Buddhist Worship

How are you going to worship at a Buddhist Shrine? The Indian word for worship is Puja. In many respects, Buddhist worship is very similar to the worship you would find in the Hindu tradition. You make offerings to the image: fruit, flowers, incense, sometimes a candle. In South East Asia, one of the most important things you can do for an image, is to stake in just a little bit of gold leaf and add it to the image.

Visual Contact

Another important thing to do is simply to see the image. This is where the worship of an image becomes the static contemplation of an image. In classical Indian worship, one of the things that you do is to go to the image, look at it, and get the sensation that it is looking at you. An emotional connection it is established by this visual relationship between you and the image.

In a Shrine in India, there are very few of them in operation there, the image sits in an enclosed area right on the center of the temple, there is a curtain over the place where the image resides. Inside that enclosed area there will be a group of Brahmins performing some rituals. You hear some drumming and chanting, you can smell the incense. And then, there is a moment when there is a burst of drumming, a bell rings, somebody pulls the curtain aside, and there it is staring at you. You feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It is a strong experience and not comparable to anything in Western religious traditions.

Why Worship?

When lay people go to an image and worship it, the principal goal would be to make merit. That is to perform good karma so it would be possible for them to have a better rebirth in a future life. The vocabulary of worship is connected with prosperity and good luck, not merely with the pursuit of Nirvana.

Strictly speaking, a monk or a nun would not use the Shrines in this way. They would use the Shrines as a focus of meditation, to be reminded of the Buddha’s teaching in order to prosper themselves on the way to Nirvana. The distinction between the lay person’s use and the monk or nun’s use of an image is like the distinction of the Form Body and the Dharma Body.

The lay person would worship the Form Body to get good karma. The monk or nun meditates on the image or on the Shrine in order to understand the Buddhist Dharma and appropriate it in their own experience.

Not so Simple

The practice of lay people and monks is more complicated than that and it doesn’t fall so easily into such a simple distinction.

Lay people often use the Shrine to meditate on the Buddhist teaching, it is not just a way of getting merit, but it is a way of reminding themselves of what the Buddha teaches them about their own life.

It is also true to say that, practically speaking, monks and nuns are not at all averse at gaining merit in some kinds of situations. One obvious reason for this is that not all monks and nuns are going to achieve Nirvana in this life. It is not inappropriate to act with for purposes of merit making.

This article is part of the series about Buddhist Art.

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