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Buddhist places of worship

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Many religions worship a god or gods. Buddhists do not worship the Buddha as a god, instead choosing to show deep reverence for him and his teachings through study, meditation and prayer.

Worship involves religious acts of praise, honour and devotion, usually directed towards a deity or another figure worthy of this degree of respect. Most Buddhists do not believe in God.

Although they respect and look up to the Buddha, they do not believe he was a god but they worship him as a form of respect. By doing this they show reverence and devotion to the Buddha and to bodhisattas.

Buddhists believe in karma or 'intentional action'. Worship helps Buddhists to transform their minds through positive action so that they can escape the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, known as samsara and gain enlightenment.

Buddhist worship is called puja. It can take place at home or in a temple or vihara, either alone or with others.

On full moon days and festivals, Buddhists may visit a vihara or temple in order to worship with others.

Temples are centres for study and worship for the whole community. Worship in the temple includes chanting the Three Refuges and Precepts and the scriptures, giving offerings in front of an image of the Buddha, lighting candles, burning incense, meditating and listening to sermons.

The most important part of a Buddhist temple is the shrine room, which contains one or more Buddharupas. Any place where an image of the Buddha is used in worship is known as a shrine, and many Buddhists also have shrines at home.

Before entering the shrine room, people take off their shoes as a sign of respect and also to keep the shrine room floor clean. They also dress modestly, often in white in Theravada countries. They bow in front of the Buddharupa, and sit with their feet tucked under, as it is rude to point the soles of one's feet towards someone. Worship usually begins with reciting the Three Refuges.

Bhikkhus or Bhikshunis may read or recite sutras, or give a sermon that explains their relevance to daily life.

Theravada Buddhists bring offerings of candles, flowers, rosaries and incense. Mahayana Buddhists also bring gifts but show devotion to bodhisattas as well.

Bowls of water and other food offerings are placed before the Buddharupa on a raised platform or altar.

Traditionally in Theravada Buddhism, the laity were not expected to meditate or know the scriptures. That was the job of the monks and nuns in the Sangha. The laity gain merit by supporting the Sangha and living a life of reverence and devotion which they express through worship and ethical living.

Another feature of worship involves visiting stupas. While there, Buddhists often circumambulate the stupa, reciting a mantra or a prayer, and concentrate on the importance of the Buddha for their lives.


Importance of symbolism in public worship

There is much symbolism in Buddhist worship, from the place of worship itself to the artefacts used in worship. The table below shows the symbolic meaning of various elements.

Shape of stupa or temple Represents the five elements according to Buddhists: fire, air, earth, water and wisdom (considered to be an element)

Buddharupa placed higher than worshippers Shows honour that is due to the Buddha

Different images of the Buddha Reflect different meanings, eg a raised hand, palm outwards, means fearlessness, while hands laying one on the other in the lap means meditation

Tray of flowers Shows impermanence - that all things fade and die

Number of flowers One flower, for example, shows the unity of all things; three flowers, the three jewels

Lighted candles Represent the light of the Buddha's teaching, or the enlightenment which worshippers are seeking

Burning incense Represents devotion and fills the room with sweet fragrance, as the Buddha's teaching has spread throughout the world Bowls of water/offering bowls for food and gifts Show that the Buddha is treated as an honoured guest and express reverence and respect

Taking off shoes/bowing Shows respect to the Buddha

Buddhists also use aids to worship such as mala beads, prayer wheels and flags.

Mahayana Buddhists use mala beads to help them keep count of the repetitions of mantras. Tibetan Buddhists, in particular, use prayer wheels containing prayers and mantras. These are turned while chanting and it is believed that the prayer or mantra is repeated each time the wheel turns. Prayers are also written on flags and hung up on a line. Buddhists believe the prayer is repeated every time the wind blows.


Attitudes to public worship


Most Buddhists think that private worship can be as important as formal public worship. However, most Buddhists participate in forms of public worship, usually at a temple. Public worship brings Buddhists together as a community, helps them learn more about the scriptures and develops their practice of meditation. Also being in the company of other happy people is uplifting and beneficial.

As well as on full moon days and festivals, many Buddhists visit a temple when something important happens in their lives for which they are grateful, such as the birth of a child.


Private worship Private worship involves showing reverence and devotion to the Buddha and to bodhisattas, but does not involve worshipping him. Buddhists do not consider the Buddha to be a god.

Private worship helps a person to develop good mental states, so that they can escape the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and gain enlightenment.

Worship in the home Lay people often have a shrine room in their home that contains an image of the Buddha, candles, flowers, an incense burner and food offerings. Forms of worship vary, but many Buddhists begin and end each day reciting the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts.

They also pray and meditate before the Buddharupa or bodhisattas. Prayers may include requests for a good rebirth.

As in public worship, the home shrine contains many symbolic objects. Buddhists may also use mala beads in private worship to help count the repetitions of mantras when meditating or praying.

All Buddhists consider worship in the home important for 'merit-making' and for developing the qualities of compassion and wisdom needed to reach Nirvana.


Meditation


Buddhists follow the Buddha's example and practise meditation. Meditation helps clear the mind so that negative thoughts of anger or hatred can be replaced with positive ones of loving-kindness and peace.

By meditating often, Buddhists hope to develop insight and wisdom so that they can see the true nature of things. There are different forms and aims of meditation. Two major categories of meditation are samatha and vipassana:

samatha or calming meditation – this kind of meditation helps to calm the mind by focusing on one object, feeling or idea vipassana or insight meditation – this kind of meditation helps to see the truth about reality and develop the wisdom that leads to enlightmenment

People need to be skilled at samatha meditation first before attempting vipassana meditation.


Some meditations you may hear about:


Concentrating on breathing helps the person become alert, focused and calm.

Meditating on metta – helps to develop good will towards others and all creatures. Some people meditate using a mantra.

Some people use a picture of a Buddha or bodhisatta to help them visualise the image in their mind.

Walking meditation provides a contrast to sitting still. Walking barefoot, concentrating on the way the foot touches the ground, coordinating your breathing and walking, and keeping your eyes focused a short way in front without distraction can bring about mindfulness and calm.

Mindfulness meditation involves becoming aware of your body and mind and developing a lucid awareness.

The aim of some meditation is to achieve Right Mindfulness, one of the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is a way of developing calmness, insight and compassion. Its ultimate aim is to achieve the wisdom that leads to enlightenment.


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