THERAVADA BUDDHIST TEMPLES, ARCHITECTURE AND TEMPLE RITUALS

THERAVADA BUDDHIST RELIGIOUS BUILDINGS


Kyauk Taw Kyi Temple in Myanmar

There are essentially three kinds of Buddhist structures: 1) stupas, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic or scripture; 2) temples, place of worship somewhat similar to a church; and 3).monasteries, which contain living quarters and meditation cells for monks.

The most important buildings in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are wats (Buddhist temples) and stupas (structures that hold religious objects). In Laos wats are called “vats”. In Myanmar, in Western guidebooks anyway, they are usually simply called “temples.”

Stupas are solid structures that typically cannot be entered and were constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples have an open interior that may be entered and in which are displayed one or more cult images as a focus for worship. Although this simple distinction between Stupa and temple is useful, the distinction is not always clear. There are stupas that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines.

Local temples are essentially self sufficient and rely on their own lands and support from the local lay community to keep going. Property belongs to the community. There is not a hierarchy of priest, bishops and archbishops like there is Christianity.

The word pagoda is sometimes used to collectively describe stupas and temples but generally refers to Japanese- and Chinese style towers inspired by South Asian stupas. The word pagoda is derived from dagada , the word used for relic chamber in Sri Lanka. Classic Japanese- and Chinese-style pagodas usually have multiple stories, each with a graceful, tiled Chinese-style roof, and a top roof capped by a spire. The base represents the earth, the spire symbolizes heaven, and the connecting piece symbolizing the cosmic axis, to the Way.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Theravada Buddhism: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Access to Insight accesstoinsight.org/ ; Readings in Buddhism, Vipassana Research Institute (English, Southeast Asian and Indian Languages) tipitaka.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Pali Canon Online palicanon.org ; Vipassanā (Theravada Buddhist Meditation) Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Pali Canon - Access to Insight accesstoinsight.org ; Forest monk tradition abhayagiri.org/about/thai-forest-tradition ; BBC Theravada Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Art: Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Buddhist Symbols viewonbuddhism.org/general_symbols_buddhism ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Guimet Museum in Paris guimet.fr ; Buddhist Artwork buddhanet.net/budart/index ; Asian Art at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art dsal.uchicago.edu/huntington ; Buddhist Art Resources academicinfo.net/buddhismart ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian freersackler.si.edu

Stupas


Shwe Bhone Point Pagoda (Stupa) in Myanamr

Stupas are generally solid, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic such as a hair or tooth from Buddha, relics or remains of eminent Buddhist figure, or a sacred Buddhist scripture. They are modeled on ancient Indian burial mounds. The base of the stupa is often sealed with a copper plate incised with a vishva-vajra crossed thunderbolt design that is regarded as protection from evil. Stupas themselves were venerated as symbols of the Buddha.

Buddhist stupas symbolize the Buddhist concept of the universe. The solid dome that rises up from the square or circular base is a representation of the dome-shaped sky enclosing the world-mountain, which pierce the dome to form a small balcony at the summit. At the center of the dome is a mast that represents that axis of the earth which rise from the waters that surround the world up to the cosmos. Square bases often also symbolize the earth. The shape of stupas may have been inspired by the staff and begging bowl of the wandering Buddha.

After Buddha’s death his relics were divided and a number of stupas were built to house them. Although no ancient stupas remain the relics they housed are believed to have been saved and placed in other stupas. Many of the oldest stupas date back to the period of Buddhist expansions during the rule of King Ashoka (268-239 B.C.)

The objects inside stupas are often unknown. A gold reliquary excavated from a 2nd century B.C. stupa in Bimaran Afghanistan was decorated with images of Buddha and Hindu gods. The reliquary is believed to have contained the ashes of a revered saint or some object he touched.

Over the centuries many old stupas became pilgrimage sites. Famous ones became the center of complex ceremonial areas. They were often surrounded by a railing with gateways, through which pilgrims entered the ceremonial ground. Stone lions guarded the entrances. Outside vendors sold food and offerings to pilgrims.

Buddhist Temples


Procession at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka

A temple is a place of worship as opposed to a shrine, which is a sacred place for praying. It generally contains an image of Buddha and has a place where Buddhists practice devotional activities. Temples attract large crowds during festivals or if they are famous but otherwise a fairly quiet. They are often sought as places for quiet meditation, with most acts of worship and devotion being done in front of an altar at home.

Buddhist temples are generally a cluster of buildings---whose number and size depends on the size of the temple---situated in an enclosed area. Large temples have several halls, where people can pray, and living quarters for monks. Smaller ones have a single hall, a house fore a resident monk and a bell. Some have cemeteries.

Temples can be several stories high and often have steeply sloped roofs are often supported by elaborately-decorated and colorfully-painted eaves and brackets. The main shrines often contain a Buddha statue, boxes of sacred scriptures, alters with lit candles, burning incense and other offerings as well as images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and devas. The central images depends on the sect.

Many temples are tourist attractions and outing destinations for local people. Souvenir amulets and other offerings are sold in little shops or booths; the names of large contributors are placed in special boxes; and priests are available to perform special rites.

The main hall is usually found at the center of the temple grounds. Inside are images of the Buddha, other Buddhist images, altars and space for monks and worshipers. The main hall is sometimes connected to a lecture hall, where monks gather to study and chant sutras.. Other buildings include a the sutra depositor, a library or place where Buddhist scripture are kept; living, sleeping, and eating areas for monks, and offices. Large temples often have special halls, where treasures are kept and displayed.

See Angkor Wat Cambodia

The chedi of temples produced during the Srivijaya period resemble Hindu-Buddhist stupas of central Java which have a “stacked” appearance.

Features of Buddhist Temples


inside Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Buddhist temples usually contain numerous Buddha statues. The central Buddha images are often surrounded by burning incense sticks and offerings of fruit and flowers. Some contain the ashes or bone reliquaries of popular holy man. Many Buddhist temples face south and sometimes to the east, but never to the north and west which are regarded as unlucky directions according to Chinese feng shui. Many temples are entered through the left door and exited through the right.

Some temples have shrines for making prayers to the dead filled with funerary plaques with photographs of dead relatives. The photographs are often of deceased people whose funeral ceremony was performed at the temple. Some temple feature sets of wooden plaques with the names of large contributors and other sets with afterlife names of deceased people. In the old days the afterlife names were only given only to Buddhist priests but now they are given to lay people who paid the right price and now in some places have become a kind of ranking system in the after life based in how much one has contributed..

Many Buddhist temples contain large bells, which are rung during the New Year and to mark other occasions, and cemeteries. The pathway to the temples is often lined with stone or paper lanterns donated by worshipers, or strung with prayer flags. Many temples are filled with small shops selling religious items.

Wats

A wat is a monastery temple in Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos set up as a place where men and women can be ordained as monks and nuns. “Wat” is a Thai word of Pali-Sanskrit derivation that means "school" or more accurately “dwelling” for students and monks. Almost every town, village precinct has at least one. Without an ordination area, which is designated by special markers, a building is technically not a wat but rather a residence for monks and nuns.


rural wat in Vieng Xai district in Huaphan Province, Laos

Strictly speaking a wat is a Buddhist sacred precinct with monks' quarters, the temple proper, an edifice housing a large image of Buddha, and a structure for lessons. A Buddhist site without a minimum of three resident monks cannot correctly be described as a wat, although the term is frequently used more loosely, even for ruins of ancient temples. (As a transitive or intransitive verb, wat means to measure, to take measurements; compare templum, from which temple derives, having the same root as template.) [Source: Wikipedia; Culture Shock! Thailand ]

In everyday language in Thailand, a wat is any place of worship except a mosque (su-rao; or - Thai rendering of masjid; a mosque may also be described as - bot khong Is-a-lam). Thus wat cheen is a Chinese temple (either Buddhist or Taoist), wat khaek is a Hindu temple, and wat kris or wat krit or wat farang is a Christian church. There is a separate term without wat for a mosque. In Cambodia, a wat is used to refer to all kinds of places of worship. Technically, wat generally refers to a Buddhist place of worship, but the technical term is (wat pootasasna). A Christian church can be referred as (vihear yeasu). Angkor Wat means city of temples.

According to Thai law, the Thai Buddhist temples are categorized into two types: Temples and monasteries. Temples (RTGS: Wat) are the temples having been endorsed by the State and having been granted the Wisungkhamasima , or land for establishment of central hall, by the King. These temples are divided into: 1) Royal temples (Phra Aram Luang), established or patronized by the King or his family members. 2)Private temples (Wat Rat), established by the private citizens. Despite the term "private", the private temples are opened to the public and are the sites of public religious activities also. Monasteries (RTGS: Samnak Song) are the temples without state endorsement and the Wisungkhamasima.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “In rural Thailand the wat serves as a combination religious center, grammar school, health clinic, herbal sauna house, community center, astrology house, transient guesthouse, funeral home and geriatric ward with monks and nuns serving as staff for one or more of these functions. The typical wat is also a focus for much festival activity and is thus an important social center for Thais. Especially lively are the ngaan wat or temple fairs: these take place regularly on certain auspicious dates and usually feature music, feasting, outdoor cinema and occasional fireworks. Another common type of celebration is the ngaan sop or funeral ceremony. A typical ngaan sop includes a lively procession (with musical accompaniment) from the deceased’s home to the wat. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

Wat Buildings


entrance to Wat Chiang Dao in Thailand

A typical Buddhist wat consists of the following buildings: 1) chaidei or chedi (from Sanskrit: chaitya, temple), usually conical or bell-shaped buildings, often containing relics of Buddha or important monks or rich men who donated a large chunk of the estate to the wat; 2) vihear or wihan (from Sanskrit: vihara), a meeting and prayer room; 3) mondop(from Sanskrit: Mandapa), a usually open, square building with four arches and a pyramidal roof, used to worship religious texts or objects; 4) sala (from Sanskrit: Shala - School, from an earlier meaning of shelter), a pavilion for relaxation or miscellaneous activities. The sala is where laymen gather for social activities and ceremonies such as the sukhwan nak (a lay ritual preceding the ordination of a monk) and funerals. In Thailand sometimes voting for elections takes place here.

5) The bot or ubosoth (from Pali uposatha) is the holiest prayer room in the wat. Also called the "ordination hall," it is where new monks take their vows and usually contains the main Buddha image in the wat. Architecturally it is similar to the vihara; the main differences are the eight cornerstones placed around the bot to ward off evil. The bot is usually more decorated than the viharn.

Other parts of the wat include: 6) the bibiloteca, Tripitaka library where Buddhist scriptures are kept; 7) drum tower; 8) bell tower; and 9)multipurpose hall or study hall, a building in a wat. In the past this hall was only for monks to study in. Parian is a Pali word meaning 'educated monk' or 'monk student'. The living quarters of the monks, including the kuti or kut (monk cells),are separated from the sacred buildings. The roofs of Thai temples are often adorned with chofahs.

Somewhere on the temple grounds is a bo (bodhi tree). It is often very large and has a saffron robe wrapped around the trunk. Ancillary buildings include schools, clinics, spirit houses and places where fortunetelling is done. To the west is a crematorium. Some wats are so large they resemble little cities. They have their own roads, shops and refreshment stands. Hundreds of monks and nuns live there. The wat grounds are separated from the outside by a wall.

Wat Architecture


Parts of a Thai Temple (Wat), "Krueng Lamyong": 1) Chofa; 2) Bai Rakha; 3) Ruay Rakha; 4) Nguang Aiyara; 5) Nak Sadoung; 6) Hang Hong; 7) Gra Jung Ruan; 8) Bua Jong Kol; 9) Jhua Bung Nok; 10) Khan Thuay

Wats are characterized by steep tiled roofs, with frescoes and mosaic decorations in the walls depicting the events of Buddha’s life. Wats are often clusters of buildings with the ordination hall being the most important structure. These have traditionally been built on a multilevel platform and are made of brick covered by stucco.

High peaked wat roofs are layered in odd numbers to correspond with certain Buddhist doctrines such as the three characteristics of existence and the seven factors of enlightenment. The edge of roofs often feature a repeated flame motif with long finger-like hooks in the corners that are said to catch evil spirits that fall on the building from above. The umbrella-like spires in the central roof ridge often have small nagas (serpents that protected Buddha) arranged in a double-step fashion said to represent Mt. Meru.

Religious Architecture in Laos

The styles of these Laotian Sanctuaries are determined by their positions in the community and the layout of the roofs : the vihans (sanctuaries) with circular naves, nearly all situated in the area of Luang Prabang, are in the style of this province. For the others, it is possible to differentiate the three principle styles:

1) The style of Luang Prabang, is characterized by its huge pointed roofs made from flat tiles which are put down in successive layers, normally two or three, stopping only a few metres from the ground. [Source: LuangPrabang-Laos.com ^^]

2) The style of Xieng Khouang, presents an accentuated form of the characteristics described above : the roofs come nearly all the way down to the ground, and their cross sections are almost perfect pentagons. We can see in this style a provincial version of the Luang Prabang style, structures built in this way are nearly all situated in the province of Xieng Khouang, to the South-East of Luang Prabang. You can also see the original style of the Lao vihans, the style of Luang Prabang only representing the result of a long evolution; it would appear that the old vihans of Luang Prabang belong to the Xieng Khouang style. ^^

3) The style of Vientiane is a more tapering style, the part that the roof plays in the structure is less important here and the openings are higher. ^^

Laos Temple Architecture


Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos

Wats are characterized by steep tiled roofs, with frescoes and mosaic decorations in the walls depicting the events of Buddha’s life. Wats are often clusters of buildings with the uposatha (ordination hall) being the most important structure. These have traditionally been built on a multilevel platform and are made of brick covered by stucco. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Lao-style thats (stupas) have a distinctive curvilinear, four-corned shape, said the to represent the unfurling of a lotus bud, along with the steeple-like spire that many stupas have. Pha That Luang in Vientiane is regarded as the model of this style (See Vientiane). =

The high peaked roofs are layered in odd numbers to correspond with certain Buddhist doctrines such as the three characteristics of existence and the seven factors of enlightenment. The edge of roofs often feature a repeated flame motif with long finger-like hooks in the corners that are said to catch evil spirits that fall on the building from above. The umbrella-like spires in the central roof ridge often have small nagas (serpents that protected Buddha) arranged in a double-step fashion said to represent Mt. Meru. =

Burmese Religious Architecture

The main building types found at Pagan and other ancient and historical sites—and modern places too—are stupas, temples and monasteries. Stupas are solid structures that typically cannot be entered and were constructed to contain sacred Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples have an open interior that may be entered and in which are displayed one or more cult images as a focus for worship. Although this simple distinction between Stupa and temple is useful, the distinction is not always clear. There are stupas such as the Myazedei that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines. A third building type of which there are abundant examples is the monastery that can be either a one-room building or a vast complex of buildings.


Chan That Gyi pagoda in Mogok, Myanmar

The lotus motif is a decorative feature found on the architecture of Buddhist shrines and sacred depositories such as chedis (stupas). The upper part of a chedi just below the pinnacle consists of the diamond bud—the pennant-shaped vane. The umbrella (hti) is an elongated bulbous portion of the chedi known as the banana bud. Just below it is the Kya-yint (Mumifh) that is a motif of large lotus petals encircling the chedi. Next is the Kya-lan (Mumvef), which is the part of the chedi that resembles a spreading upturned lotus flower. Then comes the Kya-nu which is a motif of small lotus petals. And lastly is the Kya-Hmauk (MumarSmuf), which resembles an inverted lotus flower. These motifs add to the grace and beauty of chedis. The lotus motif also decorates the pinnacles of tiered roofs of monasteries and palaces and there is also a vessel somewhat like a fruit stand decorated with lotus petals for offering food and fruits at sacred Buddha shrines. The exotic lotus is a motif which also adorns the gold thrones on which we place Buddha images.

Ordination halls in temples and monasteries in Myanmar are called Thein in Myanmar, from the Pali “Sima.” They are used not only for the ordination ceremony itself but also for other such ceremonies as the confession by monks.

Burmese Pagodas and Stupas

Burma is famous for its large and graceful pagodas. A pagoda. in Southeast Asia. is cone-shaped monumental structure built in memory of Buddha. But in the Far East a pagoda is a tower-like, multistoried structure of stone, brick. or wood. usually associated with a Buddhist temple complex. The pagoda derives from the stupa of ancient India, which was a dome-shaped commemorative monument usually erected over the remains or relics of a holy man or king. The hemispherical domed stupa of ancient India evolved into several distinct forms in various parts of Southeast and East Asia. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

The finial, or decorative crowning ornament of the stupa, became more elongated and cylindrical until the stupa's upper portion took on an attenuated, tower-like appearance. This stupa form was adopted by Buddhism as an appropriate form for a monument enshrining sacred relics and became known to Westerners as a pagoda. The Buddhist pagoda was elaborated in Tibet into a bottle-shaped form; it took pyramidal or conical designs in Burma. In Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China, Korea and Japan it evolved into the best-known pagoda form. =

The stereotypical east Asian pagoda is a tall tower consisting of a vertical repetition of a basic story unit in regularly diminishing proportions. The stories can have a circular square or polygonal plan. Each story in an East Asian pagoda has its own prominent projecting roof line. and the whole structure is capped by a mast and disks. The pagoda form is intended primarily as a monument and has very little usable interior space. =

Thai Styles of Religious Architecture


Wat Yai Chai in Mongkon

The Thai style of religious architecture features whitewashed stucco walls, small windows, two or three-tiered roofs, curved pediments and naga lintels over the doors and steps. Thai Lu stupas are typically gilded and octagonal in shape and are covered with Thai Lu fabrics

Sukhothai architecture is dominated by Lotus-bud-shaped stupas, which feature a conical spire topping a square-structure resting on a three-tiered base. Bell-shaped Sri Lankan style stupas and double-tiered Srivijaya stupas are also featured prominently. Many of the buildings were constructed by artisans using mortared bricks covered in stucco. Five centuries of neglect have caused virtually all the stucco—and the bas reliefs that were carved into it—to wash and decay away. In some places you will see Buddha statues backed by chedis. What has happened at these places is the building that once housed the statue have crumbled away.

A typical Sukhothai chedi (from top to bottom) features: 1) a lotus bulb finial symbolizing nirvana at the top; 2) a conical spire and circular tiers signifying the heavens; 3) a shaft; 4) the hamika; 5) the relic chamber (the top of the dome portion of the chedi, which sits under the spire part); 6) the platform, usually built in three levels, representing the “Three Worlds”; and 7) the base.

The central prang at Wat Chai Wattanaram illustrates the basic features of Ayutthaya-style architecture. At the top of the dome-like prang are pediments, antefix decorations and circular tiers symbolizing the lower heavens. The base is topped by platforms representing the celestial regions of the Traphum. In the middle are niches with sculpted guardians or Buddha images.


Lan-Na-style Wat Thao Kham Wang in Chiang Ma Province, Thailand

The Lan Na style of northern Thailand features a roof that is very pointed and steep at the top and gradually flares and is almost horizontal at the bottom and often almost touches the ground. Locals sometimes say these roofs resemble to the wings of a hen protecting her chicks. Many wats have gold-leaf-covered doors and outer walls. Another identifying feature of the North is the ancient Lan Na architectural motif known as ruean kalae, the horn-like woodcarving crossed over the gable of the house, showing the aesthetic sense of the Northerners, as well as the skill in woodcarving inherited by modern-day craftsmen.

Peter Jon Lindberg wrote in Travel and Leisure magazine: “Temples in northern Thailand are more modest than those in Bangkok, though many boast intricately carved fretwork, mirror-glass mosaics, and gold leaf. Wood is the dominant material; gold is less common here than in the wealthier south. A hallmark of Lanna construction is the cho fa, the V-shaped finial that crowns the apex of a temple's pitched roof. Builders often left ceiling beams exposed to highlight the temple's "honest architecture." Many of the buildings at Dhara Dheviare representative of Lanna style, as are incidental details such as the terra-cotta pots of "drinking water."

Buddhist Temple Customs and Etiquette

People visit wats whenever they feel like it. Many do so on wan phra (excellent days) that occur on the full and new moons every 15 days. Visitors to wats make offereings, engage in chanting and mediation and give offerings of food to monks and nuns.

People are supposed to take off their shoes before entering the main hall of a temple and leave umbrellas outside. They are also expected to be neatly dressed. Hats should be removed. Short sleeve shirts, short pants, short skirts and pants for women are generally regarded as inappropriate attire but are often grudgingly tolerated from foreigners. Some cultures require visitors to take off their shoes (and sometimes their socks) when entering the temple grounds. Others only require that they be removed when entering a temple building, shrine or pagoda. Some people wash their feet before entering a temple.

Women are pretty much allowed to go wherever they want except for the monk’s quarters. Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments, thus keeping the religious landmarks to your right (this is more important in Tibet and Himalayan areas than it is in Southeast Asia). Don't walk in front of praying people. Don’t take photos during prayers or meditation sessions. Don’t use a flash. As a rule don’t take photos unless you are sure it is okay.

Buddha images are sacred objects and one should not pose in front of them or point their feet at them. When sitting down many local people employ the “mermaid pose” (sitting on your heels) to keep both feet pointed towards the rear. Photographing Buddha images is considered disrespectful, but again, is tolerated from foreign tourists. When leaving, don't raise yourself higher than the Buddha statue and do not turn your back to it; back away instead.


students praying and paying respect to the Buddha in Thailand

Praying is done by prostrating oneself or bowing with hands clasped to their foreheads from a standing or seated position in front of an image of Buddha. Prayers are often made after tossing a coin or banknote into an offering box and leaving an offering of flowers or fruits or something else. Many people visit different altars, leaving some burning incense and praying at each one. Other bow at the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life. Other still, kowtow before shrines, bend down and stretch three times. In big temples money can be left in a donation boxes near the entrance. If there is no donation box. You can leave the money on the floor.

Monks should be greeted with three wais (Southeast Asian prayer bow greetings). When talking to a monk try if you can to have your head lower than his. This can be achieved by bowing slightly or sitting down. If a monk is sitting down you to should also be sitting down. Women should not touch a monk or give objects directly to him (instead place the object on a table or some other surface near the monk). On buses and trains, people customarily give up their seat to monks.

The ambience inside a wat is much more anything goes than inside a Christian church. While some people are praying before the Buddha image others are having conversations and drinking tea. Some wats even have spittoons for spitting out betel-nut juice. This is because Buddhist worship is viewed as an individual act rather than a group activity and people do it or don’t when and how they please. Don’t be surprised to see monks smoking cigarettes or using cell phones on the wat grounds or even inside wat buildings. Sometimes temples can be quite noisy. Temples have sponsored drumming contests attended competing groups of monks from up to 30 temples.

Theravada Buddhist Chanting and Protestation

A Buddhist chant is a form of musical verse or incantation, in some ways analogous to Hindu, Christian or Jewish religious recitations. Almost every Buddhist school has some tradition of chanting associated with it, regardless of being Theravada or Mahayana. In Buddhism, chanting is the traditional means of preparing the mind for meditation; especially as part of formal practice (in either a lay or monastic context). Some forms of Buddhism also use chanting for ritualistic purposes. While the basis for most Theravada chants is the Pali Canon, Mahayana and Vajrayana chants draw from a wider range of sources. [Source: Wikipedia]


family praying at a temple in Myanmar

In the Theravada tradition, chanting is usually done in Pali, sometimes with vernacular translations interspersed. Among the most popular Theravada chants are: 1)Buddhabhivadana (Preliminary Reverence for the Buddha); 2) Tisarana (The Three Refuges); 3) Pancasila (The Five Precepts); 4) Buddha Vandana (Salutation to the Buddha); 5) Dhamma Vandana (Salutation to his Teaching); 6) Sangha Vandana (Salutation to his Community of Noble Disciples); 7) Upajjhatthana (The Five Remembrances); 8) Metta Sutta (Discourse on Loving Kindness); 9) Reflection on the Body (recitation of the 32 parts of the body).

Inside a temple hall, chanting monks usually sit on a platform that is physically higher than the floor area where laymen sit.

Buddhists pay respect to the Buddha to show their gratitude to Him for showing the way to Enlightenment and liberation by: folded palms (placed together and raised to the level of the chest) and prostration. Folded palms express a deep reverence to the Triple Gem - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Prostrating before an image of the Buddha or members of the Sangha expresses our deep veneration. It also helps us to overcome egoistic feelings (pride) to become more ready to listen to the Teaching of the Buddha. [Source: buddhanet.net +

According to Buddha,net: “As we prostrate before the Buddha images, we recall the qualities of the Buddha and develop respect for their qualities such as loving-kindness, compassion, virtue, patience, concentration and wisdom. Showing respect to the Buddha and his qualities inspires us to develop these extraordinary qualities ourselves. +

Buddhist Offerings

Offerings are objects set on altar tables before images of The Buddha and Buddhist deities at temples or at home. Among the items presented as offerings are special flowers, lotus blossoms, rice balls, fruit, sweets, amulets, coins, business cards, lotus buds, holy water, tea, candles, and incense.


typical shrine offerings: flowers, candles and incense

In Theravada Buddhism worship and devotion to persons is frowned upon. The offerings of fruit, incense and flowers are symbols of impermanence not an object of worship. Flowers wilt, food decays and candles, lamps and incense go out. Buddhists believe the soul of the offering is taken, not the offering itself. Food offerings are sometimes eaten after they are presented and flowers are sometimes ground up and used as fertilizer. The leaving of offerings as tributes to deities and Bodhisattvas is more acceptable among Mahayana Buddhists.

Worshipers at temples often visit different altars, make offering of lotus buds or flowers and leaving burning incense and candles at each one. Some people pray by bringing their clasped hands to their foreheads and then place three incense sticks at the altar. Others bow at the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life. Others still, kowtow before shrines, by bending down and stretching three times, or by prostrating themselves.

Votive offerings are usually made in the shape of the things that people want. A model of a breast is presented for a large supply of mother's milk. Many Buddhist homes and business run by Buddhists (in Thailand, even brothels) contain an altar of some sort. The altar usually features images of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, devas, photographs of family members and famous monks as well as offerings of flowers, candles, incense lotus blossoms, rice balls, incense, fruit, sweets and amulets.

Theravada Buddhist Offerings

Offerings left by Theravada Buddhists include lotus buds, incense and candles left at altars and before relics such as bone reliquaries around the wat compound. Sometimes a square of gold leaf is pressed on an image of the Buddha. Afterwards worshippers often leave a small amount of money (usually less than $1) in the donation box. This money goes towards unkeep of the temple.

1) Offering of Light (Lamp/Candle): A) Light symbolizes wisdom. B) Light drives away darkness. C) Similarly, the light of wisdom dispels the darkness of ignorance. 2) Offering of Incense: A) When incense is lit, its fragrance spreads. B) Incense symbolizes the fragrance of pure moral conduct. C) This reminds us to cultivate good conduct. [Source: buddhanet.net +]


Thai flower offering

3) Offering of Flowers: A) The freshness, fragrance and beauty of flowers are impermanent. B) Fresh and beautiful flowers will soon become withered, scentless and discoloured. C) This reminds us of the Buddha's teaching that all things are impermanent. D) We should value what we have now and live in the present. 4) Offering of Water: A) Water symbolizes purity, clarity and calmness. B) This reminds us to practise the Buddha's teachings, so as to cleanse our minds, which are full of desire, ill-will and ignorance, and to attain the state of purity. 5) Offering of Fruit: A: Fruit symbolizes the ultimate fruit of Enlightenment which is our goal. B) Fruit also reminds us that all actions will have their effect. +

Making offerings can be done at home or in a temple. The rules for making offerings are not fixed. There is a great variety in the ways individuals go about the practice. In Southeast Asian wats usually a candle is lit first and placed among other candles. Sometimes flowers are placed in water. Then incense sticks are lit and placed between the palms in a wai and prayer while chants are quietly murmured or said inside one’s head while sitting in the respect position. The prayers may express desire for good health or ask for a good score on an exam.

What is the purpose of making offerings to the Buddha? According to Buddha.met: “ 1) We make offerings not because the Buddha needs them - the Buddha is an enlightened being, He certainly does not need an incense stick to be happy! 2) Nor do we make offerings to win the Buddha's favour. The Buddha developed universal loving-kindness and compassion long ago and won't be swayed by flattery and bribery the way we ordinary beings are. 3) We make offerings to create positive energy and develop good qualities such as giving with a respectful attitude and gratitude. 4) Moreover, the offerings remind us of certain teachings of the Buddha. +

Outside temples, young children with caged songbirds offer visitors the chance to set them free. For a small amount of money, children will open the cages and release the birds which is said to bring luck and earn the liberator merit which can be used in next reincarnation. The birds are usually sparrows or finches. Many of the birds are caught again.

Buddha-Kissing French Tourists Condemned

In August 2012, AFP reported: Three French tourists convicted in Sri Lanka for desecrating a temple by photographing themselves kissing and posing with a Buddha statue drew condemnation for their "uncivilised behaviour". The National Heritage Party, which is in the coalition government, said the trio of travellers aged 26-35 had been insensitive to the religious feelings of the island's majority Buddhists. "Sri Lankans consider this statue to be sacred. They desecrated it. This is uncivilised behaviour," Heritage Party spokesman Udaya Gammanpila told AFP, referring to the statue in the Ambekke Temple in the central district of Kandy. "We condemn this action of the three French tourists and urge Westerners to please respect our culture and act decently," Gammanpila added. [Source: AFP, August 22, 2012]


Ko Yin Lay Hill Four-Sided Pagoda

The photos violated local laws protecting religious feelings and the two women and man were sentenced to six months in jail, which was suspended for five years by a magistrate in the southern town of Galle on Tuesday. One of the women, who arrived on August 4 in the capital Colombo for a tour of tourist towns and the beach, posed pretending to kiss the statue on the lips, a photo published on a local website showed. The magistrate fined the trio 1,500 rupees ($11) each, ordered the destruction of the photos, but handed back the camera and their passports.

As well as the photo of the woman appearing to kiss the statue, the man tried to imitate the pose of the Buddha, police told the magistrate. "If we had not arrested them and prosecuted them, they would have taken the pictures abroad, published them and gloated," police spokesman Ajith Rohana told AFP. "They had not only broken Sri Lankan law, but they have also violated universally accepted norms of respecting religious symbols of others," Rohana said. "We condemn this and urge tourists not to make religious offence."

Officers were alerted to the incident after the travellers, named as Cristina Bras, Jorge Bras and Emilie Fontaine, tried to get their holiday pictures printed at a photo shop in Galle on Monday. "I am also a Buddhist and I was very hurt when I saw what was in the pictures," the owner of the shop, Prasanna Gamage, told AFP by telephone. "That is why I refused to print them and called the police."

In 2010, Sri Lanka prevented US rap star Akon from visiting over his music video which featured scantily clad women dancing in front of a Buddha statue. In 2004, Sri Lanka's Supreme Court ordered police and customs to seize CDs of Buddha Bar chill-out music.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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