From the Faculty: Miles Neale

What is devotion to you?

Devotion is spiritualized love. It’s the willingness to be both vulnerable and absolutely mad in pursuit of the divine. We all seek wholeness, to connect the wounded part of us with something completely beyond ourselves, and that is made possible through devotion.

Is your practice of devotion oriented towards a religious tradition? What is the connection or relationship of devotion to religious traditions?

Devotion to teachers and traditions is only a way station. It’s how we get our initial spiritual compass bearing. Anyone who has realized something profound, who has actually woken up, has warned us not to confuse devotion towards externals as the goal of our spiritual practice. Ultimately, devotion has to be focused on our own direct realization.

What are tools, techniques or special objects that inspire or help you in your devotional practice?

I have a mālā. It’s with me everywhere I go. Every retreat, every pilgrimage, every power spot over the years. It’s been in my hands, as mantras and prayers were recited. With each repetition, the mind is made more supple to hear an inner voice, to behold and inner vision, to be subsumed by a more refined state of consciousness. This mala is made of wooden beads, along with a few antique stones, turquoise and coral, passed down from the early Tibetans exiled from their homeland, who took refuge in India. It reminds me of Tibet’s cultural struggle, and their ability to face unimaginable suffering with grace, wisdom and compassion. This mala has been blessed by every great master I’ve come into contact with, and a friend even had it blessed for me by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I carry their collective inspiration as a constant reminder.

Do you have a favorite devotional author, text or poem that inspires you in your devotional practice?

The foundation of all good qualities is the kind and perfect, pure Guru;
Correct devotion is the root of the path.
By clearly seeing this and applying great effort,
Please bless me to rely upon you with great respect.
Lama TsongKhapa, The Foundation of All Good Qualities

What is the biggest obstacle to devotion? What techniques do you have for overcoming that obstacle?

A guru scandal and the confusion, pain, and doubt that follow are the biggest obstacles to devotion. Handled skillfully, however, even poison can become medicine. How many times can one’s heart be broken before we choose not to love again? We have to work really hard to heal the heart in order to keep it open. That takes self-compassion first, the willingness to connect with our own wounding, to accept the pain of disappointment, and to forgive ourselves of our misplaced self-blamed. Then we need to enter deep and critical reflection, to learn from missteps, our own and others, and to come away with a more mature understanding of the human condition. Finally, we need to develop sincere compassion for the gurus that fall from grace, which is only possible when the former two steps have been cultivated. We need to realize we all have buddha-nature, but we can’t forget that we’re all just human.

What are some of the ways that your practice has changed over the years?

I temper my devotion with self-reliance, my love with common sense, and my idealization with realism. I strive to tolerate the middle-way between extremes. I fail every day. I forgive and start again.

Do you keep an altar? If so, how is your altar connected to your devotional practice?

Yes, my altar is a karmic workbench. Like an architect’s drafting table, an artist’s easel, or an athlete’s treadmill, it’s the place where the yogi develops virtue. When you make offerings to the merit-filed – Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, great masters and all living beings – you accumulate karmic energy that becomes the causes and conditions for realization. One of my practices at the altar is called a water bowl offering, where I imagine offering the Buddhas sacred substances that bring them great delight. These ritual acts exercise generosity, purifying body, speech and mind, in a multidimensional process of transformation. Since he was three years old I’ve been teaching my son Bodhi how to practice offerings. It’s easier than teaching him sitting meditation, and it builds empathy. He says “Daddy, is the Buddha thirsty? Can we give him some water?”. So simple, but so profound.