Lay Buddhist Practices
The term devotion in the context of Buddhism is defined by Sri Lankan scholar Indumathie Karunaratna as "the fact or quality of being devoted to religious observances or a solemn dedication to an object or a person". It is covered in Pali language by terms such as pema (affection), saddhā (faith or belief), pasāda (serene confidence), bhatti (faith) and gārava (respect). Pema is often used in the initial attraction a student feels for his spiritual teacher; saddhā is deeper, although still considered an initial step on the spiritual path. Saddhā and gārava might inspire a layperson to ordain as a monk, whereas saddhā and pema may help a devotee to attain a good afterlife destination. Bhatti in early Buddhism has the meaning of 'faithful adherence to the [Buddhist] religion', but in later texts, the term develops the meaning of an advanced form of devotion.
Apart from these terms, the term pūjā is also used for expressions of "honour, worship and devotional attention." Pūjā is derived from the Vedic root pūj-, meaning 'to revere, to honor'. In the Theravada Pali Canon, it did not have the meaning of ritual offering yet, although it did include honoring through physical, verbal and mental ways. The term pūjā originated with Dravidian culture, in which it may have been used for a ritual or an element of ritual procedure, and these ritual connotations may have affected Buddhism at a later period.
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Although Buddhism regards inner devotion as more important than outer ritual, devotion is expressed through several practices. An important idea in Buddhist devotional practice is the idea that good qualities of mind can be developed by association with someone or something linked to high spiritual attainment. Although almost all devotional practices can be done in one's own home, it is custom to meet in the local temple on festivals and days of observance.
Monks and nuns are believed to be able to convey spiritual power by giving a blessing (Sanskrit: adiṣṭhāna, Pali: adiṭṭhāna) through chanting, a blessed object or some other means. The spiritual power of monastics is considered to come from their ordination lineage and virtue.
Merit-making and resolve
Merit is an energy that can be accumulated through merit-making practices, often performed with people who are considered to have the spiritual power to give blessings. This energy can also be directed at a goal chosen, through a resolve (Sanskrit: praṇidhāna, Pali: paṇidhāna) often made.
In many Buddhist traditions, faith is attributed an important role in the preparation process for meditation practice. Faith is often mentioned hand-in-hand with moral discipline, which practitioners require to improve their mindfulness and energy. This mindfulness and energy will then help practitioners move forward in meditation practise, culminating in wisdom and understanding.
More specifically, in the Theravāda meditation manual called the Visuddhimagga, several personality types are distinguished, among which the faith type. Each personality type requires its own approach in meditation practice: for the faith type, several recollections are recommended, such as recollection of the qualities of the Triple Gem (the Buddha, his teaching, and the Sangha), the benefits of moral discipline or giving, or reflection on the good qualities of devas (deities). Devotion to the Triple Gem was developed into several forms of meditation, known as buddhānussati, dhammānusati and saṅghānusati, respectively, in which the word anussati means 'recollection of'. In these recollections, practitioners would reflect on the attributes of the Buddha, Dhamma or Sangha following the stock formulas found in many places in the Tipiṭaka, the early Pali scriptures. The recollection was believed to lead the practitioner to joy, inner peace and concentration.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, faith-based meditations can be found in Pure Land Buddhism, in which five recollections are used to remind oneself of the goodness of Amitābha Buddha. The first three represent body, speech and mind: practitioners honour Amitābha Buddha through physical action, e.g. by prostrating; through speech, by chanting in praise of him; and by resolving to be reborn with him in the Pure Land. The fourth recollection is a series of visualizations, similar to the faith-based meditations from the Visuddhimagga and descriptions in the Pali Canon. In these visualizations, practitioners imagine Amitābha Buddha, the Pure Land, and after that, themselves being reborn there. The fifth "recollection" is the practise of skillful means to help others to achieve rebirth in the Pure Land as well. Apart from these visualizations, the chant in honor of Amitābha Buddha can also be practiced in a meditative way, silently in one's mind or through the rhythm of one's breath.
There are also devotional visualization meditations in Tantric Buddhism, as can be found in Korean and Japanese Buddhism. These practices differ from the Pure Land visualizations in that the guru is very important in the process, and a form of meditation directed towards the guru is also taught. Apart from the Triple Gem, practitioners often take refuge in their spiritual teacher, who symbolizes the Triple Gem. Furthermore, they often take refuge in a yidam, which Harvey translates from Tibetan as 'tutelary deity'. By focusing on the exemplary aspects of one's teacher, who is also visualized in meditation, one develops faith in practice. Furthermore, the practitioner needs to go through an initiation ritual, in which the guru transmits the knowledge on a particular yidam, and a mantra, visualization practice and sometimes ritual gestures that accompany that deity. Unlike Pure Land visualizations, there are many deities to choose from. The mantra is regarded to express the nature of the yidam, and the gestures are considered to evoke the appropriate states of mind. Using these practices, the devotee is believed to be guided by the yidam to transform his faults, for example anger, to a "parallel kind of wisdom" (Harvey). Moreover, devotion towards a teacher is part of a process of enhancing the mind's attention.
In Buddhism, prostration is done:
- To images of Gotama Buddha, and in Mahāyāna Buddhism also to other Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Such images originated some centuries after the historical Buddha. Devotion towards bodhisattvas is focused on their compassion, their skill and extraordinary powers. Apart from that, a devotee may bow for a stūpa or a Bodhi tree (a tree of the same type that the Buddha became enlightened under).
- To religious superiors:
- by a monk to a monk ordained earlier;
- by a nun to a nun ordained earlier;
- by a nun to a monk, regardless of date of ordination;
- By a lay person to a monk or nun, or sometimes a religious teacher of some kind;
- Laypeople may also bow to their parents or to their elders.
Prostration is done as an expression of humility and an acknowledgement of the other's spiritual experience. It is usually done three times, to pay respect to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṁgha. The prostration is done by holding the hands in front of the chest and bringing them to the lips and the forehead, to indicate paying respect by body, speech and mind, respectively. After that, one either bows with the elbows and head onto the ground, or by fully outstretching one's entire body. Apart from a threefold prostrations, prostrations may also be done continuously as a form of repentance, or as part of the ritual of circumambulating a stūpa or other holy place.
This includes offerings that are given out of respect and humility to a Buddha image or other artifact. This is often combined with chanting. Buddhists may offer flowers as a symbol of growth, or incense to remind themselves, in the words of Buddhist Studies scholar Peter Harvey, of the "odor of sanctity" of the Buddha. Candles and lights may also be offered, symbolizing the dispelling of the darkness of ignorance. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, a set of seven offerings is often given, in which the first two offerings represent hospitality, and the other five the senses. Such an offering indicates respect through one's entire being, as represented by the five senses.
Different types of chanting are used in Buddhism. A very basic form that is very important is the recitation of Three Refuges, of which every phrase is repeated three times. The anussatis can also be chanted., as well as a review of the five precepts. Protective chantings (Pali: paritta) are also widespread. Many forms of protective chanting exist in Buddhism, among which the well-known Karaṇīyamettā Sutta. Whereas some of these chants are used to ward of specific dangers, such as that during childbirth, others are considered to be beneficial in a more general sense. They are only believed to effect the life of the practitioner who recites them with a mind of faith. They are considered to bring benefits to mental health and well-being, and are a form of practice of loving-kindness, speed up the fruits of good karma, please the devas and an expression of the truth of the Buddha's teachings. In the scripture Samyuktagāma, the Buddha is portrayed teaching a verse and mantra that monks may chant to protect themselves from a snakebite. The verse is mainly about loving-kindness, compassion, and doing no harm to all beings and is given in the Chinese transcription of the Sanskrit. This episode does not occur in the counterpart Pali sutta in the Saṃyutta-Nikāya, and may have been added after the Sarvāstivāda–Vibhajjavāda split.[note 1]
In Mahāyāna Buddhism mantras and dharanis are also used, which include the Heart Sutra and the mantra Om mani padme hum. Dharanis are often summaries of teachings that function like mnemonic aids. Besides these, there are also chantings in homage to Amitabha in Pure Land Buddhism, chantings in homage to the Lotus Sutra in Nichiren Buddhism and chantings in homage of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in East Asian and Tibetan Mahāyāna Buddhism. In Nichiren Buddhism, the Lotus Sūtra is honoured through a seven-syllable mantra, the title of the sūtra, which is engraved on a plaque called the gohonzon. This plaque is the central focus of Nichiren devotion, and chanting the mantra in honour of the sūtra is considered of great benefit to the practitioner.
Chanting of Buddhist texts is the most widespread mental cultivation practise for lay people. It is believed to help overcome hindrances and negative emotions in the mind and cultivate positive ones. Buddhist chants are reflections on the good spiritual qualities of the Three Refuges or an enlightened teacher, and aspirations of spiritual perfection. In early Buddhism, recitation of texts was done mainly for its mnemonic purpose, in a time period when religious texts were not written down. Later on, after writing became widespread, recitation was still continued out of devotion and to commit the teachings to memory out of respect. Some elements of chanting in Buddhism, such as the monotonous style, still indicate its original mnemonic nature.
Although much chanting is done in ancient ritual languages such as Sankrit or Pali, chants in vernacular languages also exist. A common Pali chant is Namo tassa..., often chanted to introduce a ceremony. In many Buddhist traditions, rosaries are used during the chanting. Apart from being a tool to count the number of recitations chanted, in some traditions such as Pure Land Buddhism, the rosary is also a reminder of the Buddha Amitabha's greatness and one's own limited capacities compared to him.
Pilgrimage is an important practice in Buddhism, and according to early texts[note 2] was advocated by the Buddha himself. He suggested to go and pay respect to four places, that is, the place where he was born, the place where he had first attained enlightenment, the place where he had given his first formal teaching, and finally, the place where he had attained to paranibbāna (his physical death). Indeed, to dispel any doubt about the usefulness of such pilgrimage, the Buddha stated that he accepted in advance all gifts presented to the cetiyas, stūpas and places of pilgrimage. Such offerings and pilgrimage were therefore just as fruitful after he passed away, as when he was still alive.
Other places were later added, particularly in other countries, where pilgrimage to the original sites would be daunting. In traditional Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Tibet Bodhi trees, ancient relics and other holy places are also visited as part of pilgrimages. Sometimes, pilgrims also perform ascetic practices such as having a cold bath as part of the visits.
Buddhists might go on pilgrimage for several reasons: to gain merit, to remind themselves of the Buddha's life, to suffuse themselves with the spiritual power of the pilgrimage places and its artifacts, as a promise made to a bodhisatta in exchange for favours, to gain protection from deities that protect the pilgrimage places, or to bring harmony to their family. Furthermore, pilgrims might want to dedicate the good karma of the trip to their ill or deceased relatives. But often the pilgrimage is also done to enjoy the nature or cultural settings.
The place where a Buddhist observes devotional practices can be a simple home shrine, or at the temple. Buddhist temples often contain dormitories for monastics, who lead devotional practices at the temple. Theravāda Buddhist temples usually have an image of Gotama Buddha in the main room, perhaps combined with images of his close disciples Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana. In Mahāyāna Buddhist temples, more diversity can be found, including different heavenly Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and sometimes a series of arahant disciples (disciples that have achieved personal enlightenment). The Buddhist temple usually contains a room for meetings, meditations or preaching, and may contain a stūpa (hemispherical structure) with relics, or a Bodhi tree.
Stūpas and Buddha images may be donated by a single supporter, or by a community of devotees, motivated by merit-making motives. In most Buddhist traditions, Buddha images are regarded as more than just representations, but as actually imbued with a spiritual power connected to the Three Refuges, as reflected in consecration ceremonies and legendary accounts.
It is common in Buddhist temples to take off one's shoes. In ancient times, shoes were a status symbol and taking them off was therefore an expression of humility. It might also have been done to keep the temple grounds clean. Another custom is to put the Buddha image on the highest spot in the room.
Festivals and observance days
All Buddhist traditions have festivals. Many of these are Buddhist in origin, others are a response to pre-Buddhist cultural traditions, the agricultural year cycle or certain national deities. In many Theravāda countries, the traditional New Year is celebrated mid-year, during which certain Buddhist customs are observed. This includes ceremonies for reflection on misdeeds and resolving to do good, and release of animals. Other important festivals are Vesak, Asalha Puja, the Pavāraṇa Day and Kaṭhina. In East Asian countries, many of these festivals are also celebrated, but other festivals with pre-Buddhist origins are also held, combined with Buddhist elements. An example of this is the Ghost Festival, on which is recollected that Maudgalyāyana Sthavira dedicated good karma to his deceased mother, out of gratitude to her. This festival was a response to Confucian ideals of filial piety.
Apart from festivals, in Theravāda Buddhism, there are also observance days (Pali: uposatha) following the ancient Indian lunar calendar. Uposatha days are observed by the more strict devotees, who will go to their local temple to give food, take upon themselves the five or eight precepts, listen to teachings and meditate.
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