Rituals and Customs

Buddhist monks and nuns generally get involved only marginally in the major rites (birth, marriage, and death), except for death. A monk would attend celebrations of birth and weddings or the bride andgroom might visit the monastery and present gifts to the monk; in turn, the monk might offer a sermon. Marriage rituals are sometimes performed in the West today, but this is a new development.

Death in the Buddhist community, and in the Tibetan Buddhist community in particular, has been described as the science of dying — the rituals and beliefs around death are important and complex. A full account of these rituals and beliefs is available in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Pilgrimages form an important part of Buddhist ritual. Hundreds of sites draw pilgrims, who often come a very long way to reach a specific destination. While some of the sites might seem esoteric, many are shared by other religions such as Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Some locations are obvious, for instance, the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini Grove; Bodh Gaya, where he found enlightenment; Sarnath, where he preached his first sermon on the Four Noble Truths; and Kusinara, where he died.

The places, dates, and nature of Buddhist festivals are many and various. The important times in the life of the Buddha are obvious events to be celebrated. It’s sufficient to say that a Buddhist festival is a colorful event with temple fairs and visits, alms giving and offerings at shrines, puppet shows, and theatrical and musical events.


Worship and Practices

In countries where Buddhism is the majority religion, devotion to the Buddhist life is a natural part of it: diet; the job, trade, or profession chosen; daily meditation; and giving offerings at shrines,temples, and/or monasteries.

Like other religions, Buddhism has a collection of its own practices; two of these are deeply rooted in the Buddhist history. The first one is the veneration of the Buddha. Most Buddhists recognize the existence of many Buddhas, depending upon which Buddhist sect they belong to, the part of the country they live in, and maybe even how their family was brought up. When they go to the temple, they will make their devotions to any number of Buddhas. The devotions will be carried out in the shrine room; many adherents also have a shrine room in their homes. In carrying out a devotion, the person stands before a holy image — art that shows, perhaps, the Buddha sitting in the lotus position (a yoga meditation position with the legs crossed) with his outstretched arm touching the earth, signifying his enlightenment — then the adherent would recite the three refuges:

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the dharma.
I take refuge in the sangha.

After saying the devotions, the adherent usually bows three times before the holy image in respect to the three refuges, which are also known as the Three Jewels. Chanting may be done and offerings made.

The second basic practice is the exchange that takes place between monks and the laity. Buddhists have always stressed involvement in the community, and an understanding of the relationship between the monks and nuns and the lay segments of the community has developed.


An assembly of monks, for instance in a monastery, is called by a generic name, sangha, which dates to the origins of Buddhism. Ordination as a Buddhist monk requires accepting and keeping certain monastic rules, including the Three Jewels and the Five Precepts that prohibit drinking, lying, stealing, harming a living being, and what some call misuse of the senses.

Most people know the common image of a Buddhist monk — the shaven head, robe, and look of serenity and pleasure. A monk will own nothing except the robe on his back and his alms bowl. Originally, the life of a monk was one of poverty and begging; today, most of these practices have become symbolic. Nevertheless, the life of a monk is still one of strict adherence to the monastic rules.

A new monk has to accept the Five Precepts as absolute rules. Other rules are contained in the Vinaya Texts, and depending on the school, number between 227 and 253 rules. The first part of the texts has the four gravest rules — the prohibition of sexual intercourse, theft, murder, and exaggeration of one‘s miraculous powers. A monk who breaks one of these rules may be expelled from the monastery.

Every two weeks the monks assemble and recite all the rules. They pause after each one so that any monk who has transgressed may confess and receive his punishment. Other rules deal with transgressions of a lesser nature.

Most Buddhist schools still stress celibacy, although some groups, particularly in Tibet and Japan, have relaxed this discipline. In other areas, young men can join a monastery for a short time, but do not have to vow to remain celibate for the rest of their lives.


Meditation, which has carved out a secular place for itself in the Western world, has been part of the practice of many Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, for centuries. Meditation can open the door to subtle perceptions, which can change conviction and character, and the daily practice of meditation nourishes the roots of the personality. According to medical literature, meditation calms the emotions, strengthens the nerves, and even lowers blood pressure. However, wonderful though that might be for health, it is not the prime reason a Buddhist practices meditation.

Because the Buddha reached his enlightenment through meditation, the practice is the most important aspect of Buddhism. The Sanskrit word, “samadhi,” recognized in both Hinduism and Buddhism, means “total self-collectedness.” It is the highest state of mental concentration that a person can achieve while still bound to the body. It is a state of profound, utter absorption, undisturbed by desire, anger, or any ego-generated emotion. Samadhi is an absolute necessity for attaining release from the cycle of rebirth.


Zen is one of the oldest traditional schools of Buddhism in Japan. It originated in China, where it’s referred to as Ch’an Buddhism. Zen teaches that the potential to achieve enlightenment is in everyone, but lies dormant because of ignorance. This potential can be awakened by breaking through the boundaries of logical thought. A person must try to understand that words are only the surface of things and learn to get beyond words alone in order to understand the meaning of existence.

The most famous koan is the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This riddle is not solvable using conceptual, rational thought. The purpose of this and other koans is to block reasons and permit a direct realization of reality.
Zen monks spend endless time, more than most people could handle, meditating on a phrase called a koan. A koan is a special kind of problem or paradoxical statement used as a meditation discipline. The effort to solve a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egotistic will.


The Buddhist Moral Code

There are moral precepts for the Buddhist code of living. Vegetarianism is not one of them; monks are permitted to eat meat. Lay Buddhists are expected to support the monks with food, clothing, and othernecessities. Moreover, it is imperative that they obey a moral code consisting of five negative rules. The prohibitions include no killing, stealing, lying, engaging in improper sexual conduct, and partaking of intoxicants.

The Pali Sermons describe the conduct monks are to follow:

And How, O king, is a monk accomplished in morality?

Herein a monk abandons the killing of living things and refrains from killing; laying aside the use of a stick or a knife he dwells modestly, full of kindness, and compassionate for the welfare of all living things. This is his behavior in morality.

Abandoning the taking of what is not given he refrains from the taking of what is not given, he takes and expects only what is given, he dwells purely and without stealing.

Abandoning incontinence he practices continence and lives apart, avoiding the village practice of sexual intercourse. Abandoning false-hood he refrains from falsehood, he speaks truth, he is truthful, trust-worthy, and reliable, not deceiving people.

Abandoning slanderous speech he refrains from slanderous speech; what he has heard from one place he does not tell in another to cause dissension. He is even a healer of dissensions and a producer of union, delighting and rejoicing in concord,eager for concord, and an utterer of speech that produces concord.

Abandoning harsh speech he refrains from harsh speech; the speech that is harmless, pleasant to the ear, kind, reaching the heart, urbane, amiable, and attractive to the multitude, that kind of speech does he utter.

Abandoning frivolous speech he refrains from frivolous speech; he speaks of the good, the real, the profitable, of the doctrine and the discipline; he is an utterer of speech worth hoarding, with timely speech and purpose and meaning.

He refrains from injuring seeds and plants.

He eats only within one meal time, abstaining from food at night and avoiding untimely food.

He refrains from seeing, dancing, singing, music, and shows.

He refrains from the use of garlands, scents, unguents, and objects of adornment; from a high or large bed; from accepting gold and silver; from accepting raw grain and raw meat.

He refrains from accepting women, girls, male and female slaves, goats and rams, fowls and pigs, elephants, oxen, horses, mares and farm-lands.

He refrains from going on messages and errands; from buying and selling; from cheating in weighing, false metal in measuring; from practices or cheating, trickery, deception, fraud, from cutting, killing, binding, robbery, pillage, and violence.

Buddha died at the age of eighty. Legend says that his final words were, “Subject to decay are all component things. Strive earnestly to work out your own salvation.”


Nirvana and Karma

As the Buddhists use it, the term karma applies to the many worlds that have passed away and the many more that are yet to come. They believe in the law of cause and effect: Positive actions build up merit;negative ones detract. Buddhists try to live the good life and believe that good karma causes a person to be reborn in a form that is more enlightened and, therefore, allows for greater progress toward the ultimate goal. According to Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to be released from the law of karma altogether — to attain nirvana.

There is considerable confusion over what “nirvana” means. Nirvana means “to extinguish.” It represents perfect bliss. Followers of Buddha who achieve nirvana are said to have extinguished or conquered their desires. This means that they can avoid the cycle of rebirth.

Nirvana, or ridding yourself of the delusion of ego or freeing yourself the claims of the mundane world is the aim of a Buddhist’s religious practice. Compare this to the approach of Hinduism, where the goal is to achieve the atman/Brahman identity. Buddhists teach the concept of anatman, no self. For them, all that exists is the Brahman, the universal soul, and understanding the Brahman brings enlightenment. Those who successfully achieve enlightenment overcome the round of rebirths, thus achieving the final goal.


The teachings of the Buddha were first transmitted orally from one monk or nun to another. They were eventually written down on palm leaf manuscripts in Sri Lanka to create the Dhammapada. Written in Pali, the Indian dialect that the Buddha spoke, and known as the Pali canon, it records the conversations of the Buddha. The book is a wonderful spiritual testimony, one of the very few religious masterpieces in the world. It has been used in Sri Lanka for centuries as a manual for novices; it is said that every monk can recite it from memory. It is also popular in both Theravada and Mahayana traditions, which will be discussed later.

Other written works also contain records of conversations the Buddha had when he was teaching. Three such works were gathered into a Tripitaka or “Three Baskets,” so called because the palm-leaf manuscripts were kept in three woven baskets. The Three Baskets are: Sutta Pitaka, the basket of discourse, attributed to the Buddha; Vinaya Pitaka, the basket of discipline, containing the regulations for monastic life; and Abhidhamma Pitaka, the basket of special doctrine, containing what might be called further knowledge (not entirely attributed to the Buddha, but highly venerated).


Central Beliefs

Siddhartha did not attain wisdom right away. He had tried asceticism with other monks and found that extreme self-denial did not contribute to spiritual growth. One day he mediated beneath a fig tree andwas enlightened. Henceforth, he was Buddha, “the enlightened one.”

Buddha is not a proper noun but a title. In Buddhist tradition, there have been many Buddhas in the past, as there will be many in the future. When the term “the Buddha” is used today, it’s assumed to mean Buddha Gautama, the Buddha of the present era.

The content of his meditation that day became the very essence of his doctrine. He mediated on the endless cycle of birth and death mankind is subject to. People are trapped in this cycle because they have desires (tanha). Desire is manifest in thirst or craving which, since it is unfulfilled, always results in suffering. It was true in his own life that he only found enlightenment when he ceased to desire it.

In the city of Benares, he gave his first sermon. Five friends who had deserted him when he rejected their ascetic life now listened to him. He preached about how two opposite extremes — self-mortification and indulgence — were both unacceptable ways of life. The middle way (madhyamika) was the proper path to enlightenment. The friends embraced his teaching and together they formed the first sangha or order of monks.

Monks who followed the Buddha were known by their yellow robes and shaved heads. Their only possession was a bowl, which they used for begging food. They embraced a three-part creed: “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma (law); and I take refuge in the sangha” (the community of Buddhist monks).

Having achieved his enlightenment or, the same, Buddhahood, at the age of thirty-five, the rest of his life was now clearly laid out before him. His band of disciples evolved in numbers and included women who formed an order of nuns. This was a major difference: Contrary to the orthodoxies of Jainism and Hinduism, Buddhism taught that women, too, could experience enlightenment.


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