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Religion Library: Buddhism

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Julia Hardy

Buddhism is tied to life cycle events in some countries. For example, in Thailand, most young men will become monks for a period of time before marriage, as a part of their coming of age into manhood.

In East Asia in particular, people typically turn to Buddhist priests for funeral rites. In China and Japan, at specific intervals after the individual's death, people will often visit a temple to burn paper money and paper replicas of goods in order to provide a better afterlife for deceased family members. Though the names and customs differ, most Buddhist countries also have a holiday commemorating the deceased, during which spirits of the dead are believed to return to the world of the living. These spirits will be given food and other gifts before they are ritually returned to their proper abode.

Many Asian countries have some form of Buddhist pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time of the pilgrim's choosing. Among the many pilgrimage sites in China is Putuo Shan, an island on the east coast of China devoted to temples honoring Guanyin. Other popular Chinese pilgrimage sites are Buddhist sacred mountains, each of which is believed to be the abode of a bodhisattva. Japan has a number of popular pilgrimages, such as the pilgrimage to the thirty-three temples of Kannon (Japanese for Guanyin). Families or retirees may visit one of these temples on a weekend over the course of several years, collecting special hand-drawn seals from each temple. Bus companies sometimes provide special buses for these temple visits.

Another famous Japanese pilgrimage is to the eighty-eight temples on the island of Shikoku. Some today travel by bus and may visit just a few temples as a social outing with religious overtones. To make the full pilgrimage takes about a year, and it will be normally be undertaken only by those with a deep personal or spiritual need. Some of the Shikoku pilgrims claim to have encountered the Buddhist monk Kukai along the way. Kukai was the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect. He is said to have walked this route in his lifetime, founding temples and creating wells and reservoirs to provide fresh water for villagers along the way.

Festivals are a hugely popular tradition in Asia. There is textual and artistic evidence supporting the fact that large festivals were being held at stupas within a few centuries after the Buddha's death. The area would be decorated with flags and bright lights, the air would be filled with music and chanting, throngs of people would crowd into the area, and the atmosphere was joyous and friendly.

Today religious festivals are held throughout Asia. In some cases today, a festival may commemorate a historical moment, in others a religious one, and in many cases, representatives of several religions will be involved in preparing for and celebrating a festival. Often festivals are popular in particular regions, such as the Nebuta Matsuri in the Tohoku region of Japan, where locals may spend an entire year creating elaborate, lighted floats representing important moments in history or legend, Buddhist deities, or advertising a product. People gather along the route of the procession to cheer and shout along with the participants. This celebratory atmosphere remains an essential element of the festivals.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the role of tradition in ceremony?
2.     How is the Buddha's birthday celebrated?
3.     Is pilgrimage a sacred rite within Buddhism? Why or why not?