Worship and the example of Buddhism

This article has two main aims. The first is to add to the important process of reflecting on what we mean by worship and how we worship. This might have direct implications for the planning of acts of worship in schools. The second aim is to encourage a sympathetic understanding of how Buddhists worship and what worship means to the Buddhist. This is more likely to be of use in the classroom, when visiting Buddhist communities and talking to Buddhists than in the context of school acts of worship.

An Offputting Word

The word worship can be offputting. Explicit material on worship can make young people ‘switch off’. It evokes enforced quiet, prayers they do not understand, self-conscious piety they do not share and the general feeling of being an outsider in a closely-knit group. Those young people who are part of a worshipping community and who do have good experiences associated with the word might be inhibited by the feeling that a particular style of worship is normative and react negatively to expressions that are different.

Possible Starting Points

So I would suggest as a more general starting point some discussion of the way in which our bodies express joy, despair, respect, affection, grief and well-being. This kind of exploration can be built on examples from current newspaper photographs or slides of paintings and pieces of sculpture supplied by both teachers and pupils and used as a basis for discussion with questions such as:

  • ‘What do you think she is feeling?’
  • ‘What has just happened to him?’
  • ‘What is this child trying to say?’
  • ‘Why do people . . . open their arms, crouch in a corner, put their hands over their faces, put their heads in their hands?’

The ideas and examples might usefully develop into movement and drama. Single emotions can be expressed in still-life body positions or in movement, and the development of feelings can be acted out in groups. The exploration can include music either as an accompaniment to and intensification of movement or by itself as both an evocation and expression of emotion.

The last point is important. Can body postures not only express but evoke emotion? Can physical movement influence how we feel as well as communicate it to others? If a person is unhappy can dancing cheer her up? Is this true of singing as well? Can what you see, do and hear physically change your mood as well as express it?

The next interesting question is whether for all this to be meaningful there has to be someone else there to see, hear and appreciate what is happening? Is it not true that human expression not only does take place but needs to take place even without an audience. Music, poetry, dance and the visual arts are first and foremost an expression of the artist’s understanding, need and concerns, a celebration or a self-transforming interior dialogue and only secondly an effort to communicate to others.

Relating This to Worship

All this links into worship in general and Buddhist worship in particular, in two ways.

1) It is not necessary to be relating to a personal God to be worshipping. Worship defined as ‘the acknowledgement of what is of ultimate worth’ includes the Buddhist who acknowledges not a personal God but a trans-personal state, the state of Enlightenment or Nirvana. The seed of this Enlightenment is in all beings. Its flowering can be seen in the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who act as visual reminders in shrine rooms and temples of the attainability of this state. Offerings, gestures, body-language, words and music (in the case of Tibetan Buddhism) are not used to communicate with a personal being but are there in celebration and acknowledgement of what is of ultimate worth. So words such as puja, worship and even prayer are common terms for Buddhists to use.

2) The words, thoughts and gestures of Buddhists at worship are intended not only to express values and feelings but to have a transforming effect upon the person speaking or acting in this way, and so help spiritual growth.

The following point was made to me by a Buddhist friend ‘The examples we give of Buddhist devotion are not prayers addressed to the deity, but aids in strengthening and purifying the heart and fixing it on a noble purpose’. Interestingly L. Blue (To Heaven With The Scribes and Pharisees. D.L.T. 1975 p.56) makes a similar point for Judaism too. He says of the word prayer, ‘Some say its original meaning is “to work on oneself”, others “to bore a hole in oneself” . . . A Jew prays so that he can work on himself for the sake of God’. Prayer is ‘The work we have to do inside ourselves’.

I shall now turn to some of the most common elements in Buddhist worship.

The Theravada tradition

A Theravada shrine can be a high shelf in the corner of a room, a whole room in a private house or a purpose-built part of a monastic complex. Buddhists like to do things together when it is possible, but it is not obligatory to attend a place of worship on a daily or weekly basis. The full-moon and new moon days in a month are the traditional times for getting together and in England weekly meetings are common. A daily routine at home fits within that.

The common elements in a shrine are an image (rupa) of Gautama Buddha. This should be set high as a point of respect and ideally be above the heads of the worshippers. Any members of the Sangha who are present sit on chairs or cushions raised above the other worshippers and often sideways to the Buddha-rupa so that they can lead the meditation and teach. There is a good diagram of the inside of a Thai Temple in A. Bancroft. The Buddhist World (Macdonald, 1984). In front of the Buddha-rupa are put offerings of flowers, incense and light. In the east the flowers are traditionally lotus buds, and this is sometimes continued here with artificial lotuses, but any flowers are appropriate. The incense is in the form of joss sticks. The lights are made of coconut oil in Sri Lanka, butter lamps in Tibet and here are usually night lights or other candles.

Worshippers usually take off their outdoor shoes, which is practical and an eastern sign of respect, and sit on the floor. Worship usually beings with words honouring and acknowledging the importance of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and a recitation three times of the three refuges.

I go to the Buddha for refuge.
I go the Dharma for refuge.
I go to the Sangha for refuge.

The lay Buddhist will then renew her undertaking of the five precepts. If he or she wishes these five can be extended to eight, for example during festivals or retreats or as an extra discipline in life. Some lay people occasionally and all members of the Sangha undertake ten precepts. These are listed in P. Morgan, Dictionary of Buddhism, Batsford, 1987.

There are then often further words of honour to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and the offering of flowers, lights and incense, accompanied by words like these.

Flowers With diverse flowers, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha I adore; and though this merit may there be release Even as these flowers must fade, so does my body march to a state of destruction.

Light With lights brightly burning, abolishing this gloom, I adore the Enlightened One, that light of the three worlds who dispels the darkness of ignorance.

Incense With perfumed incense I revere the Exalted One, worthy of reverence, a receptacle for offerings.

There are two interesting things about these words. Firstly that the offering is itself a piece of symbolic teaching; e.g. the beauty but impermanence of flowers; the Buddha (and his teaching) seen as a light in the world; and the sweetness of the presence of the memory of the Buddha. To a Theravada Buddhist the Buddha is certainly dead and gone (what Gombrich in Precept and Practice, Oxford 1971, calls the cognitive doctrinal position) but affectively, in the love and devotion of a follower of his teaching he is talked about (and even to) as a present reality.

Worship can also include the recitation of suttas and meditation based on them. One possibility would be the recitation of the short and very popular Metta Sutta which can be found in W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Gordon Fraser, 1967, p. 67 and the Metta practice linked to it. This is an acknowledgement of the ultimate worth of loving kindness and a putting into effect of that state of mind and heart (the word citta is translated by both English terms. Metta is compared to the selfless quality of love of a mother towards a child. It involves developing and radiating unlimited friendliness to all beings without distinction. It is not an intellectual process but has to be felt in the heart, a warmth which radiates outwards like a beam of light. It ranges from the contemplation of the dangers of hatred and anger to a clearing of distractions from the mind. Then friendliness (another translation of Metta) is established towards oneself, a person dear to one, an indifferent person, an enemy, all types of persons and finally to the six direction, north, south, east, west, above and below.

The Mahayana Tradition

A Mahayana shrine will usually look more complicated than a Theravada one and the central image might be of any of the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. The Three Refuges and taking the Five, Eight or Ten Precepts will have an important place in worship as will the making of offerings. Whereas Theravada Buddhists will show their respect during the saying of the refuges by kneeling with their hands together at chest level, Tibetan Buddhists go into a position of complete prostration while putting their hands together at their forehead, mouth and neck, to show their reverence with body, speech and mind. The offerings Mahayana Buddhists make are those given to an honoured guest in India. They are water for drinking, water for washing the feet, flowers, incense, light, water for having a bath and food. Music can also be added to this and the whole is called the seven or eight offerings. They can be symbolised in seven or eight bowls of water, which will be renewed daily. These offerings are followed by an acknowledgement of unwholesome thoughts or deeds, now that one is in the presence of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There is joy at the goodness of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and a desire that they continue to teach and remain active in the world. Individual Buddhists want to share this work by taking or renewing the Bodhisattva Vow. One translation of this vow is ‘May I not enter Nirvana till I have brought all beings to supreme enlightenment’. Any merit that has been made during this puja is then given away to other sentient beings. As well as their bodies, speech and minds, Buddhists also use prayer beads and prayer wheels in their devotions. The practice of mindfulness also means that all activity has the potential of being meditation and therefore worship in the sense in which we have defined. It is also difficult to put many of the activities involved in pilgrimage and festivals in a separate category.

Further reading

  • A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life Shantideva, Tr. S.Batchelor Dharamasala
  • Ceremonial in section 4 Zen is Eternal Life, J.Kennett Dharma Publications
  • Worlds of Faith J.Bowker BBC Ariel Books 1983 (Esp. Chs. 3, 4 and 6)
  • Buddhism and the Spirit Cults of N.E. Thailand, S.J. Tambiah Cambridge
  • Chapter on worship in Six Religions in the Twentieth Century Cole and Morgan Hulton 1985.

For the classroom

  • Exploring Religion — Worship O. Bennett Bell and Hyman 1984.
  • I am a Buddhist D. and U. Samaraseka Franklin Watt 1987.
  • Our Buddhist Friends J. Ascott Denholm House Press
  • Ananda in Sri Lanka C. Barker Hamish Hamilton
  • Buddhist Stories P. Morgan (Available from Westminster College, North Hinksey, Oxford OX2 6TN @ £2)
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