QUESTIONS and ANSWERS
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Buddhist Practices

As Buddhism spread from India across many parts of Asia, it absorbed many local religious beliefs and traditions in keeping with its ideals of tolerance. Therefore the actual Buddhist practices differ widely in various parts of the world, although there is complete agreement in the core teachings.
Here we discuss some of the practices in the Theravada tradition.

1 What is expected of a good Buddhist?
2 What is the Noble Eightfold Path?
3

Buddhists are often seen praying to the Buddha, offering flowers and covering Buddha statues with gold leaves, and pouring water onto Bodhi trees. Are these actions beneficial?

4 Why do Buddhists chant?
5 Should a Buddhist abstain from eating meat and taking alcohol even in moderation?
6 Why do Buddhist monks not eat after noon and what food is suitable for offering?
7 What is the Buddhist attitude to marriage?
8 What are Buddhist funeral practices?
9 Dana
10 Kathina
11 Visiting a place of Buddhist worship

 

Q.

A.

What is expected of a good Buddhist?

In the Theravada tradition, a Buddhist will make a commitment to take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha* and observe the five precepts. Here taking refuge means having confidence and being under the protective principles or the environment provided by these three factors.

The Buddha (from the Sanskrit word buddhi, meaning wisdom), which literally means the awakened or enlightened one, symbolises the goal of enlightenment to which Buddhists aspire. The Buddha is not regarded as a god or an incarnation of a divine being to be worshipped. In fact, since the Buddha has attained parinibbana (complete nibbana) after death, he is beyond the call of prayer. Taking refuge in the Buddha means having confidence in the Buddha's teachings (Buddha Dhamma).

The pali word Dhamma has many meanings and in this context it is the teachings of the Buddha (The Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Kamma etc), in particular the natural laws of the human existence which the Buddha taught. Taking refuge in the Dhamma
means being mindful of body and mind, essentially following the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Sangha means the collective body of monks who are the followers of Buddha’s way of life. They provide guidance to the lay people in the Buddhist way of life.

The practice of the five precepts is important to develop morality (sila). Cultivation of Sila is essential as it is the foundation on which the spiritual progress is based.

The five precepts are:

1. Abstain from destroying or harming living beings
2. Abstain from 'taking that which is not been given' (stealing)
3. Abstain from sexual misconduct
4. Abstain from unskillful speech (lies, slander, offensive speech etc)
5. Abstain from intoxicating drinks and drugs

It should be noted that these are not commandments. A Buddhist may recite the five precepts daily at home or at a place of worship and undertake to observe them.

If one wishes to progress further, a Buddhist will follow the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the path to the realisation of Nibbana.

*See Veneration

 

Q.

A.

What is the Noble Eightfold Path?

This is the way taught by the Buddha, which leads to the cessation of suffering (dukkha) and the attainment of Nibbana. This is known as the Middle Path, because it avoids the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, which was a common practice during Buddha's time.
The path comprises eight categories or divisions:

1.Right Understanding

2.Right Thought

3.Right Speech

4.Right Action

5.Right Livelihood

6.Right Action

7.Right Mindfulness

8.Right Concentration

What the Buddha meant by 'Right' is that which produces a beneficial result.

These eight factors aim at promoting and perfecting the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline: sila, samadhi, panna.

Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood develop ethical conduct (sila). This moral conduct is considered to be the foundation for all higher spiritual attainments.

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration develop mental discipline (samadhi), and are achieved through meditation.

Right Thought and Right Understanding lead to Wisdom (panna), which is developed through mindfulness and various forms of meditation, especially Vipassana.

The Noble Eightfold Path

 

Q.

 

A.

Buddhists are often seen praying to the Buddha, offering flowers and covering Buddha statues with gold leaves, and pouring water onto Bodhi trees. Are these actions beneficial?

There are no prayers as such in Buddhism since, by definition, Buddhism cannot be classed as a theistic religion (i.e. there is no ‘creator god’). The Buddha, having attained Nibbana, and after his death is beyond the call of prayer.

In fact, the Buddha discouraged his followers from worshipping him and for several centuries after his death there were no Buddha images produced.

Certain rituals and practices are later additions to Buddhism and satisfy people’s need for expression and worship. As Buddhism spread beyond India, it absorbed many of the local beliefs and traditions in keeping with its ideals of tolerance. This is why the actual practices of Buddhism differs widely among the various cultures with much emphasis on rituals.

Buddhists kneel before an image of the Buddha or a Bodhi tree to reflect on the virtues of the Buddha. They may recite the five precepts and various suttas. The offering of food and flowers to the Buddha (Buddha puja) is a symbolic act of devotion and not done with the expectation of gaining material benefits or favours in return. It is customary to offer a Buddha puja before dana is offered to the monks.

In offering flowers to the Buddha, the devotee reflects the impermanent nature of one's life, 'just as these beautiful flowers fade, so too will our bodies be subject to decay and death'

In the Theravada tradition, it is not the correct practice to pray to the Buddha.

The above practices by themselves do not produce any direct benefits. However, when performed with good intention (not with the ulterior motive of obtaining some selfish benefit) they have the effect of enhancing devotion (saddha) and the purity of the mind. The value of such practices comes from individual effort, not from any external power.

 

Q.

A.

Why do Buddhists chant?

The practice of chanting goes back to the days of the Buddha, when writing was not common. His teachings were memorised by monks in chant form and passed on. This was how the Buddha’s words were transmitted for several centuries. They were finally written down on ola (palm) leaves in the first century AD in Sri Lanka. The teachings are preserved in the ancient Pali language, which has many words that cannot be directly translated without losing the meaning.

The entire collection of teachings is known as the tipitaka (meaning three baskets) and comprise the vinaya pitaka (disciplinary rules for monks), sutta pitaka (discourses) and abhidhamma pitaka (higher teachings).

Chanting is done today as a form of veneration, to help purify the mind, and as a means of protection against undesirable events.

 

Q.


A.

Should a Buddhist abstain from eating meat and taking alcohol even in moderation?

The Buddha did not advise his followers to abstain from eating meat. He was aware that prohibition would make it difficult for people in certain cultures to survive as Buddhists. For example, for an Eskimo the only food available might be meat or fish. On such matters, Buddha left the choice up to the individual.

One should be aware that killing an animal, even for food, has its kammic consequences. Buddhist monks will refrain from eating meat if they are aware that an animal has been specially killed for the offering.

Alcohol or other forms of intoxicating drugs taken even in moderate quantities affect the mind. Keeping the mind clear and pure at all times is most important in Buddhist practice. Those who are following the path of purification should avoid them altogether.

 

Q.


A.

Why do Buddhist monks not eat after noon and what food is suitable for offering?

Buddhist monks observe a strict code of conduct (vinaya) in order to discipline the body and mind. Food is regarded simply as a means of keeping the body alive so that the spiritual path may be followed. Food is not taken in order to beautify the body or because it has a pleasant taste.
According to the vinaya rules, a meal should be taken before noon.
A meal in the evening may cause drowsiness and make the practice of meditation difficult. Monks discipline themselves to be satisfied with very few material things, including food. Also by eating only one meal a day, they reduce the burden on the lay community which supports them. An exception to the rule of not eating after noon is made during an illness.

The vinaya rules state that a monk should only eat what is offered to him and he should accept any item without showing pleasure or displeasure. The right intention should be that dana is offered to the collective body of monks (The Sangha) and not to a particular individual.
The offering of food (dana) to the monks has been the tradition from the days of the Buddha.


Any type of food (not containing alcohol), which is normally taken by lay people, is suitable for offering to monks, bearing in mind that many monks prefer to be vegetarian. The monks are prohibited to eat meat of animals specially killed for the offering, if they are aware of it.

There is a mistaken belief that the greater the variety and tastier the food offered, the greater is the merit acquired. In fact, an act that leads to gluttony cannot be regarded as a skilfull action.

A dana (an act of generosity) should be conducted with wholesome thoughts, without the aim of selfish gain, expecting some benefit in return.

 

Q.

A.

What is the Buddhist attitude to marriage?

In most religions, a marriage vow is taken before God. As there is no ‘God’ in Buddhism, a Buddhist marriage is simply an affirmation of the couple’s commitment to live according to the three refuges and the five precepts, in particular the third precept on sexual conduct. The Buddha did not prescribe a form of marriage service, although he did speak frequently about the duties and obligations to be carried out by both parties. He regarded a successful marriage as fundamental to the happiness and stability of society.

Buddhist Weddings
In Buddhist countries certain ceromonies and rituals are performed during a marriage ceremony, but these are all later additions to satisfy peoples’ need. These rituals vary depending on the local culture and traditions of the people.

 

Q.

A.

What are Buddhist funeral practices?

Buddhists normally cremate the remains. This was a practice prevalent at the time of the Buddha as well.

Buddhist monks are invited to perform the last rites. The proceedings normally start by reciting the three refuges and panca-sila (pansil).
Next, close relatives will offer a white cloth to the monks, as an act of merit.

The monks will then recite a stanza, which is a reminder of the impermanent and transient nature of all things:

Annica vata sankhara Impermanent are all component things
Uppada vaya dhammino They arise and cease, that is their nature
Uppajjitva nirujjhanti They come into being and pass away
Tesam vupasamo sukho Release from them is supreme bliss (Nibbana)


Finally, a jug full of water is gradually emptied into a bowl until it overflows, while reciting the following stanza with thoughts of goodwill towards the departed one.

Idam me natinam hotu May this (merit) accrue to my departed relatives
Sukita hontu nataya May they be well and happy

This is a symbolic act in which the water in the jug represents the merits aquired by the friends and relatives present by generating wholesome thoughts, which are then transferred to the departed by pouring the water into the bowl.

Seven days after death, it is usual to give a dana (offering of a meal) to Buddhist monks, which is repeated after three months. The practices may differ widely depending on the particular culture, since there are no instructions in the ancient texts regarding funeral rites.

Buddhists texts state that departed ones may be born into a state of existence where they may be in a position to receive merits aquired from the living. It is believed that such merits when acquired by the departed will result in beneficial kamma and help them to be released from any state of unhappiness they may be experiencing.

 

 

Dana

Dana is an act of generosity, given without expecting anything in return.

In commom usage, dana is an offering of a meal and other basic requisites to the Buddhist monks (Sangha). The offering is to the collective body of Sangha and not to a particular individual.

The pali word dana has a much wider meaning which includes sharing of one's possesions for the benefit of others, using one's time and effort to alleviate the suffering of others etc.

The object of dana is to develop pure thoughts of selflessness and to reduce greed (tanha)

'The gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts' - Dhammapada, verse 354

 

 

  KATHINA

The Kathina festival that we are celebrating today is the most important alms giving ceremony of the Buddhist year. For over 2,500 years, supporters of the Theravada monasteries have gathered during the months of October and November to celebrate this festival. Kathina is a way of completing and marking the end of the annual Rains Retreat, or Vassa. During this three month retreat, the Sangha of monks and nuns have been obliged by their rules not to travel unless absolutely necessary. As winter approaches, this gesture of offering is the traditional way that lay devotees of the London Buddhist Vihara express their gratitude to the Sangha and to assure that the basic requisites are provided.

So how did the Kathina festival originate?

According to the scriptures, the Buddha was staying at Savatthi in the Jeta Grove at Anathapindika’s monastery. A group of thirty forest-dwelling Bhikkhus were on their way to spend the Vassa with him. Unfortunately, they were unable to reach Savatthi in time for the start of the Rains, so they had to stay at Saketa for the three month retreat. Although the Bhikkhus had longed to be with the Buddha for the Vassa, they spent the retreat time together practising meditation and living in harmony. As soon as the Vassa ended, being allowed to travel again, they continued their journey to see the Buddha. Finally, they arrived at Savatthi, weary and with tattered robes, and paid their respects to the Buddha. On hearing what had happened, the Buddha decided to encourage them, allowing them to roam freely after the Rains Retreat to gather cloth for robes. The Buddha, knowing the inspiration that comes from sharing and from generosity, established a procedure whereby the Bhikkhus could agree among themselves to make a gift of a robe to one of their number. And, so, when they had procured enough cloth, the Bhikkhus set about sewing a robe. In those days, the method they would use involved spreading the pieces of cloth on a frame and stitching them together. The frame on which the robe was sewn was called a “Kathina”.

From that time, until the present day, lay supporters have observed the rule allowing the offering of Kathina cloth to be made at any time during the four weeks following the end of the Vassa. It should be mentioned that the Sangha is not allowed to initiate or request such an offering, it being stipulated that it should arrive unsolicited in the midst of the assembly as if “wafted in on a breeze.”
However to offer Kathina robe, three conditions need to be fulfilled.

1. It can be offered to the Sangha in monastery only once a year. The same monastery can not have two robe offering ceremonies in any one year.

2. The Kathina can be offered only during a specified period, which starts from the end of Vassa or full moon day of October to the next full moon day of November.

3. Kathina robe is offered to the whole Sangha Community and not to an individual monk. The Bhikkhus would then formally agree which of them should received it.

Of the annual Buddhist ceremonies, it is the only one centred round the Sangha, and it’s an opportunity for the lay supporters to join in harmony and work together, to take part in the largest alms-giving ceremony of the Buddhist year.

The Sangha is our refuge. They are a community of moral and virtuous beings, established by the Buddha, who while seeking their own liberation, guide the lay people by their example. As the Buddha said, offering to the Sangha is always more beneficial and more meritorious than to any other and bring about good fortune in the life to come.

By this act of generosity and our participation in it, may we all realise the supreme bliss of nibbana.

 

  Visiting a place of Buddhist worship

Non-Buddhists are welcome to visit places of Buddhist worship.

As mark of respect, all visitors are advised to wear decent clothing to cover the body appropriately when visiting a place of worship. Exposed shoulders, sleeveless tops and shorts are considered inappropriate and disrespectful.

Visitors should remove hats, caps, shoes and slippers when entering the Shrine room

It is disrespectful to take photographs directly in front, with back to the Buddha Statue.

Recommended Attire for Ladies

Ladies are advised to dress modestly with comfortable but appropriate clothing. Traditionally, white is worn on holy days by the devotees. Black dresses are not considered suitable for such occasions..

Revealing clothes such as short skirts, hipsters, tight tops and plunging neck-lines are considered unsuitable and disrespectful.

Dignified dressing is very much a part of the spiritual practice!

 

 

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