Buddhism: Rituals | 12
Puja, or “honour,” is a ubiquitous form of worship throughout the Buddhist world, most typically directed at images of the Buddha and the various Bodhisattvas and at the Buddha’s relics.
Although the Buddha himself explicitly stated that he was not to be worshiped, either while he was alive or after his death—and that it was the dharma that should, instead, be learned and practiced—
- puja, in fact, often looks very much like worship, sometimes involving a great outpouring of emotion and adoration, even amounting to what seems like worship of a god.
Buddhists frequently make offerings to images, typically fruit but sometimes money, as a gesture of respect, as an act of renunciation, or, in some cases, in the hopes of some favour in return, perhaps happiness or prosperity.
Such acts of devotion are often performed in temples but can also be performed in small shrines in the home.
Puja typically involves not only the making of an offering but also meditation and prayer. Frequently a Buddhist layperson will approach an image, make his or her offering, and then kneel in prayer or meditation.
These meditations sometimes involve a mental reconstruction of the Buddha’s auspicious qualities—perhaps his compassion or his profound wisdom—with the hope of cultivating those qualities oneself.
The meditation might be directed to the well-being of others, one’s family members in particular, or one’s ancestors.
These are often individual acts of quiet and contemplative devotion, but in some settings they can also be congregational as well.
Likewise, such devotion sometimes is quite physical in nature:
In Tibet, for instance, Buddhist laypeople will frequently circumambulate a stupa, turning smaller prayer wheels as they do (symbolically turning the Wheel of the Dharma), a ritual act that is also sometimes performed by making a series of bodily prostrations.
Increasingly, laypeople are also becoming involved in formal meditation, traditionally the province of monks only. In Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Śrī Lanka, for instance, lay meditation classes are held at monasteries and temples.
Buddhist weddings are a relatively recent phenomenon, largely developed as a result of colonial exclusion of those who were not formally married. In some instances monks officiate at such events, although this is unusual.
Funerals, though, quite often involve monks, who recite sacred texts, offer prayers for the dead intended to ensure their speedy and auspicious rebirth,
and in some cases chant special “protective” verses intended to ward off potentially evil spirits associated with incomplete karmic transference from one birth to the next.
The first places of pilgrimage in Buddhism were associated with the Buddha’s relics. The Buddha said his followers could go to these places and feel great joy and tranquillity.
Furthermore, the Buddha explicitly stated that even those who died on the journey to such a place would experience the same mental and physical benefits as those who reached their destination.
As Buddhism spread throughout India and the rest of Asia, new pilgrimage places emerged, some directly associated with the Buddha’s relics or with important events in his life and others more local in significance.
The physical act of pilgrimage became, by extension, analogous to the inner journey that one “on the path” was to make.
As such, pilgrimage is a kind of renunciation in microcosm, a departure from—and symbolic renunciation of—the mundane and domestic world in pursuit of a higher religious goal.
Pilgrims, like monks, frequently dress in simple, distinctive clothes; they take vows of chastity and abstain from any karmically harmful acts; they meditate and study.
Certainly the pilgrim, unlike the monk, eventually returns to normal life, but the ideal is that he or she returns changed by the experience and shares this change with those who did not make the journey.
Rites of Passage
The most basic rite of passage in Buddhism is the Taking Refuge in the Three Jewells (also known as the Triple Gem):
“I go for refuge to the Buddha,
I go for refuge to the Dharma,
I go for refuge to the Sangha.”
This is a ritual recitation of the intent to live as a Buddhist, to embody the Dharma, and to seek guidance from the Dharma, and, as such, it is a kind of minimal condition for becoming a Buddhist.
For the monk, this simple ritual is the first step in a far more elaborate rite of passage:
formal ordination into the Sangha.
The first step in this elaborate process is severing one’s ties with domestic life, a ritual renunciation that is usually called “leaving home for homelessness.”
It is followed by a series of vows,
particularly the vow to follow the code of monastic discipline, the Vinaya.
For lay Buddhists other significant rites of passage are birth; marriage, which in many Buddhist countries is frequently marked by the taking of specifically Buddhist vows; and death, which marks not only the end of this life but the transition to the next rebirth.