Rituals and Worship

Worship and Devotion in Daily Life

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.

Study Questions:
1.     What is daily life like for a Buddhist monk?
2.     How do monks cultivate Buddhism within an individual? Is their presence always necessary?
3.     Why is the merit associated with Buddhist vows desirable?

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