TIBETAN BUDDHIST RITUALS AND SACRED OBJECTS

TIBETAN BUDDHIST OBJECTS

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Skull Queen of Heaven
Ritual objects play an important role in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the power of Buddha can be experienced through statues and other images of Buddha.

Some of the main objects in Tibetan Buddhism include the wheel of law (representing the law of the Buddha set in motion); the mandala (symbolizing a miniature cosmos and the platform on which the Buddha addresses his followers); the prayer wheel (inscribed with mani prayers and containing a sutra scroll attached to the axel); and the bumpa vase (containing grass roots symbolizing longevity and peacock feathers symbolizing purity).

Buddhist ceremonial objects are regarded as dignified and solemn and the craftsmen who produce them regard their work as a way of earning merit for their next life. The objects are often adorned with gold, silver, gems and semi-precious stones.

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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 ; Tibetan Buddhism: ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Tibetan Buddhist archives sacred-texts.com ; Buddha.net list of Tibetan Buddhism sources buddhanet.net ; Tibetan Buddhist Meditation tricycle.org/magazine/tibetan-buddhist-meditation ; Gray, David B. (Apr 2016). "Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. oxfordre.com/religion ; Wikipedia article on Tibetan Buddhism Wikipedia ; Shambhala.com. larges publisher of Tibetan Buddhist Books shambhala.com ; tbrc.org ; Tibetan Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/tibetan ; Book: Tibetan Buddhism by L. Austine Waddell

Tibetan Buddhist Offerings

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dorje and bell
Tibetan Buddhists leave things like flowers, food, small banknotes and barley grains as offerings. They also drape white and yellow gauze strips around statues, spoon yak butter into lamps, and turn prayer wheels. Swaths of sheep wool are sometimes hung to ensure a good harvest.

The Seven Bowls of Water are found on all altars and are replenished twice a day. The seven bowls represent the Seven Examined Men’the first seven monks in Tibet. Ever day Tibetan lamas make offerings of mounds of rice which represent Mt. Meru. Poor Himalayan sometimes simply leave an offering of water rather flowers and food.

Torma are smalloffereings made of yak butter and tsampa (roasted barely flour) adorned with medallions made of butter. They are often colored. Most are made for the Shoun festival and then kept on display for the rest of the year.

Butter lamps are continuously kept lit in all monasteries and many private homes. Pilgrims often enter monasteries with a tub of butter and a spoon and use them top off the butter lamps.

Votive offerings in Tibetan Buddhism include the Five Altar Offerings (a censer placed between two candlesticks and two vases) and the Seven Regal Symbols (the Wheel of the Law, the White Elephant, the Horse, the Precious Jewel, the Queen, the Minister of Economics and the Army General).

Tantric Ritual Objects and Human Bones

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Skull cup
The thunderbolt (dorje or vajra) and bell (drilbu) are ritual objects used in Tantric rites that symbolize male and female aspects. The male thunderbolt is a double-headed object held in the right hand. Associated with skill and compassion, it is regarded as indestructible and has the power to cut through ignorance. The bell is held in the left hand. It represents wisdom, emptiness and nirvana.

The ritual dagger (phurbu) is used in Tantric rituals to “drive the invocation on it way.” Based on a design used by Guru Rinpoche to nail down evil spirits, it has three sides which cut through the core of passion, ignorance and aggression.

Tibetans use cups and bowls made of human skulls and flutes carved out of human thigh bones. Some ceremonies at Portala Palace in Lhasa incorporate hourglass-shaped drums fashioned from two skulls, and a container made from a silver-encrusted upside-down skull (the jaw bone serves as the container's lid). Skull drums are usually covered by leather. Sometimes they are covered with human skin. The bones belong to revered lamas and monks.

Tibetan Buddhists also use rosaries made of beads from 108 different skulls. Objects made with human bones are not regarded as gruesome but rather as symbols of the shortness of life and need for religion to facilitate rebirth. Each time the beads are touched, a prayer is said and merit is earned.

Other Tibetan Buddhist Objects

Mala beads (rosaries or prayer beads) are often made of dried seeds. There are usually 108 beads, an auspicious number in Tibetan Buddhism. Praying Buddhists pass their prayer beads through their fingers, keeping careful count of their prayers. A bead is ticked off each time a prayer is recited. A second string is often used to keep track of the higher multiples of prayers.

Singing bowls are made from a secret blend of seven different metals. Intended as meditation devices, they produce a chant-like humming noise when a stick is rotated around the outer edge. The devices have their origin in Buddhist bon practices.

Pronged scepters attract spiritual energy like lightning rods; bells are intended to wake up the mind. A tsatsa is a small icon made from clay selected at sacred sites. A spirit trap is a series of interlocking threads often places on a tree. They are supposed to catch evil spirits and are burnt after their mission has been accomplished.

Tibetan Buddhist Rituals

Life is dominated by religion. Religion is a daily, if not hourly practice. Tibetans spend much of their time in prayer or doing activities, such as spinning prayer wheels and hanging prayer flags, that earn them merit. Tibetan Buddhists also send their sons to monasteries, participate in pilgrimages, do good deeds and present gifts to lamas to earn merit.

The Chinese artist Zhang Huan, who visited Tibet in 2005, told the New York Times the trip irrevocably altered his thinking and his art making. “One day in Lhasa, I got up at 4 a.m. and went to the Jokhang Temple, the biggest one in Tibet, and I saw men and women already lining up for miles,” Mr. Zhang said. He said he was amazed by the sight of pilgrims crawling to the site in the middle of traffic, in a seeming clash between modernity and ancient tradition. “I have been to the most famous museums in the world, and I have never seen a sight as striking as this,” he said. [Source: Barbara Pollack, New York Times, September 12, 2013]

Common rituals include rubbing holy stones together and performing the traditional blessing of dipping a finger in milk and flicking it towards the sky (more common in Mongolia than Tibet). Buildings are blessed by a lama who circles it twice and casts handfuls of rice in all directions.l Many Tibetans ight juniper branches that give off an intensely fragrant smell. As one Tibetan Buddhist explained, "Before you do anything, you have to have the permission of the gods."

During rituals led by a major lama, incense and yak butter lamps are lit, tea is quietly served by servants to the lamas sitting on a stage as the audience sits quietly. Petitioners wait in a line for a word with the lama.

During Himalayan Buddhist exorcism rituals, first, food and offerings are presented to the gods on an altar; then, a lama makes a mandala on the alter with sand; and finally the demons are driven off when the food is thrown on a fire made of yak dung and kindling. Sometimes the demons are simply lured into a dish and the dish is tossed into a fire. In Mustangese exorcism ceremonies, monks symbolically hurl painted arrows from bows, stones from slingshots and bullets from muzzle-loading guns at masked demons. And sometimes a policeman-monk with peacock feathers for a nightstick is on hand to keep order. In the chasing of the demons ritual entire cities are exorcized with three days of dancing.

See Festivals, Superstitious Customs, Shaman Healers, Health Care

Tibetan Buddhist Customs

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Giving a khatang
Followers of Tibetan Buddhism walk around stupas, temples, sacred mountains or other objects of devotion in a clockwise direction one or an odd number times often while chanting sacred words—usually “Om Mani Padme Hum." Some finger their beads, counting off prayers in auspicious denominations of nine. Some walk around several times, always in odd numbers, and some place offerings or burn juniper at different places. People who enter a monastery take off their shoes first and sometimes wash their feet. They then enter the building, bow to the altar and sprinkle water, a symbol of life, on the ground. Pilgrims tap their forehead to faded silk scarves hanging inside chapels. Always circumambulate clockwise around temples, stupas and other landmarks of religious significance, thus keeping the religious landmarks to your right. White scarves (hada, khatang or hadag) are presented to holy images and important people. Exchanging them is a form of greeting. Visitors arriving in Lhasa are sometimes given these scarves by their guides sort of like the way tourists arriving in Hawaii are given leis. Don't take prayer flags or Mani stones. Don't remove any objects from an altar. Don't take photos during prayers and meditation. As a rule don't take photos without permission and don't use a flash. Don't wear shorts or short skirts or hats in temples or monasteries. The killing of animals, especially dogs, is considered a sin in Tibetan Buddhism. Many cities and villages are filled with stray dogs.

Tibetan Buddhist Prayers, Mantras and Chants

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Om mani padma hum

The Tibetan worship gesture, involves clasping the hands in the prayer position and touching the hands to the head, mouth and heart. Pilgrims at sacred sites often do this and then raise their hands to the sky and prostrate themselves on the ground.

Morning prayers at monasteries begin with the lighting of endless rows of yak-butter candles, chants and blasts from long horns. Common mantras are those for Guru Rinpoche (“om ah hum vajra guru padma siddhi hung”) and Jampelyang (“om ahra paza nu dhi dhi").

The most common chant is om mani padme hum ("Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus"), which means "I invoke this path to experience the universality, so the jewel-like luminosity of my immortal mind will be unfolded within the depths of the lotus-center of awakened consciousness and I be wafted by ecstacy of breaking through all bonds and horizons." It is the mantra of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

Tibetan Buddhist Oracle

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: The Dalai Lama “relies most heavily on the "state oracle," a deity called Nechung, who communicates through a human medium, usually a monk.” According to the Dalai Lama's description in his memoir, the medium slips into a trance "with bulging eyes and swollen cheeks. . . . His breathing begins to shorten and he starts to hiss violently." The Dalai Lama poses questions, and the oracle responds with enigmatic advice. On complex affairs of state, he writes, "I seek his opinion in the same way as I seek the opinion of my Cabinet." For further help, the Dalai Lama relies on a form of mo divination, in which choices are written on pieces of paper and placed in balls of dough. He then swirls the balls in a cup until the right answer tumbles out. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010]

When how he balances his trust in science with his faith in the supernatural, he told The New Yorker that he views the oracles as "consultants." "After I consult human beings and these oracles, if there's something clear, something which I can now decide, thenI decide,” he told me. He said he had made “all major decisions” from the age of sixteen with the help of the oracles, and he had become convinced that they are correct. [Ibid]

“These days, the Nechung medium is Thupten Ngodup, an amiable fiftyish monk who likes to garden in his spare time,” Osnos wrote.. “When I visited him one morning in Dharamsala, he explained that he’d been an ordinary monk, overseeing the sculptures and incense at a monastery, until one day, in 1987, when the deity suddenly chose him as the medium---a physical sensation that he compared to an electric shock. “My position is very difficult,” he said. He had joined the monastery at the age of nine, never expecting much drama. “When the oracle chooses me, I’m just a normal monk.” His job now requires him to be on call whenever the Dalai Lama needs a consultation. “Anytime His Holiness needs, he calls.” [Ibid]

Tibetan Buddhist Prostration

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Prostration is an important expression of Tibetan devotion. To earn merit Tibetan pilgrims prostrate themselves by lying face-down on the ground and stretching out their arms and legs. In many cases they repeatedly stretch themselves completely on the ground and touch their hands to the foreheads (representing the mind), mouths (speech) and chest (body) each time.

Tibetans ideally prostrate themselves 100,000 times a year. Not only do they prostrate themselves around temples they also do it on roads, streets and sidewalks. Some pilgrims cover the entire 33-mile route around Mount Kailis or travel from their hometowns to Lhasa, repeatedly prostrating themselves, or crawling on their stomach or walking on their knees. So they so they don't hurt themselves while covering long distances in this way many serious pilgrims wear padded mitts and knee pads.

Pilgrims who repeatedly prostrate themselves while making the circuit of Mt. Kailas take one step, make a Tibetan prayer gesture, raise their hands in prayer, and lay down on the ground, their arms extended in front of them. Then they stand up and place their feet where their fingertips had just touched and repeat the process again. Those that do this often wear knee pads, aprons and canvas shoes on their hands and take two or three weeks to complete the journey.

See Pilgrims

Tibetan Buddhist Meditation

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Dalai Lama meditating
Meditation is the act of relaxing and clearing the mind through balancing mental, physical, and emotional states, getting rid of all thoughts about the past and present and focusing on the present. This is done by shutting out the outside world and focusing within often with the aid of sounds, words, images and/or breath.

Meditation is very important in Buddhism. It is thought of as a mental exercise that helps one tap into the infinite force of the universe, explore the true nature of existence, gain insights into true reality, see the insufficiency and unreality of sensory experience, and develop correct thoughts and actions. Meditation is usually taught by a meditation master and the methods vary from sect to sect and person to person. Some methods of meditation are based on discourses in the Pali language.

The Dalai Lama said, "The very purpose of meditation is to disciple the mind and reduce afflictive emotions." For centuries Buddhists and Hindus have used meditation as a tool to focus their energy inward to explore the mental state of joy, get rid of negative emotions and develop wisdom, compassion and improve well being on a individual and societal level.

Some nuns meditate while pouring seeds into a plate, brushing them off and collecting them and then repeating the process over and over again. One yogi old National Geographic, “You have to go through the boredom of repitition until an energy arises of itself” and “then you will find yourself entirely free of wanting anything.”

Some Bhutanese monks have reportedly mastered a form of meditation known as "lunggom"---meaning "walking on air"---which allows the monks to project themselves and travel around the countryside without leaving the monastery. One monk told a National Geographic writer who asked him demonstrate, "Unfortunately, it takes much time to learn the theoretical aspects of lunggom before one can put it into practice so I'm afraid that we will just have to walk normally."

Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Caves

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Ritual objects
Some Tibetan monks and nuns live in caves, some of them set into 500-foot-high cliffs. They often stay there with butter lamps, religious relics and dried juniper branches for protection. It is not unusual for monks and nuns to spend several years in solitary retreat. One monk told National Geographic, "Four months ago I came here. There are other monks and nuns around us in solitary mediation. I will soon mediate for three years, three months, and three days."

Describing a meditation cave, Jere Van Dyk wrote in National Geographic, "We saw statues of Buddha and pictures of the Dalai Lama. A man chanted softly. He wore a thick maroon coat and had close cut hair." The people who meditate generally eat very little. Some ascetics subsist on something called Essence Extraction, a spoonful of finely ground rock boiled in water, consumed twice a day.

One monk who meditated in a cave through much of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, emerged in the late 1990s when he reached the level of spiritual growth he had been seeking. Chinese became fascinated with his story and appeared in droves to listen to his lectures.

Tibetan Buddhist Temple Customs

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Butter lamps
Temples are places where people pray, meditate participate in religious ceremonies, make offerings, light butter lamps, incense and candles, offer food to monks, meditate alone or in groups, chant mantras, listen to monks chant mantras, or attend lectures or discussions led by respected teachers. Individuals may also seek counseling from monks on nuns on personal matters. Buddhists are not required to visit temples.

Always walk clockwise around Buddhist monuments, keeping the religious landmarks to your right. The Buddhist practice of circling stupas and religion sites is believed to have been derived from cults that circled solar temples.

People are supposed to take off their shoes before entering a temple. Some cultures require visitors to take their shoes off when entering the temple grounds. Others only require that they be removed when entering a shrine or pagoda. Some people wash their feet before entering a temple. Shoes get the temple dirty and desecrate it. This custom may be rooted in the belief, particularly common in Southeast Asia, that the head is the highest and most virtuous part of the body and the feet are the lowest, dirtiest and most despicable part.

People should have their arms and legs covered when they enter a temple. It is generally okay to wear pants. Wearing improper attire---such as men with no shirts or women in short skirts---in a religious shrine is considered disrespectful. Hats should also be removed. In places with lots of tourists, short pants are tolerated. Don’t take photos during prayers and meditation. When taking a picture of a Buddhist monk, ask their permission first. As a rule don’t take photos without permission and don’t use a flash.

See Customs

Tibetan Buddhist Household Shrines

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Offerings in a temple
The most important part of a Tibetan house is arguably the prayer room. Pankraj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “The Tibetans love color and baroque decoration was on full display on the paneled chests painted with floral designs, and thick frescoed columns the thangkas, representing scenes from the Buddha’s life, sashes hanging from the ceiling, the pile of Tibetan scripture bound in bright-yellow silk, and the row of silver lamps before an extravagantly gilded shrine...On one relatively bare wall was poster, the mandatary picture of Hu Jintao. It was even bigger than the thangka.” Inside one of the paneled chests was a picture of the Dalai Lama.

Most homes in Ladakh have a small chapel on the roof or in a shed-like temple near the home or a shrine or altar kept in an honored place in the home. Inside the chapel there may be some religious texts, a golden Buddha statue or a shrouded statue of Yamanataka, a god that is so horrible that no one should look at his image, especially women. Some shrines are decorated with pictures of lamas. Yak butter lamps are lit and offerings are made to Buddha and Yamanataka to ward off evil spirit. Car accidents and illnesses often blamed on houses that are not properly protected against these spirits.

Image Sources: Purdue University, Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/, Mongabay.com, Kalachakranet.org, Tibet Government in Exile, Save Tibet

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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