Q: Can you explain the difference between faith and devotion?
A: Faith is basically a set of assumptions that you make about what to believe and whom to believe as a basis for choosing what is best to do. We’ll be talking more about this topic tonight. As for devotion, it really depends on what your faith is. If you believe that there is a being who is going to help you if you please him, then the way that you express devotion will be to try to please that being. In Buddhism, we do show some devotion to the Buddha, but it’s not because we think he’ll do something for us, and we don’t have to please him. Devotion is simply a means of reminding ourselves of how much we respect him because the truths that he taught are very important to us. He taught four noble truths, and the word “noble” here has a special meaning. These are the most important truths to keep in mind as we conduct our lives. There are a lot of other truths in the world, but we should rank them on a lower level. For example, we know that the Sun someday will go nova and everything we do will be vaporized, which makes it sound like our actions have no meaning. But the four noble truths tell us that our actions do have meaning in terms of how we will experience pleasure and pain even when the world is gone. They also teach that true happiness is possible.
This is very different, say, from what advertisers teach us. They tell us, “Forget about true happiness. Focus on the happiness you can get from buying our product.” We’re bombarded by messages like this all the time. In Europe did they have the BMW Chill? It was a TV commercial in America where a man comes up to the top of the parking garage, he sees his BMW, and gets a frisson. So we show devotion to the Buddha to remember that the BMW Chill is worth nothing.
Q: How does one best maintain heedfulness?
A: Here’s a method that the Buddha recommends: Every morning when you see the sunrise, remind yourself that you could die today. Then you ask yourself, “Is there any unfinished business in my mind, are there any unskillful qualities that would create difficulty if I had to die?” Then you focus on clearing the mind of those qualities. When the Sun sets, remind yourself that you could die in the night, and then employ the same reflection.
Now, this is not to get you depressed. It’s to focus your attention on how important today is and to make the most of today. When the Buddha talks about maintaining your focus in the present moment, it’s not because the present moment is a wonderful moment, and also it’s not because your present awareness is an unconditioned awareness. It’s because there’s work to be done in the mind and the present moment is the best time to do it.
This relates to the earlier question on devotion. We give primary importance to the four noble truths and less importance to what’s coming in through our senses or to the messages coming from the media. We have to remind ourselves that the media are not concerned about our true well-being. It’s up to us to look after our well-being. And we respect the Buddha because he emphasizes that point.