Rituals and Practices
Rituals, rites and ceremonies in the Buddhist tradition vary from country to country, and in some cases, regionally within a country. Nonetheless, there are some common practices of Theravāda Buddhists found throughout the world.
Veneration refers to a ritual of offering or showing reverence (usually towards the Buddha). There are many different rituals of veneration ranging from a simple offering of flowers or incense as well as chants. Devotional practices may be performed publicly or privately by both individuals or in groups depending on the kind of worship ceremony. Veneration towards the Buddha involves showing respect, meditating on the qualities the Buddha embodied (such as compassion and wisdom) and gift-giving (dāna). In some countries such as Thailand, veneration to the Buddha practice is instituted by law, whereby insulting or defacing the Buddha is prohibited.
The act of bowing is very common throughout Buddhism. In the Theravāda tradition, bowing is done by holding the hands in a prayer position and slightly lowering the forehead towards the hands. For a full bow, one will kneel down, lay their palms on the ground and touch the forehead to the ground between the hands.
Buddhists will often bow towards altars, images or relics of the Buddha, towards monastics, and sometimes towards objects, such as sacred books. The act of bowing is done to express gratitude, humility, respect, veneration and acknowledgment. Bowing occurs both spontaneously and in prescribed situations. For example, some Buddhists may bow because they wish to show respect at that moment. Others may bow out of the expectation to show veneration.
In Buddhism, chanting or recitation is usually done to prepare the mind for meditation, reflect on the Buddha’s teaching, for ritualistic purposes, or to show veneration. The basis for most chants in the Theravāda tradition is the Pāli canon. Chants are usually in the Pāli language, but sometimes with vernacular translations throughout. Some of the most popular chants are: Homage to the Triple Gem; taking the Five Precepts (for the ); Salutations to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Saṅgha, and various blessing chants or teachings from the Buddhist texts.
In some Theravāda Buddhist countries, there are protective rites performed by monastics for the . These rites are often culturally influenced. The most common protective rite is reciting protection sūttas found in Buddhist texts. These sūttas are sometimes chanted during large public rituals, as well as small, private rituals that seek to protect the individual. Instances when one would participate in protective rites include ill health, natural calamity or for blessing a new house. Typically, a monk will chant texts while holding a small piece of string. Eventually the string is tied on the wrist of the person requesting protection. In some places, some Buddhists may also wear tattoos or amulets that contain the ashes of cremated monastics as a form of protection from evil or dangerous forces, though this is a cultural development in certain countries.
Pilgrimages are generally seen as a meritorious practice that helps the pilgrim accumulate positive kamma and purify negative kamma. There are many reasons one may undertake a pilgrimage, such as gaining merit (puñña), to ask for a blessing, or as a result of a vow. Those who die during the pilgrimage are also thought to have a more favourable rebirth.
According to the Mahāparinibbāna Sūtta, the Buddha recommended four pilgrimage sites of major significance, which have become popular destinations for Buddhists worldwide. The four places are linked to the Buddha’s life narrative:
- His place of birth (Lumbini, Nepal).
- The place where he reached enlightenment (Bodhgaya, India).
- The place he delivered his first sermon (Sarnath, India).
- The place he passed away (Kushinagar, India).
Other popular sites for pilgrimage include places that contain relics of the Buddha, such as the Buddha’s tooth relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.