Bhakti is rarely associated with Buddhism. But actually Buddha himself was the epitome of a bhakta. He was said to be ever blissful. He was even known as the ‘compassionate one’ which surely implies bhakti. Wherever he went he radiated love. Though he did not preach bhakti yoga as a method, he himself was a perfect example of an intoxicated bhakta. The same also applies to Buddhism; it does not teach bhakti yoga as a path, for it is easily misused and can lead to blind superstition, but its prescribed paths eventually lead to the experience of bhakti.
It is said that Buddha urged his disciples to have faith. But this is not blind faith in dogmas or the scriptures. It is faith in the existence of a higher reality, of the possibility of attaining liberation and knowledge.
One of the Buddha’s basic teachings is that the world is full of suffering. This is not a statement of despair but is a means to wake people up to their current way and quality of life. It was intended to give people a kick so that they questioned their unhappiness and started to seek higher levels of being. The aim of Buddhism is the same as all other systems supreme knowledge. It is only the methods that appear to differ. Yet its methods are basically raja yoga and jnana yoga. The culmination of these practices leads to the knowledge of equality and sameness of all people and all things. This is called samata jnana in Pali. This leads to all embracing compassion for everyone. This is bhakti, not the path, but the experience. Also one of the well-known dhyana Buddhas symbolizes bhakti. This is Ratna-Sambhava – the jewel born, who represents the outgoing love that arises because of the realization of the essential unity of all things and beings.
There is a very popular Buddhist bhakti sect in Japan called Jodo – the Fair Land School. They worship Amida (Amitabha, the infinite light) a personification of the source of all revelations and intuitions. Amida is associated with forty-eight vows, one of which is that he will not attain enlightenment until, by his enlightenment, all other beings will also gain enlightenment. Worship of Amida helps to break down ego motives and to have respect for the well-being of others. The mantra amitabha is repeated over and over again. This is the same method as other forms of bhakti yoga and is a form of japa yoga. Keeping Amida continually enshrined in his heart, the aspirant is compelled to think of others and not become lost in his own experiences. Remembrance of Amida helps to break down selfishness. Of course, it has much more significance, which we will not discuss here.
It is worthwhile giving a short story from the life of a great Jodo bhakta called Shoma. He was a poor labourer who lived in Japan in the 19th century. The following story is recorded in a book on his life: “He once went to a Buddhist temple in the countryside. He entered the main door and immediately relaxed and rested in front of the shrine of Amida. One of his friends was astonished for he thought that Shoma had no respect for Amida. Shoma replied: ‘I am back in my parent’s home, and for you to think as you do, you must be a stepchild’.”
Shoma was totally happy in the embrace of the great compassionate heart of Amida. This story is very similar to the stories of bhaktas in other religions: the surrender of the devotee to the divine.
There are many more examples in Bud-dhism, but we have said enough. However, we would like to point out that Zen Buddhism and certain sects of Tibetan Buddhism emphasize the importance of a guru. In fact, there are many stories, such as that of Milarepa, where the disciple undergoes great hardship under the instructions of a guru. It is difficult to imagine that the disciple would be able to tolerate such hardships without bhakti for his guru.