Buddhism: Mahāyāna


Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Religious Buildings


Temples are the most common formal religious setting for Buddhists. Although Buddhist temples differ structurally throughout Mahāyāna countries, the buildings are usually designed to foster a sense of inner and outer peace. Temples are generally part of a broader complex that contains other buildings and the surrounding natural landscape.

Some temples contain shrines or prayer halls, which allow for collective or individual chanting and contemplation. A lay Buddhist may visit a temple for various reasons, such as to show veneration to the Buddha, for a festival, or to arrange or participate in funerary rites. Temples also sometimes serve purposes – for instance, for markets or non-religious festivals.


A pagoda is a funerary monument used to hold the ashes after the cremation of a monastic or sacred relics. They are usually found in East Asia. Pagodas follow a similar architectural design, typically a multistory solid or hollow tower. They are usually located in a temple complex with other religious buildings. 


A monastery is a place where a community of men or women monastics reside and devote their lives to religious practice. Buddhist monasteries are established to support the religious endeavours of monks and nuns by providing them accommodation with fellow monastics, usually as part of a temple complex. Environmental and cultural circumstances can play a large role in determining monastic traditions. For example, monastics in East Asia tend to live in greater isolation from lay settlements largely due to geographic, climatic and cultural reasons. Thus, almsgiving practices are not very common. Rather, monasteries may receive donations of bulk food or funds to purchase food that is then stored and prepared in the monastery.


There are some important etiquette practices to consider when entering a Buddhist building:

  • Show respect towards sacred images and objects (such as depictions of the Buddha or bodhisattvas). For instance, do not point at such images.
  • Remove shoes and leave them outside the main worship precinct. Hats should also be removed.
  • All parts of the body between the shoulders and knees should be covered as a sign of respect.
  • Do not touch, sit on or climb on a statue of a buddha or bodhisattvas.
  • Photography is usually permitted when on temple grounds, but not inside a temple.
  • Do not step or stand on the threshold of the temple door when entering or leaving. Instead, step over the threshold.
  • Do not turn your back on a statue of the Buddha. Rather, take a few steps backwards before turning your back.
  • If sitting in a meditation hall or temple, do not have your feet pointing towards a statue of a buddha or bodhisattva.



It is common for Buddhists to decorate a statue, image or altar of the Buddha with various offerings. Common offerings include flowers (especially lotus flowers), incense, candles, fruit, fresh food and water.

Statues and Images

Statues and images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas are prolific throughout Buddhist buildings and inside the personal spaces of lay Buddhists. The style of the artwork varies depending on the region. Statues are usually positioned in a prominent place of a home, temple or shrine. For example, many meditation halls will have a statue or image of a buddha or bodhisattva at the front or centre. Sometimes in the Zen tradition, there will be calligraphy of an ensō (‘circle’). The main purpose of statues and images is inspiration for spiritual endeavours. Some meditation halls may not have statues or images with such objects found in chanting halls instead.

Sacred Circular Diagrams (Maṇḍala)

Maṇḍalas are most commonly found in Vajrayāna Buddhism. These sacred circular diagrams are believed to represent the mind, speech and body of a buddha. Mandalas are also representations of the universe. These diagrams serve various purposes, such as in initiation and meditation.


Relics are the material remains of a person or object considered holy. In Buddhism, relics include bodily remains of the Buddha, the cremated remains of monastics, and any object associated with the Buddha or influential monastic (e.g. robes, bowls, statues, texts). These bodily relics are enshrined in funeral mounds (stūpa or pagoda). In some cases, relics are popular pilgrimage sites.


In some Mahāyāna schools, music acts as an offering to the Buddha or bodhisattva. It can be a means of memorisation, meditation or part of ritual practices. There is a wide variety of musical practices used by both lay and monastic followers. Some schools may include instruments, usually wind instruments (e.g. flutes) and percussion. Most Buddhist practices also involve chanting in some form.


Generally, lay Buddhists do not have a prescribed dress code. Many tend to dress modestly by covering their shoulders and knees, though specific dress expectations differ from country to country. Special amulets, jewellery or a simple thread around one’s wrist may be worn for various reasons. Some Buddhists may also wear prayer beads to assist in veneration or meditation. Buddhist monastics generally have a special dress code, which usually requires a shaved head and a special robe. Robe colours and types vary, depending on the tradition and location.

Dietary Practices

There are no strictly prescribed dietary requirements in Mahāyāna Buddhism. However, many Buddhists tend to be vegetarian during different times of the year or on a daily basis. This is usually due to the belief that a vegetarian diet is inferred from Buddhist teachings. Views on vegetarianism vary between different groups, with some more strict than others. Some may also avoid livelihoods related to meat such as trading meats or butchery. Monastics tend to follow a strict dietary code of vegetarianism (if their local region enables them to grow fruits and vegetables) and abstain from alcohol.

Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.

Guaranteed secure stripe badge

A unified, searchable interface answering your questions on the world's cultures and religions

Sign up for free