The method of bhakti yoga is often espoused in Hinduism, but it has also been practiced in Christianity, Judaism and Islam as well. It is the practice of constant remembrance and fervent devotion to a higher power, such as Jesus, Krishna or Vishnu, while beseeching that power for the grace to unite with their being. In other words, it's a method of worship for losing oneself, the small self, to attain a state of selflessness or non-ego.
To be really effective, it also contains a large element of visualization practice so that it can lead to positive transformations in your chi and mai, and hence it has similarities to the deity yoga visualization practices of Tibetan tantra. Prayer can become a bhakti yoga method but only if the aspirant gives up the ego in the process. Taht's the point of the process....giving up the thoughts of the self, and thoughts in general. Not suppressing thoughts, but letting go the clinging as a type of offering.
In essence, bhakti yoga is to practice a form of fervent worship in order to forget the self (cultivate a degree of selflessness) and enter into samadhi. In the Tibet school, it would be similar to the generation stage yoga of deity visualization whose purpose is to transform the body's chi and mai--its wind and water elements--before the initiation of kundalini. That's what happens if you practic ebhakti correctly.
So in bhakti yoga, thinking of the Lord or some chosen deity should also involve a measure of visualization practice that becomes a constant habit, such as keeping their image constantly before you, or reducing a colorful image to a tiny size and locating it in the region of the third eye or heart chakra. That will lead to the necessary one-pointed concentration which is essential to the success of this form of practice, and the placement of the visualized image a various points in the body is important for other reasons previously explained. The constant habit aspect of this cultivation meditation technique is technically termed "mindfulness," which refers to never letting go of the method. Of course, you never stop doing it, but you do it without clinging.
You can indeed achieve samadhi through this cultivation method, but you can only achieve a very low level of samadhi (initiaory samadhi) because bhakti yoga depends on the emotions, and doesn't take you past the lower stages of one-pointedness. Furthermore this cultivation technique, because it is emotionally based, primarily deals with purifying our jing and chi. This is what accounts for the state of ecstasy or bliss produced through this cultivation technique -- both jing and chi are involved.
Now if a devoted practitioner wishes to transform this initiatory bliss and joy into the actual bliss and joy of the first dhyana, a bhakti practitioner must (like all other practitioners) remain celibate and refrain from losing their jing (seminal essence). That's the hardest part of the practice, but why practitioners must us th mental trick of "giving themself over" to the deity. The bhakti schools don't tell you this, but it's a cardinal requirement in cultivating the chi and mai that you don't lose your semen.
The bhakti method of cultivation often entails the use of prayer, mantra or singing, dancing, rituals or some other form of remembering a deity's physical actions. The concentration is one-pointed ont he remebranc eof the deity while letting go of other thoughts. Since you have to be really sincere in this cultivation practice, as well as recite mantras (or prayers) and perform certain physical actions, it is a method of cultivating mind, speech and body together. But it's a very low level of cultivation technique which can easily fall into emotionalism and excess, rather than true spiritual attainment. That's the danger. Many people don't have the constitution for bhakti but rather jhana -- wisdom discrimination -- and profit fom other methods instead. Then again the meditation technique you hate is often the best one for you -- resulting in transformation which is why you hate it -- so the rules of who it is suited for are not written in stone. Whatever works for you USE, if it doesn't work then don't use it.
Thus the traditional nine types of pure bhakti devotion to consider--listening to stories about the Lord; singing and chanting about the Lord; remembering his qualities, name and presence; serving Him; offering respectful worship such as in puja; offering prayers and prostrations; becoming His servant, considering Him as your best friend; and completely surrendering everything (all cares and concerns and the self) unto Him--can become simply religious exercises, rather than a means to spiritual attainment, if the practitioner doesn't know what they're doing. When a cultivation practitioner of any school or technique doesn't know what they're doing, and doesn't understand the principles of practice, they're just being superstitious rather than following the path of cultivation.
Bhakti yoga differs from "mindfulness of the Buddha" in that Buddha mindfulness practice requires that you first know the theory of cultivation. The proper road of Buddha mindfulness (which also stands for Krishna mindfulness, Jesus mindfulness, Vishnu mindfulness, etc. when done correctly) is quite refined in that you don't simply bathe yourself in an attitude of nondiscriminatory love for some divine being. Rather, Buddha mindfulness asks for more from the individual in terms of understanding the theory and practice of cultivation, and in terms of mental practice and the refinement of one's actions. It requires discriminatory wisdom and understanding other than just blind faith. Hence the ultimate stage of achievement can be much much higher with wisdom understanding methods. On the other hand, any virtuous technique to get your foundation laid is excellent.
In the technique of Buddha mindfulness, you might recite the name of a Buddha (or deity), or internally visualize his image (such as the lock of hair between his eyebrows), or contemplate his visage while looking at his picture, or try to match yourself and become one with his mind (which is trying to directly achieve dhyana). Hence you can perform this practice with understanding, and rather than indulging in emotional excess, you also remain in peaceful unison with society at large. You practice one-pointedness of concentration -- stable concentration -- on a visual image in order to cut away wandering thoughts. But even though you do this, when you attain cessation you must let go of thoughts entirely, and the state of emptiness reached, and remain aware, free, awake and non-clinging. That is the right wisdom way. Thoughts will always arise, even when the mind is quiet. The rule is simply not to abide (cling to) and mental states that arise.
No matter what cultivation school you follow, if you don't possess the correct theory and view, you can never reach the highest states of samadhi. Even if you do reach the samadhis corresponding to the lower heavens in the Desire Realm, without the correct view it's quite easy to mistakenly believe they are the very end of the path. After all, you've reached the heavenly realms, and so you might mistakenly believe there aren't any realms higher. So possessing the correct theory and view means cultivating prajna wisdom; without wisdom, this method in particular can easily turn into the road of religious superstition which would make one useless in life.
To see the correct results of cultivation practice, we need only take the great Zen masters as our role models, for they could equally serve in the role of politicians, generals, or kings in dealing with all the troublesome affairs of the world. Rather than becoming simple-minded to the world or people who cling to the emotions, they became more effective as a result of their practice, and unafraid to do what had to be done in order to set things right, teach others and lead society. Then they can bring peace to society, and have the wisdom to function in all sorts of situations.
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