manner of consecration is an “eye-opening ceremony” in which the eyes of the statue are painted in, in order to “awaken” the statue.

Focus on the Buddha’s Person and Body

What is this Buddhist fascination with the person of the Buddha, in particular with his physical manifestation and all the ways that manifestation has been carried on since his death? To people mostly familiar with theistic religious traditions, it may appear that Buddhists are deifying the Buddha. In some cases, of course, the actual sentiments of devotional Buddhists may not differ much from those of theists, but the theological underpinnings of Devotional Practice in Buddhism are very different from those found in theistic religions.

The canonical Buddhist scriptures are unequivocal in stating that Shakyamuni Buddha is no more. In fact, that’s the whole point; a Buddha is an awakened being who is liberated from the cycle of rebirth and, upon death, enters Nirvana – never to return. Historian John Strong suggests this a significant problem for Buddhism as a religion, because, “It is not that he has gone elsewhere; he is everywhere absent, existing neither on earth nor in some kind of heaven nor in some kind of transcendent state.”[x] Despite this, Strong asserts, Buddhists have “found a number of ways to affirm the ongoing presence of the Buddha in their lives, despite his parinirvana.”

Remember, as I talked about in the last episode, despite the Buddha’s assurances we didn’t need him anymore, and all we needed to do was rely on the Dharma and our own practice, he also gave instructions for ways people could feel inspired and strengthened after his departure. He had stupas built, and recommended places of pilgrimage. In addition, there was a sense among the Buddha’s disciples that, after his death, simply hearing his teachings out loud (it was said Ananda could recite them verbatim) was like hearing the Buddha himself. Clearly, the Buddha and his first followers were well aware of the human need for something to inspire our confidence in the path of practice. Upon seeing the tree under which the Buddha awakened, it’s said King Aśoka remarked, “When I look at the king of trees, I know that, even now, I am looking at the Master.”[xi] In later years, Buddhist texts came to be revered as a physical manifestation of the Buddha.

Most of us feel pretty limited in our abilities to fulfil the Buddha way, or even approach our own ideals. Life presents many challenges and distractions. If we’re going to make it as practitioners, we need to find ways to cultivate pasada, or the serene confidence that comes when we know we’re on a fruitful path out of suffering (see Episode 86 – Samvega and Pasada: Two Buddhist Emotions Indispensable for Practice). What better way to inspire ourselves than to recall the attainments and compassion of Shakyamuni Buddha? In the canon the Buddha is described as extremely charismatic – not because he’s flashy or clever, but because of his profound spiritual calm, skilful teaching, unflagging patience, and generosity. Shortly after his awakening, the Buddha is said to have approached a handful of extreme ascetics with whom he had formerly practiced. They wanted to reject him because he’d left behind the ascetic path, but something about the Buddha’s demeanour inspired them to be open to his teaching.

Of course, some of us find it difficult to find solace or strength in the belief that a particular human being existed 2,500 years ago and is said to have been completely awakened and compassionate. Still, it’s possible to be inspired by an ideal, and to treasure any human manifestations of insight and virtue we have the good fortune to encounter. And even the most sceptical of us, I suspect, harbors a secret longing for direct, personal experience of affirmation – much like we would experience if we were somehow able to meet the Buddha in person and he turned out to be every bit as cool as everyone said. I experienced something like this when I was able to see Zen master’s Dogen’s transmission silk in a museum. Right there was Dogen’s name, his teacher’s name and seals, and the date of the transmission, 700 years ago in China. I stood in front of the glass case weeping – profoundly inspired, as human beings tend to be, by a physical connection to my heart’s deepest aspirations.

Avadanas as Devotional Theology

I’ll finish up by talking about one of the main theological underpinnings of Buddhist Devotional Practice, lest I leave you thinking it’s a practice more or less divorced from Buddhist teachings. Of course, it may very well be that these teachings resulted from an effort to explain or justify devotional practice, but even if you don’t buy these teachings literally, it can be valuable to consider their meanings at metaphorical, mythological, or even mystical levels.

A significant form of Buddhist literature evolved right along with canonical Buddhist texts: Stories about the past lives of the Buddha and other spiritually advanced beings like arhats and pratyekabuddhas (“private buddhas,” or beings who attain buddhahood more or less on their own, and therefore lack the teaching potential of a Buddha). The stories of these past lives focus on karma, the law of cause and effect as it applies to behaviour. The clear moral is that virtuous, disciplined, and selfless actions lead to positive results in future lives, including the possibility of arhatship or Buddhahood – and that harmful, selfish actions lead to negative results in future lives. (In general, the past-life stories are focused on the benefits of positive actions.)

Past-life stories fall into two general categories. The first is jataka tales, “birth stories,” which are usually stories of the past lives of Shakyamuni Buddha when he was just an aspiring bodhisattva. Jataka tales make it clear the Buddha-to-be had practiced diligently, life after life, to refine his character in order to eventually attain liberation. In his past lives Buddha is sometimes human, but often an animal, and the emphasis is often on diligent practice of the paramitas, or perfections (most often generosity, morality, patience, and diligence). The jataka tales make it clear that diligent effort is required lifetime after lifetime in order to achieve the highest Buddhist ideals.[xii]

The avadanas, or “stories of noteworthy deeds,” are the other category of past-life story in this Buddhist literary genre. Generally speaking, avadanas tell the story of an accomplished spiritual practitioner other than the Buddha (an elder disciple of the Buddha, an arhat, or a pratyekabuddha). The avadana relates how the protagonist attained their current spiritual state largely (or perhaps only) because of a noteworthy act of devotion they performed for a past Buddha.[xiii] (In this scenario, Shakyamuni Buddha is only one of a long line of Buddhas stretching infinitely into the past.) The devotee is sometimes described as having practiced some discipline before or after their noteworthy act, but the avadanas give the impression that the act was pivotal in ensuring their eventual enlightenment.

The noteworthy acts of devotion are usually spontaneous, sincere, and fairly mundane, such as offering the Buddha a gift of flowers, food, incense, or water, or reverently placing the hands in anjali (prayer position). Sometimes, in the Buddha’s honor, devotees plant a tree, build a memorial, give an impassioned speech praising the Buddha, or make a virtuous vow. Here’s an example of a short avadana (apadana in Pali) told by the arhat disciple Ambadāyaka about his past encounter with the Buddha Anomadassi (I found this in a recently released digital book of all the Pali Canon apadanas translated by Jonathan Walters):

“I was a monkey at that time
in the supreme Himalayas.
Having seen Anoma, Boundless,
[my] heart was pleased in the Buddha.

In the Himalayan region
mango trees were bearing fruit then.
Therefore, taking a mango fruit
I gave it, with a honey-comb.

Anomadassi, the Great Sage,
Buddha prophesied this to me:
“because of both this honey-gift
and [too] this gift of mango [fruit,]

you’ll delight in the world of gods
for fifty-seven aeons [hence].
You will transmigrate in a mix [of human and divine realms]
for [all] the remaining aeons. (5) [1405]

Having cast off evil karma
[and] with mature intelligence,
departing from [this] place of grief
you will destroy [your] defilements.”

[Ambadāyaka, or “Mango Giver,” then confirms that after a number of aeons]:

“I’ve been tamed by the Sage So Great
by means of the superb taming.
I’ve attained the unshaking state
beyond [all] conquest and defeat.”

(In other words, Ambadāyaka attained arhatship.)

Planting a Seed in a Buddha’s Merit-Field

The basic idea in the avadanas is that there exists around each Buddha a “merit-field.” Because of a Buddha’s great spiritual power and merit, acts of devotion performed within his sphere of influence yield especially wonderful results. The noteworthy acts are sometimes described as “seeds” planted in the Buddha’s merit-field, and some avadanas go as far as to imply you can’t attain arhatship or Buddhahood without having planted a seed in a Buddha-field, because only the conditions of such a field – like fertile soil – allow a seed to germinate, grow, and thrive. Even further, some avadanas imply planting a seed in a Buddha-field is a guarantee of fortunate future rebirths leading inevitably to a life in which you achieve full enlightenment, although it might take aeons to get there.

A consequence of the multiplication and popularization of avadanas, including many included in the Pali Canon, is that the Buddha gets emphasized more as a protector than as a teacher, and devotional practice is encouraged over spiritual self-discipline. In one sense you could say this opened up Buddhist practice to the masses. To use the words of a scholar cited in Robinson et al: “Minimal effort is promised maximum rewards in terms of mundane and supramundane pleasures: a long, scenic joyride through samara before going out in a blaze of glory.”[xiv]

It’s important to note avadanas were originally associated with stupa cult described earlier, and the avadana literature makes it clear a Buddha’s merit-field doesn’t end with his physical death. Instead, his relics and any stupas or monuments built to honor him offer a merit-field every bit as powerful and beneficial as that which existed around the living Buddha. Therefore, acts of devotion – particularly gifts of various kinds – performed at stupas were more or less guarantees of future enlightenment. Scholars speculate that monastics in charge of caring for and maintaining the stupas (and, presumably, themselves) were – unsurprisingly – responsible for the popularization of avadanas.[xv]

The Significance of the Avadanas

There’s no denying the avadanas differ significantly in flavor and emphasis from the austere, early Pali Canon suttas. It’s overly simplistic, though, to dismiss them as inventions of greedy monks. In an essay on the avadanas, Thanissaro Bhikkhu offers a number of reasons the literature is worth studying, and I’ll share three of them here before wrapping up.

First, Thanissaro suggests (using the Pali term apadana) “…the Apadānas show that many of the devotional practices of Theravāda Buddhism—once thought to be antithetical to the spirit of the Pāli Canon (usually as exemplified in the earliest strata of Suttas)—are actually inspired by examples in the Canon itself.” Second, Thanissaro reflects how the jataka stories emphasize personal effort, while the avadanas emphasize personal connections – and observes that the tension between these two paradigms has been an aspect of Theravadin Buddhism throughout history. Finally, the avadanas clearly contain many concepts and characteristics that came to be central to Mahayana Buddhism, and yet they were also part of the Pali Canon (and other versions of the Buddhist canon). Thanissaro observes, “This shows that, during the period in question, exponents of these ideas had not become a separate movement, and that their contemplations were still considered orthodox. As of yet, no radical break had occurred between the elders of the Theravāda and the aspirants to Buddhahood in their midst—an important point to keep in mind when trying to trace the course of the various yānas at the beginning of the common era.”

A perfect place to end, because my next Buddhist History episode will talk about the beginnings of Mahayana Buddhism.



Robinson, Richard R., Willard L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikku. Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction. Fifth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.
Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications, 1994.
Strong, John S. The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations, Second Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.
Strong, John S. Buddhisms: An Introduction. London, England: Oneworld Publications, 2015.
Swearer, Donald K. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2010.
Walters, Jonathan S. (trans.) Legends of the Buddhist Saints: Apadanapali. Jonathan Walters and Whitman College, available online: http://www.apadanatranslation.org, 2018.
Winternitz, Maurice. A History of Indian Literature, Volume II. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1933.


[i] Robinson et al, pg 72
[ii] Ibid, pg 73
[iii] Skilton, pg 54
[iv] Robinson et al, pg 41
[v] Robinson et al, pg 74
[vi] Strong 2015, pg. 97
[vii] Strong 2015, pg 100
[viii] Robinson et al, pg 84
[ix] Strong 2002, pg. 40
[x] Strong 2015, pg 87
[xi] Strong 2015, pg. 95
[xii] “Four Apadanas,” Essay and translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu: https://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/CrossIndexed/Uncollected/MiscEssays/FourApadanaTranslations.pdf
[xiii] Winternitz pg 278
[xiv] Robinson et al, pg 72
[xv] Ibid


89 – Buddhist Practice as a Lifelong Path of Growth and Transformation
91 – Unethical Buddhist Teachers: Were They Ever Really Enlightened?