7 Common Rituals in Buddhism

What is the purpose of performing rituals?

Most Buddhists show their devotion and commitment to Buddhism by performing various rituals and practices.

Rituals can be performed at any time but Buddhists usually make an extra effort on Buddhist Days of Observance.

As we discussed in Do Buddhists Believe in God?, Buddhists do not worship a god, do not praise a god, and do not make offerings or ask for favors from a god.

This type of creator god worship is not a part of Buddhism.

Then why do Buddhists have rituals and sometimes appear to be worshiping him or a likeness of him?

This type of worship is done to show respect to the religion of Buddhist and to the man who discovered the path to enlightenment.

Rituals and gestures also help Buddhists to reinforce their religious and spiritual goals by reminding us of Buddha’s inspiring qualities and teachings.

For example, bowing or prostrating before a Buddha statute (usually with Buddha’s hands gently resting in his lap and a gentle smile) reminds us to work towards inner peace and love.

Similarly, the aroma of incense reminds us of knowledge and virtue, while offerings such as flowers with a short lifespan remind us that all things are impermanence.

Rituals are useful tools but not essential

Although outer ritual is important in Buddhism, it is important to remember that inner devotion is the key to finding success.

You cannot obtain enlightenment by praying or worshiping.

To obtain enlightenment, you must purify your heart and mind through insight with self-discipline and firm determination.

Additionally, as we discussed in our article on Attachments, we should not blindly and thoughtlessly follow rituals.

Make sure that your rituals serve a rationale and thoughtful purpose in your pursuit of lasting inner peace.

The seven most common Buddhist rituals are discussed below.

Ritual #1: Receiving a Blessing

Buddhists may show their devotion to Buddha and his teachings by asking for A blessing from an enlightened monk during a ceremony.

Some Buddhists may even confess and seek atonement from a Buddha to help free themselves from bad Karma or for self-improvement.

Ritual #2: Making Merit

Merit is closely related to Karma, purity and goodness and is an accumulation of all your good acts and good thoughts.

Merit also helps to determine the quality of this life, the quality of your next life, and directly contributes towards a person’s enlightenment.

There are many different ways of making merit but all of them serve one purpose: to show compassion and charity for others. The three most common ways to gain merit are:

  • Giving. Being generous and giving is difficult but doing so will improve your merit. Giving helps to overcome selfishness and prepare the mind for future enlightenment. Giving can be accomplish in many ways (See What is True Charity and How Can We Give It?). You can give to the poor or help build public services such as hospitals, schools or bridges. You can also offer food or clothing to monks or even help with the building of a new temple.
  • Mental Development. Lastly, you can gain merit by increasing your mental development. This is accomplished by listening and studying the teachings of Buddha and instructing others in the teachings.

Ritual #3: Making a Resolution

This ritual involves making a pledge or vow.

In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhists will typically make a resolution or vow to liberate all human beings from suffering.

Once a Mahayana Buddhist takes the vow, they are known as a Bodhisattva and pledge to practice of Six Perfections.

Although vows are not critical to the Theravada school of Buddhism, many will vow to fully understand the true nature of existence and to eventually achieve Nirvana.

Theravada Buddhists may also vow to show loving kindness and compassion towards all living things.

Ritual #4: Prostrating

In Buddhism, prostrating means to make a gesture that shows respect to Buddha, Buddha’s teachings, and the Buddhist Monk Community.

Prostration also serves to increase one’s humility and to lessen one’s ego. For a more detailed discussion on prostration, see our article on Prostrating.

Ritual #5: Making Offerings

For Buddhists, offerings are a way to accumulate positivity in your life and purify your mind.

But remember, Buddha doesn’t need your offerings and offerings are not intended to treat Buddha as a creator god.

The practice is done mainly because of the transformative effect it has on our minds. Offerings serve as a reminder to be generous and virtuous. The practice also strengthens one’s commitment to Buddhism.   

People making the offerings will usually start by taking off their shoes and washing the object that is being offered.

Anything you want to offer is accepted on the altar. People usually leave small objects such flowers, burning incense and candles, food, or drinks. It is also common for Buddhists to make an offering prior to meditating.

Ritual #6: Chanting Traditional Texts (Recitation)

Buddhist chanting, also known as recitation, is done specifically to help wake you up from your delusions and to help you realize enlightenment.

Chanting is usually done in Buddhist temples and often involves people bowing and some playing drums.

Consistent recitation can give you confidence, joy, and satisfaction. It can energize your life and help you to cultivate mindfulness.

As with offerings, chanting is never intended to worship a god and if often done to prepare for meditation.

Ritual #7: Making a Pilgrimage

As in most religions, making a long journey to a significant location is known as a pilgrimage. Making a pilgrimage can have great impact on your spiritual development.

In Buddhism, there are four major pilgrimage sites and each site represents a significant location in Buddha’s search for enlightenment and teachings.

Buddha himself advocated his follows to visit and to pay respect to these four places. The first site (Buddha’s birthplace) is located in modern day Nepal, while the other sits are located in India.

The four major sites are:

  • Lumbini: This is the birthplace of Buddha.
  • Bodh Gaya: This is where Buddha first obtained enlightenment under a tree.
  • Sarnath: This is where Buddha delivered his first teaching.
  • Kusinagara. This is where Buddha died and will be commemorated and remembered forever.

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