Buddhism: Mahāyāna

Rituals and Practices

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Devotion

Devotion or veneration towards buddhas, bodhisattvas, Buddhist teachings or sacred objects (such as relics) is a common practice among Mahāyāna Buddhists. Many Buddhist practices are done as part of devotion and veneration. The most common types of veneration practices include merit-making, bowing, giving offerings, chanting, meditating on the qualities embodied by specific buddhas or bodhisattvas (such as compassion and wisdom) and pilgrimage. The act of veneration is usually done out of respect. Buddhists also venerate bodhisattvas as part of a call for personal aid and support.


All Mahāyāna schools show veneration for the bodhisattva ideal and particular texts. However, the emphasis on devotion varies from school to school. For example, devotional practices play a major role in the Pure Land school, where many forms of devotion relate to recollecting and connecting with Amitābha. Buddhist devotional practices may be performed where images or statues of buddhas or bodhisattvas are located (usually in a temple or at home). Devotional practices are intensified during Uposatha days and annual festivals.

Bowing

The act of bowing (or prostrating) is common throughout Buddhism. There are different kinds of bows depending on the school, geographic region and the purpose of the bow. A simple bow is done by holding the hands in a prayer position in front of one’s chest and slightly lowering the forehead towards the hands. Another type of bow is to kneel, lay the palms on the ground and touch the forehead on the ground between the hands.


Buddhists will often bow towards altars or images of the Buddha or a bodhisattva, towards monastics, a religious teacher, relics or objects. The act of bowing is usually done to express gratitude, humility, respect, veneration and acknowledgement. Moreover, bowing occurs in spontaneous and prescribed settings. For instance, some Buddhists may bow because they wish to show respect while others may bow out of the expectation to show veneration.

Chanting

Chanting or recitation is a common practice in Buddhism. It may occur as part of a broader ritual (for example, chants to prepare the mind for meditation) or as an act of worship in itself (such as showing veneration). The languages of chants vary, but they are usually in Sanskrit, Pāli or in the main language in which the school of Buddhism is practised. The contents of the chant may be a Buddhist text (such as a sūtra), a homage to a text, buddha or bodhisattva, or a small mantra as part of a protective rite. Some of the most common chants in Mahāyāna Buddhism are the recitation of the Triple Gem and the mantraauṃ maṇi padme hūm” dedicated to Avalokiteśvara.

Life Cycle Rites

In some countries, Buddhism is connected to life cycle events. The most significant life cycle event commemorated in Mahāyāna Buddhism is a series of funeral rituals. In China and Japan, there is a common cultural practice of people visiting a temple at specific intervals after a family member’s death to perform certain rituals. For example, some may burn paper replicas of money and goods. Families may also have an altar with images with the Buddhist names of past relatives. Members will periodically place offerings and pray on behalf of the deceased. Monastics are often called upon to assist in funeral rites. Such practices are done to transfer merit (puñya) to deceased relatives to improve their circumstances in the afterlife.

Protective Rites

Protective rites and rituals play a large role in the religious practice of some Mahāyāna traditions. For example, some short and powerful statements such as a dhāraṇī or a mantra are believed to evoke a protective power when spoken or chanted. Such statements may be expressed in a broader public ritual setting or private rituals. Reasons for participating in protective rites include ill health, natural calamity, or for blessing a new house. Some Buddhists may also wear amulets believed to contain some protective power.

Pilgrimage

Pilgrimages are a common practice throughout Buddhism. Buddhist pilgrimage destinations include temples, shrines, natural landscapes and locations associated with legends and myths. Countries that are predominantly Mahāyāna Buddhist have numerous pilgrimage sites. A Buddhist may undertake a pilgrimage at any time.


The reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage vary. A major reason is to gain merit (puñya). Generally, pilgrimages are seen as a rewarding practice that helps the pilgrim gain merit and purifies negative karma. Some also go on pilgrimages to fulfil a vow made to a buddha or bodhisattva. For example, one may ask Avalokiteśvara to heal an ill relative and vow that, should the relative recover, one will complete a pilgrimage dedicated to the bodhisattva.


Despite the diversity of locations and intentions, the practices performed at pilgrimage sites are quite common. These rituals include acts of devotion or veneration and larger rituals led by temple monastics.

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