There is a thin boundary between reverence for the Buddha's memory and worship of the Buddha as a god, and the unsophisticated layperson often crosses this line by worshiping him as a transcendent divine being. The relics of the Buddha, for example, have miraculous powers; the literature and folklore of the Sinhalese are full of tales recounting the amazing events surrounding relics. During the construction of a Buddha image, the painting of the eyes is an especially important moment when the image becomes "alive" with power. At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, where the Buddha's Tooth Relic is enshrined, rituals include elements from Hindu temple worship, such as feeding and clothing of the Buddha. In general, devotees believe that the Buddha's enlightenment makes him an all-powerful being, able to control time and space and all other supernatural beings. The Buddha is so pure and powerful that he does not intervene personally in the affairs of the world. That is the job of a pantheon of gods (deva) and demons (yakka) who control material and spiritual events. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

For people who do not become monks, the most effective method of progressing on the road to enlightenment is to accumulate merit (pin) through moral actions. One who performs duties faithfully in this world, who supports the monastic order, and who is compassionate to other living beings may hope to achieve a higher birth in a future life, and from that position accumulate sufficient merit and knowledge to achieve enlightenment. *

Meritorious activities include social service, reverence of the Buddha at shrines or at dagoba, and pilgrimage to sacred places. Gifts to monks rank among the most beneficial meritmaking activities. Lay devotees invite monks to major events, such as a death in the family or the dedication of a building, and publicly give them food and provisions. In return, the monks perform pirit, the solemn recitation of Pali Buddhist scriptures. Although the average person may not understand a word of the ancient language, simply hearing the words and bestowing presents on the monks accumulates merit for the family or even for deceased family members. Some wealthy donors may hold giftgiving ceremonies simply for the public accumulation of merit. The monks thus perform important roles for the laity at times of crisis or accomplishment, and they serve as a focus for public philanthropy.*

The most striking expressions of public reverence are dagoba or thupa (stupa), large mounds built over sites where relics of the Buddha or a great monk are buried. The dagoba in Sri Lanka preserve a spherical shape and a style of architectural embellishment that link them directly to the monuments originally erected over the Buddha's remains in ancient India. The traditions of the Sinhalese indicate that their oldest dagoba are at least 2,000 years old, from a period when genuine relics of the Buddha came to Sri Lanka. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Relics of the Buddha are enshrined at holy sites throughout Sri Lanka to commemorate his ancient hallowing presence. Of these sacred relics, the Dalada Maligava (Temple of the Tooth Relic) in Kandy remains the holiest, insofar as the Dalada has been the veritable symbol of Sinhala Buddhist people since at least the Polonnaruva period (eleventh through thirteenth century). Until the British disestablished the last Lankan king in 1815, possession of and care for the Dalada was incumbent upon Lankan royalty. In turn, the presence of the Dalada legitimated a sovereign's reign. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Holy Places and Pilgrimages in Sri Lanka

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Sri Lanka is home to many sacred sites visited by foreigners and locals alike. Kandy's Sri Dalada Maligawa, which houses the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, is an active temple complex that is the ritual center of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. During this temple's annual perahera season, the Tooth Relic is paraded through the torch-lit streets, accompanied by dancers, drummers, and elephants. While this is the island's largest perahera, or religious procession, other temples around the island host their own at different times of the year. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Pilgrimage is an important religious activity for many Sri Lankans. Kataragama, the most popular and elaborate of the pilgrimage centers, is primarily dedicated to the deity, although it is visited by members of all four of the island's religions. The summit of Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak, another important pilgrimage destination, is the traditional home of Saman, a Sinhala guardian deity common to both Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus. A large rock at the top is believed by Buddhists to have been imprinted with the footprint of the Buddha during one of his legendary visits to Sri Lanka and by Muslims to hold the footprint made by Adam as he was cast out of paradise. The ancient temples, especially of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, are also important pilgrimage sites.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “There are 16 sacred places of pilgrimage often depicted within the visual liturgy of temple and cave paintings dating to the eighteenth century. Each of these 16 is associated with events depicted in the monastic chronicle Mahavamsa, in which three purported visits of the Buddha to Lanka took place following his enlightenment experience. The sapling of the original bodhi tree brought to Anuradhapura in the third century B.C. is also one of the holiest sacred places of pilgrimage on the island, as is Sri Pada (Adam's Peak), where the footprint of the Buddha is said to be embossed in stone. The shrines to the deities Kataragama Deviyo (also known as Skanda or Murugan, among others) in the deep south and east of Sri Lanka and Aluthnuvara Deviyo (also known as Dadimunda or Devata Bandara) in the Kandyan highlands attract thousands of pilgrims with petitions not for religious salvation but rather for more mundane reasons having to do with the alleviation of suffering (dukkha). Kalaniya Rajamahavihara, just northeast of Colombo, constructed on a site where the Buddha is said to have settled an ancient dispute between rival indigenous or mythical kings, and Devinuvara (the most southern point in Sri Lanka and therefore of the Indian subcontinent), where Vishnu is venerated, are also important sites of sacrality for Sri Lankan Buddhists, along with Mahiyangana in the east-central part of the country, where the Buddha is said to have first appeared in Lanka in the process of expelling yakkhas (demons) thereby rendering Lanka fit for the spread of his dharma. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Initiation Into Buddhism in Sri Lanka

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: ““Buddhism lacks any ceremony or ritual of initiation or admission like the upanayana in Hinduism or baptism in Christianity. The traditional method of becoming a Buddhist is to repeat the formula of the Three Refuges (tisarana) and the Five Precepts (pañcasila), when they are formally administered by a Buddhist monk. The formula of refuge is as follows: Buddham saranam gacchami (I go to the Buddha as my refuge). Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dhamma as my refuge). Sangham saranam gacchami (I go to the Sangha as my refuge). [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“This avowal of confidence in the Triple Gem (tiratana) is repeated for a second time (e.g., dutiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami, etc.), and a third time (tatiyampi). Next, the convert repeats in the following manner the Five Precepts which are meant to regulate his moral life: ; 1) Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept to abstain from destroying life; 2) Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept to abstain from taking things not given. 3) Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct. 4) Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept to abstain from false speech. 5) Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept to abstain from taking distilled and fermented liquors that cause intoxication and heedlessness.

“By this method a hitherto non-Buddhist lay person becomes a lay disciple (upasaka) of the Buddha. It has to be noted here that what is meant by taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha is the placing of confidence in the attainments of the Buddha as a Teacher and in the efficacy of the Dhamma as a reliable means to liberation. The term "Sangha" here refers to the Ariya Sangha, comprising the four pairs of noble ones, i.e., the four practicing for the fruits and the four established in the fruits (cattari purisayugani attha purisa-puggala). In this ceremony of initiation there is no recognition of salvation through the grace of a god or saviour as in theistic religions. One goes for refuge as a way of expressing one's determination to follow the Buddha's path to liberation, but one must also realize that the task of walking the path is one's own responsibility.

“While this is the method of formal admission of a new entrant into Buddhism, there are also certain ritualistic practices observed when a child is born to Buddhist parents. The baby's first outing would be to a temple. When the baby is fit to be taken out of doors the parents would select an auspicious day or a full-moon day and take the child to the nearest temple.] They would first place the child on the floor of the shrine room or in front of a statue of the Buddha for the purpose of obtaining the blessings of the Triple Gem. This is a common sight at the Dalada Maligawa — the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic — in Kandy. At the time of the daily religious ceremony (puja) of the temple, one can observe how mothers hand over their babies to an officiating layman (kapuva) inside the shrine room, who in turn keeps it for a few seconds on the floor near the Relic Chamber and hands it back to the mother. The mother accepts the child and gives a small fee to the kapuva for the service rendered. This practice too could be described as a ritual of initiation.

Personal Worship in Sri Lanka

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: For the adherent of Buddhism, the ritual of worship is essentially a respectful recognition of the greatness of the Buddha as a spiritual teacher. The ritual also implies an expression of gratitude to the Buddha for having discovered and revealed to humankind the path leading out of the mass of worldly suffering. Both these factors in combination make this ritual an expression of devotion as well. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The most common daily ritual of the Buddhist is that of personal worship, which many devout Buddhists perform daily in their homes. On the communal level the ritual is observed on the poya days at a temple or a monastery. A distinction may be made between simple respectful salutation (panama or panamana) and the ritualistic worship (vandana) accompanied by offerings of increasing complexity including food, drink, and clothing. The former type is only an expression of respect and reverence as when a person clasps his hands in the gesture of worship in front of a religious symbol (e.g., a Buddha-statue, a Bodhi-tree, a dagoba, etc.) and recites a simple phrase like the well-known Namo tassa formula (see below); nowadays the term sadhu has become quite popular with the Sinhala Buddhists for this purpose.

A worshiper pays homage to the Three Gems in three separate formulas, which recount nine virtues of the Buddha, six virtues of the Dhamma, and nine virtues of the Sangha. These formulas are extracted from the Pali Nikayas and have become the standard formulas with which the Three Gems are worshipped. The physical posture adopted by the devotees when performing these acts of worship may vary according to the solemnity of the occasion or the degree of the devotion of the worshipper. In the most respectful form of worship, e.g., when worshipping a dagoba in which the relics — a bone, hair, bowl, etc., of the Buddha — are enshrined, one touches the ground with five parts of the body (Sinh.: pasanga pihituva, i.e., knees, elbows, and forehe). The two postures of squatting (ukkutika) and kneeling (with one or both knees) are also popular. The cross-legged posture (pallanka) and the standing position are also sometimes adopted. Whatever be the posture taken, it should be accompanied with hands clasped together in adoration (Sinh.: andilibanda, Pali: anjalim panametva).

Buddhist Offerings in Sri Lanka

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “In the ritualistic form of worship the articles of offering (mainly flowers) are first respectfully placed on the altar in front of a statue of the Buddha or a dagoba or any other place of religious significance where such worship is performed. Next, the devotee clasps his hands in the gesture of worship (anjali-kamma) and solemnly recites various stanzas and formulas, thereby making the offerings formally valid. Every act of Buddhist worship begins with the well-known formula of homage to the Buddha, Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammasamBuddhassa ("Let my obeisance be to the Blessed One, the Honorable One, the Fully Enlightened One"), which is repeated thrice. This is followed by the Refuge formula and the Five Precepts given earlier. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“Of the many articles of offering used at present in this kind of worship in Sri Lanka, flowers have become the most important and popular. They constitute the minimum requirement at any form of Buddhist worship. One can observe how the devotees arrange the flowers in various patterns on the altar. The color (vanna), smell (gandha), and quality (guna) of the flowers are taken into account when selecting them for offering. Before being offered, the flowers are "bathed" with filtered water (pan). Sometimes they are arranged in a tray (vattiya) and offered. A flower's blooming upon contact with light is regarded as symbolic of the attainment of Enlightenment, hence flowers become quite a fitting article for offering to the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

“As was mentioned earlier, an essential part of the ritual of offering flowers is the recital of the following Pali stanza, whereby the offering is made valid: Vannagandhagunopetam, etam kusumasantatim, pujayami munindassa, siripadasaroruhe. Pujemi Buddham kusumena 'nena, punnena 'metena ca hotu mokkham, Puppham milayati yatha idam me kayo tatha yati vinasabahavam. ["This mass of flowers endowed with color, fragrance, and quality I offer at the lotus-like feet of the King of Sages. I worship the Buddha with these flowers: by the merit of this may I attain freedom. Even as these flowers do fade, so does my body come to destruction."]

“The offering of food and drink is still another aspect of the ritual of worship. When food is offered to the Buddha in a religious place it is usually done in front of a Buddha-image. If it is the morning meal that is offered, it would be something suitable for breakfast, usually milk-rice (kiribat). If it is lunch, it would be the usual rice-and-curry meal and is invariably offered before noon. At the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy and the Sri Mahabodhi in Anuradhapura, these rituals are performed regularly and with meticulous care and also somewhat elaborately, accompanied by other subsidiary rituals like the beating of drums. It is an important part of this ritual that whatever food is offered in this manner should be separately prepared with special care and should not be tasted before the offering. The stanza that is popularly used for the offering of food runs as follows: “Adhivasetu no bhante, bhojanam parikappitam, Anukampam upadaya patiganhatumuttama. ["O Lord, accept with favor this food which has been ritualistically prepared. Receive it, O Noble One, out of compassion."]

“As regards the offering of drinks and beverages, it is customary to offer these prepared from fruit-juices. Unlike the solid foods, these may be offered in the afternoon, in keeping with the meal habits of the Buddhist monks. Offering of incense generally consists of joss sticks, these being the most easily available. Otherwise this offering is made by putting certain kinds of sweet-smelling powders or incense into glowing charcoal so that it smokes well. A kind of resin, known locally as sambrani, is the variety generally used.

“The chew of betel (dahat-vita) is yet another item of offering. This is mostly for consumption after meals, and consists of betel leaves, arecanut, and certain other items like cloves, nutmeg, cardamons, etc. which give a pleasant smell and a pungent taste when chewed. For every kind of offering there are separate stanzas like the one quoted earlier for food. These stanzas are composed in Pali, which is supposed to be the language in which the Buddha preached his doctrine.

Lighting Lamps as Form of Buddhist Worship

Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “It is of interest to note that this stanza incorporates the Buddhist idea of the impermanence (anicca) of all phenomena. Merit-acquisition is also regarded as contributing towards the attainment of Nibbanic freedom. “Another popular offering of much importance is that of lighted lamps, usually of coconut oil (dipa-puja or pahan-puja). As the Buddha is regarded as the dispeller of the darkness of ignorance, when lighted lamps are offered in his name this metaphorical contrast between the light of knowledge and the darkness of ignorance is taken as the theoretical basis for the ritual. This kind of symbolism being too deep for the vast majority of ordinary people, their motive for this ritual is usually the desire to acquire merit or to avert the evil influence of a bad planetary conjunction. However, it is the former idea that is implied in the traditional stanza used by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka for this offering: “Ghanasarappadittena, dipena tamadamsina, tilokadipam samBuddham, pujayami tamonudam. ["With this lamp lit with camphor that dispels all darkness, I worship the Perfectly Enlightened One who is a lamp unto the three worlds and is the dispeller of darkness."] [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The epithets tilokadipa ("lamp unto the three worlds") and tamonuda ("dispeller of darkness") as applied to the Buddha are significant in this context. The stanza itself seems to testify to the popularity of the offering of camphor (ghanasara) in early times. But nowadays, even when coconut oil has replaced camphor, the stanza has survived without change.

“The offering of lighted lamps had been a popular ritual even in ancient times. The Bodhi-tree and the dagoba (also referred to as stupa, cetiya, or caitya) are the two main objects or places where the ritual is usually performed. The offering of lamps is one of the main aspects of the worship of the Bodhi-tree (bodhi-puja). As it was under a Bodhi-tree that the Buddha attained Enlightenment, it is quite natural that lamps be lit under that tree, not only in memory of the great event, but also as a ritual whereby the devotee could expect to obtain a ray of that light of wisdom attained by the Great Sage. Thus the entire ritual becomes a spiritual exercise, the merits of which are transferred to all other beings, gods, humans, and spirits (bhuta).

Dagoba (Temple) Worship in Sri Lanka

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”:“Dagobas constitute another place where this popular offering is made. Consequently, along with the flower-altar, the lamp-stand too has become a necessary adjunct of the dagobas. One can also see that the Bodhi-tree in most temples is surrounded by a platform built of brick or stone in which niches are made to hold lighted oil lamps. The niches are meant to shelter the lamps from wind and rain. In any Buddhist temple there are many other places where lamps can be lit in that way. Sometimes special lamp-stands are constructed for the purpose. Of special significance is the lamp called the dolosmahe-pahana (twelve-month lamp), sometimes found in Buddhist temples and devalayas. It is called thus because it is expected to keep burning all-year round. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“When visiting the temple the object of worship that ranks first is the dagoba enshrining the bone-relics of the Buddha. There are three categories of worshipful objects: (i) bodily relics, consisting of the bones collected after cremation (saririka); (ii) those articles the Buddha used, e.g., the alms-bowl, Bodhi-tree, etc. (paribhogika); and (iii) those memorials that have been erected on his account as a mark of remembrance (uddesika), e.g., images, paintings, etc. The devotee is expected to worship these in due order, reciting the appropriate stanzas and making at least an offering of a few flowers.

“The worship of the dagoba or stupa is an important merit-acquiring act of devotional Buddhism in Sri Lanka as also in other Buddhist lands. The first such dagoba to be constructed after the official introduction of Buddhism into the country by the arahant Mahinda was the Thuparama at Anuradhapura, which enshrines the collar-bone of the Buddha. It was constructed by the first Buddhist ruler of Sri Lanka, King Devanampiya Tissa, in the 3rd century B.C. Since then dagobas have become so popular among the local Buddhists that almost every village temple has a dagoba as an indispensable feature. A special ritual connected with the dagoba is the enshrining of relics, which is done with much ceremony at a specially selected astrologically auspicious moment called nakata (Skt. naksatra). A similar ritual is that of pinnacle-setting (kot-palandavima), which is the concluding stage in the construction of a dagoba.

“It should be mentioned here that scriptural sanction for dagoba worship is found in the words of the Buddha himself in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta (D.ii,142), where he has enumerated four categories of individuals worthy of dagobas. These are the Tathagata, a PaccekaBuddha, a disciple of the Tathagata, and a universal monarch (raja cakkavattin). The worship and offerings made to the Buddha's body after his passing away may also be cited as an instance in this connection.

“The most important item that comes within the uddesika kind of sacred object is the Buddha-image, which is found in every temple in its image-house (viharage). In addition to the central image or images, the inside walls of the temple — and sometimes the ceiling as well — are covered with paintings depicting events from the Buddha's life, as well as from his past lives as a Bodhisatta, recorded in the Jataka stories. An important ceremony associated with the Buddha-image is the ritual of painting its eyes (netra-pinkama), which is performed with much care on an auspicious occasion as the last item of its construction. Until this is done the image is not considered an adequate representation of the Buddha.

Types of Dagoba Worship in Sri Lanka

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”:“Special light offerings are also made on auspicious occasions. On full-moon days when devotees flock to the temples, lamps are lit in large numbers, for it is the custom among the Sri Lankan Buddhists invariably to take flowers and coconut oil on their visits to the temple as two indispensable articles of worship. There are also occasions when devotees light and offer a particular large number of lamps for special purposes, such as redeeming a vow (baraya) or on special occasions like Vesak Day. Many Buddhists perform the ritual of light offering (pahan-puja) to counter evil planetary influences. In order to obtain maximum results from the ritual, the devotees make it a point to purify themselves completely before attending the ceremony by bathing and wearing fresh, clean clothes. Coconut oil used as an illuminant is specially prepared for the purpose and taken separately from the coconut oil used for household purposes. Wicks are prepared from a clean, white, fresh cloth. Sometimes the inhabitants of an entire village co-operate in holding a mass-scale lamp offering. For instance, they may offer 84,000 lighted lamps in memory of the 84,000 elements of the Dhamma (dhammakkhandha) comprising the Buddha's Teaching. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“This important Buddhist ritual was practiced even in ancient Sri Lanka. King Dutugemunu (2nd century B.C.) is recorded to have lit one thousand lamps with ghee as the illuminant and with white wicks burning perpetually in twelve sacred places in Anuradhapura (Mhv. xxxii,37). King Vasabha (1st century ) is also said to have lit one thousand oil lamps at Cetiyapabbata, Thuparama, Mahathupa (Ruvanweli-dagoba), and the Bodhi-tree (Mhv. xxxvi,80).

“Today, this ritual has become so popular and elaborate that the annual Vesak festival commemorating the birth, Enlightenment, and Parinibbana of the Buddha has become more or less a festival of lights. Vesak lanterns of various kinds and shapes are lit in Buddhist homes on this day. Pandals well illuminated with multi-colored electric bulbs, depicting various scenes from the Master's life and from the Jataka stories, also constitute a type of light offering to the Buddha.

“Yet another aspect of the ritual of light offering is the burning of camphor near the object of worship like dagobas, Buddha statues, etc. Camphor gives out a fragrant smell as it burns, and is also regarded as having a very pure flame, although its smoke has a strong blackening effect. Camphor-burners have been found in ancient temples, showing that this was an ancient practice.

“An important aspect of the worship of the dagoba and the Bodhi-tree is the custom of circumambulation (padakkhina) as a mark of respect. Usually three rounds are done, always keeping the object of worship to the right side and with the hands clasped together in adoration. As regards dagoba worship in Sri Lanka, the local Buddhists have a separate stanza for worshipping each of the sixteen sacred places hallowed by the Lord Buddha on his three visits to the island. There is also a popular stanza that covers in a general manner all the three categories of worshipful objects mentioned above: “Vandami cetiyam sabbam, sabbathanesu patitthitam,, saririkadhatu mahabodhim, Buddharupam sakalam sada. [“"Forever do I worship all the dagobas situated all over, all the bodily relics, the Mahabodhi (tree), and Buddha-images."]

Group Worship in Sri Lanka

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “Collective worship of the Buddha is generally performed in a public place of worship so that anyone who wishes may participate: in a temple before the shrine room, at a dagoba, a Bodhi-tree, or any other such place. The devotees stand in a row in front of the place of worship and pass the items of offering from hand to hand towards the shrine room, dagoba, or the Bodhi-tree. These offerings usually consist of bowls or vases of flowers, incense, joss sticks, beverages, fruit drinks, medicinal items, oil-lamps, etc. Here no distinction of age, position, or sex is observed. All participate in a common act of merit (pinkama). A bhikkhu or a number of bhikkhus may sometimes head the line. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The commonest of the Buddha-pujas is the one performed in the evening, around 6 p.m., known as the gilampasa Buddha-puja or the Buddha-offering consisting of medicaments and beverages. If the Buddha-puja is done in the morning it would be one consisting of milk-rice (kiri-ahara) or any other item of food suitable for breakfast. The mid-day food (dana) also may be offered in this manner. The mid-day meal is offered to the Buddha when lay people bring food to the monastery to offer as alms to the bhikkhus. First, under the guidance of a bhikkhu, they perform the offering to the Buddha, who is represented symbolically by relics and an image; thereafter the food is offered to the resident bhikkhus. It is the established tradition that in whatever circumstances alms are offered to the bhikkhus, the first portions are offered to the Buddha beforehand. The variations in the kinds of food offered are in keeping with the meal habits of the Buddha and his monk-disciples, who refrain from taking solid food and milk-foods after mid-day.

“Once the offerings are placed in the appropriate place, lamps lit, and incense burnt, stanzas are recited for each kind of offering made so that the offerings become valid. This is done by a bhikkhu who first administers the Refuges and Precepts (explained earlier) and then recites the relevant stanzas (in Pali) aloud, while the other participants, with their hands clasped in adoration, repeat them in chorus after the bhikkhu. Sometimes this kind of public Buddha-puja is accompanied by drumming and horns, called hevisi-puja or offering of music, which usually accompanies many Buddhist functions. As the final item of the programme, one of the participating bhikkhus delivers a short sermon explaining the significance of the occasion.

“It may also be mentioned here that this kind of public puja is performed as a general act of merit-acquisition on religiously important days such as the full-moon days or in remembrance of important dead personages. In the latter case the ritual is held on the death anniversary of the person concerned. It is believed that the dead person can partake of the merits transferred to him (pattidana) from his new existence and thereby obtain relief from any unfortunate realm in which he might have been born. If the ritual is performed for such a purpose, the participating monk would specially mention this fact and transfer the merits earned.

“Whatever be the purpose for which the ceremony is held, the concluding part is marked by certain features which are of further interest. One is the usual practice of the transference of merit to all beings, including gods and spirits, by reciting the appropriate stanzas. Another is the general aspiration (patthana) that the participants make to the effect that by the merits earned from the ritual they may not be born into the company of foolish and unworthy friends but into the company of wise and virtuous men until they attain Nibbana. They also do not fail to add the final attainment of Nibbana to this list (idam me punnam asavakkhayavaham hotu: "May this merit bring about the extinction of defilements in me").

“Yet another popular aspiration which has a greater social significance is the following: “Devo vassatu kalena — sassasampatti hotu ca, phito bhavatu loko ca — raja bhavatu dhammiko. ["May the rains come in time, So that the harvests may be abundant:, May the world be prosperous, May the rulers be righteous."] The ritual is concluded by asking for pardon for whatever lapses may have occurred inadvertently: “Kayena vaca cittena pamadena maya katam, accayam khama me bhante bhuripanna tathagata. ["O Lord, Tathagata of extensive wisdom, may you excuse me for whatever transgressions might have been done by me through body, speech, or mind due to negligence.]"

“Sometimes a similar request is made to the Dhamma and the Sangha as well. However, as the idea of pardoning one's sins is foreign to Buddhism, this kind of request would be meaningful only if the devotee does so with full understanding as an expiatory act, as a means of self-reformation, for the Buddha, unlike the God of theistic religions, cannot forgive sins.

Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura

The Sacred Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura is said to be grown from a branch from the original Bodhi Tree under which Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment in India. The bringing of the branch to Sri Lanka is historic event tied with the introduction of Buddhism to the island. The bodhi tree is now very large and is considered to be the oldest recorded tree in the world.

The right branch of the sacred Bodhi Tree is said to have been brought by Arahat nun Sangamitta, sister of Arahat Mahinda and daughter of Emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century B.C.. The branch was planted in the Royal gardens at Anuradhapura by King Devanampiya Tissa who was ruling Anuradhapura and the island at that time.

The bodhi (bo) tree is one of Sri Lanka’s holiest pilgrimage sites. Many saffron-robbed monks and pilgrims come to pay homage to it. Many pilgrims leave offerings of flowers at its base and tie prayer flags to its branches. There are several bodhi trees at the site. The very old and sacred one sprouts from the highest platform. The crush of pilgrims is particularly high during the times of the full moon.

An elaborate gateway marks the entrance to the bo tree area. Over the years a number of kings have taken measures to protect it. Several retaining walls have been built around it. Even during occupations by southern Indian Hindu kingdoms the tree was looked after. Today it is taken care of by a special team of botanists appointed by the government. A gilded fence known as the Ran Vet was fairly recently placed around it.

According to ancient chronicles the bringing of the sacred Bodhi tree branch to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta took place a few months after the arrival of Mahinda. Amidst much rejoicing and ceremony, this tree was planted at Maha Mevuna Uyana. The Bo tree (Pipal – Ficus religiosa) branch was brought by Sanghamitta, as a gift from her father Mauryan Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka. It is regarded as the oldest historical tree (i.e. having the longest recorded written history) in the world. It has been protected by an uninterrupted series of Buddhist monks since it was planted. The high terrace on which the tree sits is seven meters (21 feet above the ground) and surrounded by railings. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist relics and one of the most important places in Sri Lanka. The parapat wall around the compound where the bo-tree is planted is about 213 meters (700 feet) in length. This wall was constructed during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, to protect the tree from wild elephants. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]

Planting of the Bodhi Tree Branch

On the 27th day, Mahinda left for Missaka-pabbata to spend the Rainy Retreat there. Maha-Arittha along with 55 others joined the order and thus, 62 of them in all spent the Rainy Retreat. Caves in the neighbourhood of the present Kantaka Cetiya were already cleared at the order of Devanampiya-Tissa for the occupation of the 62 monks. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

Meanwhile king's junior queen Anula and her companions expressed a desire to join the order as nuns. At Mahinda's suggestion, the king despatched an emissary to the court of Ashoka to bring Theri Samghamitta along with the southern branch of the Bo-tree. Anula and her companions shifted to a nunnery called Upasika-Vihara, especially constructed for them and observed the dasa-sila and waited for Samghamitta there.

After the Vassavasa, Mahinda suggested to Devanampiya-Tissa the idea of building a cetiya to enshrine the relics of the Buddha. Sumana Samanera who acted as deputy on behalf of Mahinda and Devanampiya-Tissa was able to obtain for Sri Lanka from his grandfather Ashoka the right collar-bone, and a large quantity of other bone relics together with the alms bowl (patra-dhatu) of the Buddha. These relics were kept at the Missaka-pabbata for the time being and henceforth the mountain was named Cetiya-pabbata. The collar-bone of the Buddha was enshrined in the Thuparama Dagoba which thus became the first cetiya to be built in Sri Lanka.

When Samghmitta arrived with the branch of Bo-tree, Anula and her companions entered the order of nuns. Upasika-Vihara was improved and enlarged. Now, it was also given a new, name and came to be known henceforth as Hatthalhaka Vihara. Samghamitta started living over here.

The planting of the Bo-tre was performed with great ceremony in which people from all parts of the Island participated. Ashoka himself had sent a large number of families from India to attend and thus, India was also represented in a big way. Besides Anuradhpura and its vicinity, a total of 32 saplings ultimately were distributed all over the Island.

The bringing of the branch of the Bo-tree and the relics of the Buddha along with the alms bowl further strenghtened the great cultural links between India and Sri Lanka. The planting of the Bo-tree was symbolic of the establishment of Buddhism and Buddhist culture in the Island. This also served as an inspiration to the people who had recently embraced Buddhism. The relics of the Buddha were regarded as representing the Buddha himself and their enshrinement was as good as the Buddha's residence in Sri Lanka. The alms bowl of the Buddha was kept within the king's house, and it became a national "palladium" of the Sinhalese, just as happened later in the case of the Tooth Relic.

As the Order increased in size, Devanampiya-Tissa established more monasteries in different parts of the Island. Well-known monasteries established by Devanampiya-Tissa included Mahavihara, Cetiva-pabbata. Issarasamnaka, Vessagiri, Tissamahavihara, Jambukolapattanavihara and Mahapali (a refectory at Anuradhapura)

History of the Bodhi Tree

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “King Devanampiya Tissa, the first Buddhist king of Sri Lanka, is said to have bestowed the whole country upon the Bodhi-tree and held a magnificent festival after planting it with great ceremony. The entire country was decorated for the occasion. The Mahavamsa refers to similar ceremonies held by his successors as well. It is said that the rulers of Sri Lanka performed ceremonies in the tree's honor in every twelfth year of their reign (Mhv. xxxviii,57). [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“King Dutugemunu (2nd century B.C.) performed such a ceremony at a cost of 100,000 pieces of money (Mhv. xxviii,1). King Bhatika Abhaya (1st century ) held a ceremony of watering the sacred tree, which seems to have been one of many such special pujas. Other kings too, according to the Mahavamsa, expressed their devotion to the Bodhi-tree in various ways (see e.g., Mhv. xxxv,30; xxxvi, 25, 52, 126).

“It is recorded that forty Bodhi-saplings that grew from the seeds of the original Bodhi-tree at Anuradhapura were planted at various places in the island during the time of Devanampiya Tissa himself. The local Buddhists saw to it that every monastery in the island had its own Bodhi-tree, and today the tree has become a familiar sight, all derived, most probably, from the original tree at Anuradhapura through seeds. However, it may be added here that the notion that all the Bodhi-trees in the island are derived from the original tree is only an assumption. The existence of the tree prior to its introduction by the Theri Sanghamitta cannot be proved or disproved.

“The ceremony of worshipping this sacred tree, first begun by King Devanampiya Tissa and followed by his successors with unflagging interest, has continued up to the present day. The ceremony is still as popular and meaningful as at the beginning. It is natural that this should be so, for the veneration of the tree fulfills the emotional and devotional needs of the pious heart in the same way as does the veneration of the Buddha-image and, to a lesser extent, of the dagoba. Moreover, its association with deities dedicated to the cause of Buddhism, who can also aid pious worshippers in their mundane affairs, contributes to the popularity and vitality of Bodhi-worship.

Bodhi-Puja (Bodhi Tree Worship)

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: ““The veneration of the Bodhi-tree (pipal tree: ficus religiosa) has been a popular and a widespread ritual in Sri Lanka from the time a sapling of the original Bodhi-tree at Buddhagaya (under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment) was brought from India by the Theri Sanghamitta and planted at Anuradhapura during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa in the third century B.C. Since then a Bodhi-tree has become a necessary feature of every Buddhist temple in the island. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The ritualistic worship of trees as abodes of tree deities (rukkha-devata) was widely prevalent in ancient India even before the advent of Buddhism. This is exemplified by the well-known case of Sujata's offering of milk-rice to the Bodhisatta, who was seated under a banyan tree on the eve of his Enlightenment, in the belief that he was the deity living in that tree. By making offerings to these deities inhabiting trees the devotees expect various forms of help from them. The practice was prevalent in pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka as well. According to the Mahavamsa, King Pandukabhaya (4th century B.C.) fixed a banyan tree near the western gate of Anuradhapura as the abode of Vessavana, the god of wealth and the regent of the North as well as the king of the yakkhas. The same king set apart a palmyra palm as the abode of vyadha-deva, the god of the hunt (Mhv. x,89, 90).

“After the introduction of the Bodhi-tree, this cult took a new turn. While the old practice was not totally abandoned, pride of place was accorded to the worship of the pipal tree, which had become sacred to the Buddhists as the tree under which Gotama Buddha attained Enlightenment. Thus there is a difference between the worship of the Bodhi-tree and that of other trees. To the Buddhists, the Bodhi-tree became a sacred object belonging to the paribhogika group of the threefold division of sacred monuments,] while the ordinary veneration of trees, which also exists side-by-side with the former in Sri Lanka, is based on the belief already mentioned, i.e., that there are spirits inhabiting these trees and that they can help people in exchange for offerings. The Buddhists also have come to believe that powerful Buddhist deities inhabit even the Bodhi-trees that receive worship in the purely Buddhist sense. Hence it becomes clear that the reverence shown to a tree is not addressed to the tree itself. However, it also has to be noted that the Bodhi-tree received veneration in India even before it assumed this Buddhist significance; this practice must have been based on the general principle of tree worship mentioned above.

“Once the tree assumed Buddhist significance its sanctity became particularized, while the deities inhabiting it also became associated with Buddhism in some form. At the same time, the tree became a symbol representing the Buddha as well. This symbolism was confirmed by the Buddha himself when he recommended the planting of the Ananda Bodhi-tree at Jetavana for worship and offerings during his absence (see J.iv,228f.). Further, the place where the Buddha attained Enlightenment is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the four places of pilgrimage that should cause serene joy in the minds of the faithful (D.ii,140). As Ananda Coomaraswamy points out, every Buddhist temple and monastery in India once had its Bodhi-tree and flower altar as is now the case in Sri Lanka.

Bodhi-Puja Rituals

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “The main center of devotion in Sri Lanka today is, of course, the ancient tree at Anuradhapura, which, in addition to its religious significance, has a historical importance as well. As the oldest historical tree in the world, it has survived for over 2,200 years, even when the city of Anuradhapura was devastated by foreign enemies. Today it is one of the most sacred and popular places of pilgrimage in the island. The tree itself is very well guarded, the most recent protection being a gold-plated railing around the base (ranvata). Ordinarily, pilgrims are not allowed to go near the foot of the tree in the upper terrace. They have to worship and make their offerings on altars provided on the lower terrace so that no damage is done to the tree by the multitude that throng there. The place is closely guarded by those entrusted with its upkeep and protection, while the daily rituals of cleaning the place, watering the tree, making offerings, etc., are performed by bhikkhus and laymen entrusted with the work. The performance of these rituals is regarded as of great merit and they are performed on a lesser scale at other important Bodhi-trees in the island as well. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies andLanka”, 1995]

“Thus this tree today receives worship and respect as a symbol of the Buddha himself, a tradition which, as stated earlier, could be traced back to the Ananda Bodhi-tree at Jetavana of the Buddha's own time. The Vibhanga Commentary (p.349) says that the bhikkhu who enters the courtyard of the Bodhi-tree should venerate the tree, behaving with all humility as if he were in the presence of the Buddha. Thus one of the main items of the daily ritual at the Anuradhapura Bodhi-tree (and at many other places) is the offering of alms as if unto the Buddha himself. A special ritual held annually at the shrine of the Anuradhapura tree is the hanging of gold ornaments on the tree. Pious devotees offer valuables, money, and various other articles during the performance of this ritual.

“Another popular ritual connected with the Bodhi-tree is the lighting of coconut-oil lamps as an offering (pahan-puja), especially to avert the evil influence of inauspicious planetary conjunctions. When a person passes through a troublesome period in life he may get his horoscope read by an astrologer in order to discover whether he is under bad planetary influences. If so, one of the recommendations would invariably be a bodhi-puja, one important item of which would be the lighting of a specific number of coconut-oil lamps around a Bodhi-tree in a temple. The other aspects of this ritual consist of the offering of flowers, milk-rice, fruits, betel, medicinal oils, camphor, and coins. These coins (designated panduru) are washed in saffron water and separated for offering in this manner. The offering of coins as an act of merit-acquisition has assumed ritualistic significance with the Buddhists of the island. Every temple has a charity box (pin-pettiya) into which the devotees drop a few coins as a contribution for the maintenance of the monks and the monastery. Offerings at devalayas should inevitably be accompanied by such a gift. At many wayside shrines there is provision for the offering of panduru and travelers en route, in the hope of a safe and successful journey, rarely fail to make their contribution. While the coins are put into the charity box, all the other offerings would be arranged methodically on an altar near the tree and the appropriate stanzas that make the offering valid are recited. Another part of the ritual is the hanging of flags on the branches of the tree in the expectation of getting one's wishes fulfilled.

“Bathing the tree with scented water is also a necessary part of the ritual. So is the burning of incense, camphor, etc. Once all these offerings have been completed, the performers would circumambulate the tree once or thrice reciting an appropriate stanza. The commonest of such stanzas is as follows: Yassa mule nisinno va, sabbari vijayam aka, patto sabbannutam Sattha Vande tam bodhipadapam. Ime ete mahabodhi, lokanathena pujita, ahampi te namassami bodhi raja namatthu te. ["I worship this Bodhi-tree seated under which the Teacher attained omniscience by overcoming all enemical forces (both subjective and objective). I too worship this great Bodhi-tree which was honored by the Leader of the World. My homage to thee, O King Bodhi."] The ritual is concluded by the usual transference of merit to the deities that protect the Buddha's Dispensation.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.