81 – Five Steps for Positive Change without Waging War on the Self
83 – Two Paths to Meditative Concentration: Directed Effort Versus Letting Go – Part 1

It’s pretty typical to hear only one side of Buddhist history – that is, the side that focuses on what the Buddha taught, or the Dharma, and on the people who studied and practiced that Dharma. There’s a whole other side to Buddhism, present since the beginning: Devotional Practice. In this episode (Part 1 of 2) I introduce what it is, and talk about its origins in the Buddha’s own teachings – which included instructions for the creation of the first Buddhist stupas, or sacred burial mounds.



Quicklinks to Content:
Why It’s Important to Study Buddhist History
Two Sides of Buddhism: Dharma Practice and Devotional Practice
Devotional Versus Dharma Practice: A Tension?
The Buddha’s Instructions for Devotional Practice in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta
Cremation of the Buddha and Creation of the Ten Stupas
How Do You Feel About Devotional Practice?


In my last few history episodes, I focused on the evolution of the Buddhist teachings and monastic sangha in the first few hundred years after the Buddha’s death. It’s pretty typical to hear only that side of the Buddhist story – that is, the side that focuses on what the Buddha taught, or the Dharma, and on the people who studied and practiced the Dharma as he taught it. There’s a whole other side to Buddhism, though, which has been present since the beginning, and that’s its devotional side. In this episode (Part 1 of 2) I’ll introduce what Devotional Practice is, and talk about its origins in the Buddha’s own teachings – which included instructions for the creation of the first Buddhist stupas, or sacred burial mounds. In the next history episode (Part 2), I’ll talk about what Devotional Practices around stupas looked like in early Buddhism, and the theology behind them.

Why It’s Important to Study Buddhist History

Before I get further into this topic, however, I want to briefly state why I think it’s so important for Buddhist practitioners to study Buddhist history (at least at the level I’m gradually presenting it in this podcast). It’s not so important that we memorize names and dates, or keep track of all the different Buddhist texts and sects that have arisen over the millennia. What is important is that we challenge our assumptions about Buddhism in order to prevent us from using it to protect our delusions or strengthen our sense of self.

It’s not uncommon for people to assert that the modernist, revisionist version of Buddhism adopted by most westerners is the whole – or least the essence – of Buddhism. Modernist Buddhism may, indeed, represent a distillation of this ancient tradition into what’s acceptable to those of us with a scientific world view. As long as we acknowledge that’s what we’ve done it’s probably okay, but there’s been a tendency for modernist Buddhists (Asian and western) to ignore, dismiss, or even denigrate large parts of the Buddhist tradition.

Studying history gives us a picture of the tradition we admire that’s complicated and nuanced. It demands we strengthen our tolerance for ambiguity as we realize Buddhism has – or continues to – include some elements we don’t understand or don’t necessarily want to embrace. It’s okay if we don’t embrace it all! There’s room under the Buddhist tent for everyone, and – as this episode will point out – this has been the case since the beginning.

Two Sides of Buddhism: Dharma Practice and Devotional Practice

Modern scholars of Buddhism – the people who provide us with the history we can study – have tended to focus on the Buddha’s Dharma – what he taught – and the ordained and lay followers who subsequently studied and practiced that Dharma (meditating, practicing mindfulness, following precepts, and studying teachings). Therefore, the history of ancient Indian Buddhism is usually full of descriptions of monastic rules and controversies, debates about philosophy and teachings, the development of new Dharma commentaries and texts, and sectarian divisions. I’ve covered a bunch of this stuff in my previous episodes, and for the sake of today’s discussion I’ll call this the “Dharma Practice” side of Buddhism. By using this term I don’t mean to imply everyone doing Dharma Practice had great insight, high aspirations, or pure, spiritual motives – just that this side of Buddhism focuses on Buddhist teachings – whether those are teachings about how to live as a monastic, how to practice in order to attain awakening, or about the nature of reality from a Buddhist perspective.

The other side of Buddhism, present even before the Buddha died, I’m calling the “Devotional Practice” side of Buddhism. This side of Buddhism focuses on the Buddha himself as a being with great spiritual power – a power that persists even after his death. Naturally, his great spiritual power is understood as being closely tied to his incredible wisdom, skillful teaching, unparalleled spiritual attainments, boundless compassion, and equanimity – the admirable qualities that made him worthy of veneration and reverence while he was alive. However, Devotional Practice takes this situation a step (or a few steps) further, perceiving that a real benefit – perhaps intangible, but sometimes tangible – accrues to the devotee through his or her act of devotion, and/or through proximity to the Buddha’s person. Significantly, the Buddha’s person – his real, spiritually effective presence – was believed to manifest after his death in his relics (physical remains), and later in other consecrated objects such as commemorative shrines built at important holy sites, or – much later – in statues.

Devotional Versus Dharma Practice: A Tension?

I’ll describe the origins and development of early Buddhist Devotional Practice in a moment, but first I want to address the apparent tension between it and Dharma Practice.

In the book Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction by Robinson, Johnson, and Thanissaro, there’s a great chapter on how the Buddha’s followers related to him as students as well as devotees. In a chapter titled “The Buddha as Teacher and Power Figure,” the authors explain how it was typical in ancient India to treat a teacher with great respect, and how spiritual adepts were widely believed to have certain powers bordering on – or even qualifying as – supernatural. The teacher was often seen as a protector of his students. It’s also clear from the Pali scriptures that an attitude of profound reverence and devotion for the Buddha and his senior monks was regarded in the early Buddhist Sangha as essential for practice.

Robinson et al write:

“Modern Western interpretations of the early response to the Buddha’s teachings usually assume a sharp divide between these two roles – power figure and teacher – and argue as to which of the two was more authentic. Some, focusing on the rationality of the teachings reported in the texts, view the Buddha primarily as a philosopher whose heritage was vulgarized into a religion when absorbed in the cultic mentality of people at large… There is reason, however, to doubt whether the radical split between philosophy and religion posited by both sides of this question applies in the Buddhist case. Although the Buddhist tradition reports a certain tension between the two ways of viewing the Buddha, it sees no sharp divide.”[i]

In reality, the two sides of Buddhism – Dharma versus Devotional, philosophy versus religion – have coexisted from the beginning, and not as two separate things. Apparent contradictions appear without apology or explanation, for example, in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, one of the main Pali canon scriptures. This sutta is the source of several passages widely cited as evidence that “true” Buddhism isn’t devotional, or dependent in any way on the person of the Buddha. For example, in one section the Buddha assures his disciple Ananda that the Sangha will be fine after he (the Buddha) dies because all the Sangha needs is the Dhamma (the teaching) and the Vinaya (the monastic code). In another part of the Sutta, the Buddha says:

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”[ii]

The Buddha explains that taking the Dhamma as your refuge means practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and overcoming desire and sorrow in regard to the world.

In yet another famous passage from the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha yet again gives a teaching that seems to discourage devotion. He is very sick and clearly approaching death, and the sutta describes how heavenly beings, along with nature itself, are paying homage to the dying Buddha: Flowering trees bloom out-of-season, blossoms fall from the sky and cover the ground, and music plays in the heavens. In the face of these supernatural expressions of reverence, however, the Buddha says:

“But it is not to this extent that a Tathagata [Buddha] is worshipped, honored, respected, venerated, or paid homage to. Rather, the monk, nun, male lay follower, or female lay follower who keeps practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, who keeps practicing masterfully, who lives in accordance with the Dhamma: that is the person who worships, honors, respects, venerates, & pays homage to the Tathagata with the highest homage.”[iii]

Pretty straightforward, right? What the Buddha really wants us to do is Dharma Practice, not Devotional Practice. And yet, in this very same sutta (the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, or the discourse on the Buddha’s death and final Nirvana), we find the Buddha giving explicit instructions that form the core of future Devotional Practice.

The Buddha’s Instructions for Devotional Practice in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta

Throughout the suttas of the Pali Canon, people of all kinds approach the Buddha with devotion and reverence (not always, but when people don’t, it’s always the point of the sutta and stands out), and this kind of devotion features strongly in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta. As Robinson et al put it, in this sutta, “Kings ask for [the Buddha’s] advice, wealthy donors vie with one another for the honor of presenting him with offerings, devas [heavenly beings] shower him on his deathbed with heavenly flowers, incense, and song.”[iv]

At one point, the sutta describes how the heavenly beings are weeping and wailing in grief because they anticipate the Buddha’s demise. They cry, “All too soon the Buddha will disappear from the world!” Ananda points out to the Buddha that people are used to coming to see him from all directions and will no longer be able to do so.

In response, the Buddha explains there are four places people can visit after his passing that will inspire them to practice: The place of the Buddha’s birth, the place where he achieved enlightenment, the location of his first Dhamma teaching, and the location of his parinibbana (his “complete nirvana,” which happens at his physical death). The Buddha says that anyone who happens to die on a pilgrimage to one of these four places will be reborn in a heavenly realm. Later, (that is, in real life, not just in the sutta) these four significant places in the Buddha’s life indeed become well-established sites of pilgrimage for Buddhists, and remain so to this day.

Back to the Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Closer to his death, the Buddha gives specific instructions for how his body is to be dealt with. It is first to be prepared in the manner of a “wheel-turning monarch” (an ideal monarch who rules ethically and benevolently over the whole world):

“Having wrapped it in teased cotton-wool, they wrap it in new linen cloth. Having done this 500 times, they place the body in an iron oil-vat, cover it with an iron lid, make a pyre composed totally of perfumed substances, and cremate the body. Then they build a burial mound… at a great four-way intersection. And those who offer a garland, a scent, or a perfume powder there, or bow down there, or brighten their minds there: that will be for their long-term welfare & happiness.”

Not long after giving these instructions, the Buddha passes away.

Cremation of the Buddha and Creation of the Ten Stupas

According to the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, Buddha’s lay followers held a 6-day wake over his body after his passing, spending the entirety of each day “worshipping, honoring, respecting, and venerating the Blessed One’s body with dances, songs, music, garlands, and scents, in making cloth canopies and arranging floral wreaths.” After that, they prepared the body according to the Buddha’s instructions, but were unable to light the funeral pyre; heavenly beings prevented it from lighting until the arrival of Buddha’s foremost disciple, Maha Kassapa.

In another example of how this sutta presents the case for both Dharma Practice and Devotional Practice, Maha Kassapa is one of the few beings who does not grieve the Buddha’s passing. Free from passion, when told of the Buddha’s death he does not lament as the others do, but simply observes, “What else is there to expect? It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, and subject to disintegration from disintegrating.” Still, when he arrives at the Buddha’s funeral pyre, Maha Kassapa “placed his hands palm-to-palm over his heart, circumambulated the pyre, uncovered the Blessed One’s feet, and worshipped them with his head.” Subsequently, the pyre caught fire on its own. So, even a master of Dharma Practice – one who was no longer dependent on the Buddha – performed devotions with such sincerity they had supernatural results.

The Maha-parinibbana Sutta then recounts how the Buddha’s followers carried out the rest of his instructions – the ones about placing his cremated remains in a burial mound where they could be visited. Just a little background, here: Such a burial mound was (and still is) called a “stupa” – generally a mound or dome built over the remains of a significant person, although similar structures may also mark a sacred spot or the location of a miraculous event. The remains of a holy person kept in a stupa are typically called “relics,” and while relics are usually cremains (ashes or small bits of bone), they may sometimes be objects closely associated with the person when they were alive (i.e. a personal belonging), or even jewel or pearl-like objects said to result from the cremation of a particularly holy person.

According to the sutta, then, Buddha’s lay followers spent another 7 days worshipping, honouring and respecting his relics with dances, songs, etc. Finally, the time came for installing them in a stupa, but other followers of the Buddha started arriving from distant areas and clans, demanding a share of the relics. Eventually there were representatives of eight major clans laying claim, including the clan that had conducted the funeral ceremony and cremation. Before conflict over the relics could erupt into violence, it was agreed they should be divided into eight equal parts. A total of ten stupas were then constructed throughout the areas where the Buddha had taught: eight over portions of his relics, one over the urn that had held them, and a tenth over the embers of the funeral pyre (one clan arrived a little too late to get any bone-relics). Now, instead of just one stupa with Buddha relics where people could visit to offer a garland, a scent, or a perfume powder, or to bow down or brighten their minds, there were ten.

How Do You Feel About Devotional Practice?

In the next episode I’ll talk about what people actually did (and do) in terms of Devotional Practices at stupas, the theology behind such practices, and some later developments in terms of stupas and other Devotional Practices in first few centuries after the Buddha’s death.

Before I wrap up this episode, though, I want to say something about how to relate to Buddhist Devotionalism. You may be a fairly casual student of Buddhism and not deeply invested in it as path, in which case you’re probably untroubled by finding out what a major role devotion has played in the tradition. On the other hand, you may be a naturally devotional person, and encouraged by this discovery! If that’s the case, I invite you to explore more of this side of Buddhism, which is usually downplayed at western convert Dharma centers but which is a central feature of traditional Asian temples and monasteries. Obviously, from the beginning of Buddhism, Devotional Practices have been considered completely compatible with Dharma Practice, even though at first glance they may appear contradictory (more on “compatible” versus “contradictory” in the next episode).

What primarily concerns me, though, is that you might be, like me, an agnostic-bordering-on-atheist who finds it hard to relate to Devotional Practice. You may regard Devotional Practice as far-fetched if not downright suspicious – especially in the sense of such practice being not just an expression of respect or reverence (nothing wrong with that, within reason, right?), but as a practice resulting in a real benefit – tangible or intangible – to the devotee, especially when performed in proximity to a holy person, his/her relics, or some other center or object of spiritual power. Especially if you’re just starting to trust Buddhism as a spiritual path, it might sow troubling seeds of doubt in your practice to know Devotional Practice has been prominent in Buddhism since the beginning, and throughout history has had many times more loyal adherents in terms of numbers than has (exclusively) Dharma Practice.

If you fall on the more secular-minded end of the spiritual practice spectrum, I encourage you not to worry about Buddhist Devotional Practice. You can engage wholeheartedly in Dharma Practice without a devotional bone in your body; although there’s still a necessity for respect for people and for the teachings, and it even helps to feel a little reverence here and there, there’s no need to conceive of any kind of mystical response to Devotional Practices. However, if we’re going to be realistic, respectful, humble, and compassionate, we do need to accept devotional practitioners as part of the larger Buddhist family.

In fact, the Buddhist tradition itself can actually teach us a lot about the tolerance and acceptance this requires. For example, in The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, Donald Swearer discusses how the Pali Canon presents both ultimate and proximate (that is, worldly) ideals for practicing Buddhists. Monastics give up everything, but the wealth of generous lay people is recognized as supporting everyone. The canon offers strict rules for maintaining monastic purity, but also practical guidelines for lay people in terms of how to take care of their relationships and businesses. There are plenty of instructions for how to break completely free from the cycle of transmigration, but there are also lots of instructions for practices that will ensure fortunate circumstances in this life and the next. Swearer explains:

“The tradition affirms that the Buddhist path is many forked and, furthermore, that different people are at different stages along the path. Explanations that seek somewhat arbitrarily and rigidly to differentiate teaching and practice, the ideal and the actual, run the risk of sacrificing the interwoven threads of religion as they are culturally embodied to the logic of consistency.”[v]

In other words, different strokes for different folks. What matters is that we verify the truth and effectiveness of our own path, for ourselves.

Read/listen to Ancient Indian Buddhism: Stupas and Devotional Practice Part 2

Photo Credit

Stupa n° 3. Gana-s on the unique torana, looking south. Sanchi. By Nandanupadhyay [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons


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. Buddhisms: An Introduction. London, England: Oneworld Publications, 2015.
Swearer, Donald K. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2010.


[i] Robinson et al, page 22
[ii] “Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html .
[iii] “Maha-parinibbana Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Total Unbinding” (DN 16), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.5-6.than.html.
[iv] Robinson et al, page 39
[v] Swearer, page 3


81 – Five Steps for Positive Change without Waging War on the Self
83 – Two Paths to Meditative Concentration: Directed Effort Versus Letting Go – Part 1