Borrowing from Brahmanic religion, which taught that the universe had been created and destroyed over and over again throughout vast periods of time, early Buddhists believed that time flowed in immense cycles. Later Buddhism expanded this vision to include multiple universes, each with its own Buddha, and each universe subject to immense cycles of creation and destruction. Unless enlightened, one would be reborn again and again throughout all of these cycles.
This was samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth, and the ultimate goal of early Buddhism was to escape from samsara. The escape, called nirvana, was very different from an experience of sacred time such as one might expect in an ecstatic experience or shamanic journey. To attain nirvana was to extinguish any sense of self or individual experience; hence there was no sentient being remaining to experience a sacred time beyond ordinary time. There are two senses of nirvana: a this-worldly state when all attachments have been eliminated, and the non-state that occurs after death, when rebirth ceases.
The Buddha taught that those who occupied heavenly realms still existed in samsara, and even the gods were subject to rebirth. Even those human beings who were reborn in a Pure Land, although they were saved from future rebirths, were not free from samsara.
By the 2nd century C.E., Buddhist scholars had begun to use the Buddha's teachings about impermanence to deconstruct the doctrine of samsara. Mahayana sutras composed at around the same time revealed new teachings, purported to be from the Buddha, about a concept called shunyata, or "emptiness." In the Heart Sutra, for example, the Buddha was quoted as saying that when the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara realized that the five skandhas were all "empty," he "passed beyond suffering and difficulty." In other words, by understanding emptiness, he escaped samsara, just as the Buddha had done when he became enlightened.
This escape from samsara was very different, however, from that imagined by the early Buddhists. "There is no attainment whatsoever, because there is nothing to be attained," the Heart Sutra continued. "There is no ignorance and no ending of ignorance . . . no old age and death, no ending of old age and death." In just a few hundred words, the Heart Sutra deconstructed both the cycle of dependent arising and the path of the arhat seeking liberation from death and rebirth through the extinction of self.
The problem that led to this deconstruction was this: How did the Buddha continue to exist on earth and live the life of a human being after he was enlightened? Many solutions were offered to this problem. The basis of the Heart Sutra's solution was the concept of emptiness. This emptiness is not the equivalent of an absence of substance. Rather, everything is empty because nothing that exists has an "inherent nature" independent of other forms of existence.
One way to understand this is to think of a balloon. Before you blow it up, it is a piece of flexible material that can be stretched this way and that. Put some air in it and it becomes much larger, but it seems lighter; it almost seems to float as you bounce it around in the air. If you fill it with helium and do not tether it, it will indeed float away. Now prick the balloon with a sharp object and a loud sound will occur, while instantly the balloon takes on yet another form — usually multiple small, flat pieces that are similar in texture and flexibility to the first form, but with a different shape.
The "form" of the balloon was not a permanent, unchanging "form." In a matter of seconds, its form was changed several times. Placing "emptiness" into the balloon caused it to change "form," and removing the "emptiness" resulted in a different "form." The "emptiness" was not void of substance; it was composed of a substance that is not visible to the human eye.
Mountains are far more permanent than balloons and far more solid, but if you take a tiny piece of rock from a mountain and place it under a super high level of magnification, you will see that there is a lot of "empty" space inside it. Everything that exists is "empty" in this sense, and everything that exists also has "form." Within every form is emptiness, and within all emptiness, form.
If "form is emptiness, emptiness is form," as the Heart Sutra said, then, as the great 2nd- century scholar Nagarjuna argued, the categories of existence and non-existence are not meaningful. Furthermore, any boundary or differentiation between nirvana and samsara must be illusory. There is nothing to escape from, and no place to go.
These developments shifted the focus of Buddhism away from escape from the endless time that is samsara, but neither the Heart Sutra nor Nagarjuna produced a concept of sacred time. The Garland Sutras, written over the course of the next several centuries, developed the emptiness argument further by stating that if nothing exists independently of anything else, then all things must be interrelated. Everything that exists must be connected to everything else, in one unified whole. Everything is one.
Because everything is one, these sutras argued, enlightenment is accessible through immediate experience; but the imagery of the Garland Sutras, in describing the experience of this whole, was still of an "other" realm outside of ordinary experience: the Dharma Realm. It was not until Chinese Chan (in Japanese, Zen) Buddhism that the argument that enlightenment exists in the here and now was fully developed. According to Chan, nirvana is within ordinary existence. In a sense, then, all time is sacred time, because to fully experience the present moment is to experience enlightenment.
The journey of Buddhism from the concept of escape from time — from the endless cycle of death and rebirth — to the concept of enlightenment in the present moment was long and complex, and took place over hundreds of centuries of Buddhist thought and practice. In this process, sacred time was transformed from something that was beyond any experience to a characteristic of everyday life, at least for those who are able to experience the true nature of reality.
The earliest example of sacred space in Buddhism is the stupa. Early accounts indicate that the Buddha's cremated remains were first placed under a mound at a crossroads, and then removed and divided among a number of Buddhist groups (some sources say eight, some say eleven, some say twelve), each of which enshrined their portion of the relics in a stupa. According to legend, the great king Ashoka later divided these remains and distributed them to 84,000 stupas throughout his realm and beyond.
In the first centuries of Buddhist presence in South and Southeast Asia, monuments were also built to mark important moments in the Buddha's life such as his place of birth or the location of his first sermon. Ashoka started the practice of making pilgrimage to these sites, a practice that was taken up by many of the faithful. With time, large temple complexes grew up around these stupas.
Later, stupas were also built to house the remains of famous monks, sometimes containing their cremated remains, and on rare occasions, the entire mummified body of a monk who had died while deep in meditation. Stupas were believed to radiate the presence of the person whose remains were enshrined there, as the enlightened mind was believed to continue even after the body was gone.
Eventually the stupa itself was regarded as a manifestation of the sacred, and many different types of objects were placed within them. As Buddhism expanded in South and Southeast Asia, temple complexes grew up around some of these stupas. Elaborate stone railings were built around the stupas, upon which moments in the life of the Buddha and the Jataka tales were carved. To walk around these railings was to recreate the experience of these events, almost as if one were actually there. While the Buddha himself was no longer physically present, he was kept alive for the faithful in these sacred places.
The Great Temple at Borobudur, in Java, Indonesia, is in essence an enormous stupa that represents the cosmos. Built sometime during the 8th or 9th centuries C.E., the temple was lost for centuries, but was rediscovered in the 18th century. The base of the Great Temple is a pyramid shape, within which are five concentric square terraces. Above the base is a cone-shaped core surrounded by three circular platforms, around which are seventy-two openwork stupas, each containing a statue of the Buddha. The entire building is topped by another, larger stupa. Pilgrims circumambulate the many levels of the temple at Borobudur as an act of devotion. All along the way they encounter statues of the Buddha and stone carvings representing the stories of Buddha's past lives from the Jataka tales, as well as reliefs that depict the operations of cause and effect. Thus a journey around Borobudur was an experience of the life and teachings of the Buddha.
In time, small, portable stupas were also created as objects of veneration or meditation. One form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation involves building a small multi-layered stupa out of sand, rock, and small metal platforms, holding the stupa in one hand while adding to it with the other. If during the process one's stupa falls apart, one must begin again at the beginning. Japanese Buddhists once used a stupa form that they call gorinto, with one layer for each of the five elements, to create grave markers for important figures.
Another kind of sacred space in Buddhism is the mountain. There are legendary mountains such as Mount Meru, believed to be the abode of the gods, and Vulture Peak, where the Buddha was said to have preached the Lotus Sutra, and where, according to the sutra, the Buddha still resides and teaches. There are also physical mountains that have become the loci of monasteries, hermit dwellings, and shrines, and are often visited by lay Buddhists. These mountains are a meeting place between heaven and earth, and those who climb them or live upon them are believed to have access to the sacred.
Buddhist monasteries and temples throughout Asia also contain sacred spaces. That is not to say that every area within a temple complex is sacred; one might run across a flea market or a snack stand within, but there are many spaces inside that have an aura of sanctity. These might include meditation areas for monks, buildings that house statues of deities, ritual spaces, rooms in which tablets commemorating the deceased are kept, and cemeteries.
There are many characteristics that contribute to the aura of sacredness that permeates the temple complex. The architecture of the buildings is often inspiring, with brilliantly decorated ceilings, passageways, and rooftops. Most temples have at least one multi-storied pagoda with rooftop upon rooftop vaulting upward into the sky. One will see statues of deities and religious paintings in many of the buildings. Historic temples may also contain museums where one can see scrolls, paintings, statues, and ritual implements, some over a thousand years old. The temple grounds are beautifully kept and may include flower or rock gardens, small lakes, mossy forests, or stately old trees.
One of the fascinating things about Buddhist temple complexes is the number of activities that may be occurring simultaneously, some religious and some secular. One can see drifting incense and hear the sound of chanting emerging from one building, and enter another to see a statue that may be over a thousand years old. Outside one may see a group of school children on a field trip, or encounter a young couple in love on a date. There may be a souvenir stand where one can purchase good luck talismans, and another small building where a Buddhist monk will tell your fortune for a small fee. The temple complex provides a total aesthetic experience that conveys mystery, joy, playfulness, hope, solemnity, and beauty.
The rituals and ceremonies of Buddhism vary from country to country, and from area to area within a country. The Chinese monk Xuanzang, who visited India in the 7th century C.E., recounted that different Buddhist sects already had quite different ritual calendars, and even celebrated events in the Buddha's life, such as his birthday, on dates that were months apart.
In many Buddhist countries, the ritual calendar includes events that are celebrated in conjunction with other religions and/or national traditions. For example, the New Year is the biggest holiday of the year in many Asian countries, and activities last for a week or more. Traditions are followed, some specifically related to Buddhism, and others not, including a through housecleaning and settling of debts. Special foods are prepared, and some Buddhist temples will offer food to their constituents. In China it is customary for people to travel to visit their families for the holiday. On New Year's Eve in Japan, at midnight, Buddhist temples ring the temple bell 108 times; at the larger temples, huge crowds of people will attend this event.
The Buddha's birthday is the most widely observed Buddhist holiday, but it is celebrated on different days, with different rituals, in different countries. At some temples there will be a statue of the Buddha over which visiting devotees can pour water or a special tea. Some temples will offer a free vegetarian meal to all visitors. Buddhists may make charitable donations on this day, or they may purchase animals from slaughterhouses, release them, and provide for their welfare. In South Korea, Buddhist temples hang hundreds of paper lanterns, including some shaped like lotus flowers, throughout the temple grounds and connecting every building. Lay people make a small offering, in exchange for which the monks will write the names of the family on a merit certificate, which is then attached to a lantern. That evening, each family will seek out the lantern with their family's certificate attached, place a candle inside, and light it, and monks and lay people alike will stroll around enjoying the beauty of the brightly lit lanterns.
Some Buddhist countries celebrate the day of the Buddha's death and entry into nirvana, others celebrate the day of his enlightenment, and still others celebrate the day of his first sermon. Some Buddhist countries celebrate Sangha Day, which commemorates a day in the life of the historical Buddha when monks gathered to honor him. On this day, people bring food and gifts to the local temple. There may be days honoring other Buddhas or bodhisattvas, or significant Buddhists in the country's history; or there may be holidays commemorating special days in the history of Buddhism in a particular country, such as the Sri Lankan celebration of the coming of Ashoka's son Mahinda.
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.
All Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the sangha (the Buddhism community). The "three refuges" may be repeated silently or as a part of a ritual refrain that is a part of many ceremonies.
The specifics of daily life for Buddhists vary considerably, depending on the country, the sect, and the individual. For the most part, monks still follow the strict rules of the vinaya as laid down by the early Buddhists many centuries ago. They vow not to lie, steal, kill, use intoxicants, or engage in sexual activity (with the exception of Japanese and some Korean monks, who may marry). Four actions will result in expulsion from the monastery: murder, stealing, sexual intercourse, and lying about spiritual attainments. Other infractions require some kind of punishment, and also must be confessed to the assembled monks (within those monasteries where the fortnightly assemblies are still held).
In addition, monks take hundreds of other vows that regulate many of the activities of daily life. They must behave with decorum at all times, and always respect their superiors. The specifics of meditation practices vary from place to place, but most temple complexes have periods of intensive meditation at prescribed times during the year. There is also usually some form of on-going scholarly study, particularly for apprentice monks.
Monks take on a variety of roles within the monasteries. They conduct religious practices, both internal and for the benefit of the laity, and, with the help of lay volunteers, monks take care of every aspect of running these complex facilities. Monasteries and temples may also serve as educational institutions, which may range from kindergarten to university. At many local temples, together with community members, monks also organize festivals, some of which may require as long as a year to prepare.
Some rituals are held at prescribed times based on the ritual calendar. Others are performed by request, either at the temple or in the individual's home. These vary from country to country, but may include blessing children, providing amulets for specific kinds of good fortune such as succeeding on exams or becoming pregnant, or determining the most auspicious dates for weddings or for beginning home construction. In Theravada countries, a daily ritual, called the Buddha puja, calls for monks to place offerings of food, drink, incense, and/or flowers on the altar before a Buddha image, accompanied by a brief recitation. In Mahayana countries, some temples participate in a similar ritual.
One of the major functions of Buddhist monks is to conduct rituals for the dead. In some countries, this includes both funeral rites and subsequent rituals at prescribed intervals after death to insure the well-being and spiritual advancement of the deceased in the afterlife.
Lay involvement in Buddhist institutions varies from person to person. A few will volunteer daily, some will make regular visits, but most will visit only on special holidays. In most Buddhist countries, a person may go and worship at the temple at any time; a monk's presence is not required. One might go to visit the statue of a particular deity to pray about a problem, burn incense, and leave a small offering. In addition, there are often tiny shrines located in neighborhoods and shopping districts where people will also stop to pray and leave offerings. Lay members of some Buddhist sects chant or copy scriptures as an act of devotion.
A common practice for lay Buddhists is the vow. A lay follower may choose to vow not to kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, use intoxicants, or lie about spiritual attainments. Maintaining a vow generates merit, and breaking a vow makes the misdeed worse than if one had not vowed not to commit such an act. People may also make vows pertaining to a specific situation. For instance, one might ask Guanyin to heal a relative from illness, and vow that if the relative recovers one will complete a pilgrimage to one of the sacred mountains, or visit a particular temple daily for a year.
Many families in Japan keep a butsudan in the home. This is an altar that holds photographs and tablets with the Buddhist names of deceased family members, and usually also contain Buddhist statues and other ritual objects. Someone, usually an older member of the household, may place offerings of food or drink on the altar, and pray or chant before the butsudan daily on behalf of the deceased.
In some countries, members of the lay community may be ordained as monks for limited periods of time. In parts of Southeast Asia it is common for young men to be ordained for periods ranging from a few months to a few years, and then go on to become householders. This serves as a rite of passage from youth to adulthood, and also brings merit to the young man's family. Former monks are also respected within the community, and they may become community leaders.
Daily life for the Buddhist laity is quite different from the life of Buddhist monks, but the two groups exist in a symbiotic relationship in which each depends upon the other. It is the work of the monks to focus on spiritual pursuits, and in the process they create a "field of merit" that produces karmic "fruit" for the lay person who offers gifts to the monks. The laity thus improves their chances for a more desirable future rebirth, and also for a happy life in this lifetime. The laity benefits from and adds to this store of merit by supporting the monks and monasteries with food, clothing, shelter, and more. Thus the primary obligation of the Buddhist lay person is to give to the monks. The monks, in exchange, provide spiritual sustenance and benefits in this life and beyond.
Among the earliest Buddhist symbols are footprints of the Buddha carved or molded in stone or clay. Sometimes a pair, sometimes a single footprint, the prints have toes of equal length, and there is often a dharma wheel in the center. Other symbols may appear on the bottom of the footprints as well. Sometimes these footprints are a normal size; other times they are huge. In statues of the reclining Buddha, which represent the Buddha's dying moments, the soles of the feet are often covered with symbols.
Another very early Buddhist symbol is the dharmacakra, or dharma wheel. Composed of eight spokes attached to a center hub and united by an outer rim, the dharma wheel symbolizes the "turning of the wheel of the law" that occurred when the Buddha preached his first sermon. This turning of the wheel of the law occurs when a world-transforming doctrine is introduced. Different Buddhist sects have different notions about other times when the wheel of the law was turned, and even Buddhist rulers were sometimes known as cakravartin-raja, or wheel turners. The spokes of the dharmacakra also symbolize the Eightfold Path.
The early texts stated that the Buddha had thirty-two distinctive body characteristics that indicated that he was a a chakravartin, a great person. These include a round knot on top of his head, evenly spaced white teeth, a long thick tongue, golden skin, very blue eyes, black hair that grows in clockwise curls, and a penis in a sheath like that of a horse. Some of these characteristics can be seen in statues and paintings of the Buddha.
The Buddha was also symbolized as a lion, due to his former status as heir to a throne, and by a stylized pipal ficus, indicating his enlightenment under such a tree.
Stupas are another symbol of the Buddha. Some were believed to contain some tiny bit of the cremated remains of the Buddha. Some, which commemorated important moments in his life, became physical locations where one could still experience his presence. Later, stupas took on additional layers of symbolic meaning; with time they took on a characteristic shape, which has been interpreted in various ways. Some say that the shape represents the Buddha sitting in the posture of meditation. Another interpretation is that the base represents the sangha, the dome stands for the dharma, the cone on top represents the Buddha, and the spire above stands for nirvana.
One popular interpretation is that the shape of the stupa symbolizes the five elements: the base represents earth, the dome or sphere represents water, the spire stands for fire, above the spire is wind, and at the very top, the jewel represents space, or the void. These elements also represent, respectively, equanimity, indestructibility, compassion, accomplishment, and all-pervading awareness. Thus the stupa can be seen as a kind of a mandala that embodies the mind of enlightenment.
Other important early Buddhist symbols include: representations of the three jewels (the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha); deer, because the Buddha preached his first sermon in a deer park; and the swastika, a symbol unfortunately co-opted by Hitler. In Asia, where the swastika is a familiar sight with well-established meanings dating back thousands of years, it does not carry the negative connotations that it does in the west. The word "swastika" is Sanskrit; in India the symbol means, among other things, good fortune. As a Buddhist symbol, the swastika has a variety of meanings; most commonly it is a symbol of the dharma. It is sometimes found on statues of the Buddha, often on the soles of his feet or on his chest. It is also used in Asia simply to indicate the presence of a statue of the Buddha or a Buddhist temple.
As Buddhism moved into new lands, new symbols developed, becoming so numerous that only a few can be mentioned here. The distinctive vajra, or thunderbolt, is synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism and can be seen in many settings, including on sand mandalas and on ritual implements used in meditation. Throughout the Buddhist world, in Tibet and China particularly, one frequently sees a group of symbols known collectively as the "eight auspicious signs." These include a conch shell, a lotus, a wheel, a parasol, an endless knot, a pair of golden fishes, a victory banner, and a treasure vase. These may be seen in almost any conceivable venue, sacred or secular — carved into furniture or metalwork, woven into carpets and fabric, or painted onto walls or pottery. Sanskrit letters are also often used as symbols, especially in esoteric Buddhism.
The many statues and paintings of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other divinities are replete with symbolism. Each is portrayed in a distinctive posture, with hands displaying a different mudra, or hand position, which can signify anything from a particular form of sacred energy, to a particular aspect of the Buddha's teachings, a particular moment in his life, or a particular power possessed by a bodhisattva. Each of the numerous figures in the Buddhist pantheon are portrayed with characteristic implements, such as a begging bowl of healing liquid and a medicinal plant for the Medicine Buddha; or a flaming aura, sword, and rope for the Japanese deity Fudo Myoo. Particularly striking is the thousand-armed Guanyin, which carries a different symbolic object in each of its hands.
The mandala is another important Buddhist symbol. The mandala is an object of meditation and a representation of sacred realms that takes many forms, from the Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings and elaborate thangka paintings to the esoteric mandala paintings of Japan.
Monks' robes are also highly symbolic. While their design differs markedly from place to place and sect to sect, each design is believed to be sanctioned by the Buddha, and each has layers of symbolic meaning. The robe itself is considered sacred, regardless of the nature of the individual who wears it, and hellish punishments may be incurred by those who desecrate the robes or who act improperly while wearing them.
While each individual Buddhist group employs particular symbols that are especially meaningful to them, all the symbols are at least recognizable to Buddhists everywhere. Buddhist symbolism communicates the teachings of Buddhism in a highly complex, visually expressed language that unites the many different Buddhist groups around the world.