Ritual and Devotion in Buddhism


Within Buddhism there is a connection with beauty and this beauty is used to delve to the depths of our emotions and connect that with our spirituality. Although it may seem like there is much rationality going on to understand why we are how we are, our conditionality, there are structures in place that will immerse you completely in beautiful sights, sounds and smells to aid in emotional understanding. The most rife time that this happens are in the Pujas. The ultimate aim of a Puja is ‘a preparation for the arising of the Bodhichitta, the will or aspiration for the enlightenment of all beings’ but the common aim of a Puja is to state a “shared value, expressive of common strivings, rooted in common values”(Erich Fromm) with the group or spiritual community (a Sangha) you are with.

Pujas are a devotional practise whereby a Sangha will come together to meditate, recite, chant and give offerings to the Buddha. It is a powerful practise that demands full concentration and will help in understanding your emotional happenings. By understanding these emotional happenings they can be integrated into everyday life helping you to be more harmonious as a person. It is to move your self-knowledge and integrate it into your being.

The centrepiece of a Puja is the shrine in which a Buddha or Bodhisattva sits proudly. The shrine will be adorned with flowers, candles and incense which acts as our offerings to that particular Buddha figure and our commitment to Enlightenment. The incense and candlelight also acts as a softener and preparation for you to look deeper into yourself. It is a wondrous thing to see candle light reflected in the Buddha figures eyes as he looks down proudly at all that you have to offer. To hear the rise and fall of a choir of voices all chanting a mantra together and to feel the vibrations coming from your own voice and of those voices near to you creates such a unifying energy about the room. It is hard not be to moved by such a practise.

The sevenfold Puja consists of a series of verses that have been condensed down from a longer set called the Bohdicaryavatara, written by Santideva in the 8th Century CE. The content of the sevenfold Puja consists of  seven sections which are entitled Worship, Salutation, Going for Refuge, Confession of Faults, Rejoicing in Merits, Entreaty and Supplication and Transference of Merits and Self Surrender. Each one of these sections follows the flow of life in general and all the ups and downs that everyone comes across. Condensed into a bubble of ritual it encapsulates what is required of us throughout our lifetimes and each is is a perfect little teaching.

First we worship, we offer to the Buddha earthly and heavenly possessions as an appreciation of the teaching he has given us. We know that we are still far off becoming Enlightened so we pay salutation and respect to these teachings and the ideals. The combination of these first two sections drive our need to go for refuge, by using our determination we close the gap by allowing ourselves to ‘become the Buddha, follow the Dharma and practise in harmony with others’. After making this commitment we confess our faults which is an acknowledgement of our unskillful ways which we must overcome. Once confession is over we rejoice in the three jewels and what they give to us. We still need help though and in entreaty and supplication we ask for it not just for ourselves but for the world throughout the ages. Lastly we transfer our merits to each other and for all the world, my merits “I give up without regard to myself, for the benefit of all beings”. 
As Ruth and I mentioned in our post about the Easterbrook weekend Abie lead her first Puja. It is a tradition in Buddhism that the person who has been on the path the longest leads the Puja and so it was that out of the six of us the conditions where perfect for Abie to be our guru.

We asked her if she would write a bit about how it went:

“I’m not sure I really lead the puja; we all seemed to be leading it at the same time, such was the way the weekend unfolded, but I just said the words first! It was the first time I’d done such a thing, but it felt very natural, a quality which feels quite precious to me. I loved hearing our voices as women, speaking together.

At the end of the Team Retreat in October, Lou, Ruth and myself lovingly cleaned the shrine candles sticks and adornments together. From that, came a great discussion and series of questions, ‘What does Om, Ah, Hum mean, and why do we say it when we salute the shrine?

I didn’t really answer that very well, but it’s been very good to ponder upon, and turn over in my mind. In trying to connect with this over the years, I have made my own simple visualization during saluting the shrine that I find connects me to a bigger, mythical level before sitting on the cushions.

I was also reminded of an Amogasiddhi retreat at Rivendell 10 years ago, where we had a very simple, but profound ritual in which about 30 of us chanted Om, Ah, Hum over and over and over as a vajra was passed around the shrine room; we each put it to our head, throat and heart. Afterwards, I felt completely aligned and grounded- perhaps the most I’ve ever felt from any ritual! I think it’s a profound practise.”

As modest as Abie is I was very moved by the simplicity that adorned her Puja. The Om Ah Hum chant was really effective in that I could really imagine my voice going up in the universe, around my body and the world and right down in the ground, rooting me to that spot. Puja’s for me are a way of breaking through my Christian conditioning of my tendency to deify the Buddha. I feel grounded in myself, Buddhism and the world. Being amongst people that are doing the same thing and striving for that common end makes for a very uplifting and powerful event. By reading up about ritual in Buddhism it has really connected me to why we say what we say and why it is important. I read Sangharakashita’s ‘Ritual and Devotion in Buddhism, An Introduction’ to express what a Puja is in more detail and post it up here for you all to read.  

Alongside the seven verses mentioned above we also recite the Heart Sutra (which I have written out in full below), This is not talked about in the book I read and I feel that this, along with the Transference of Merit to be the most powerful and beautiful verse in the Puja. It is a verse in which we lay bare all things that we must realise in our lives and a teaching of what we must overcome and understand in order to gain Enlightenment. I am not saying that I fully understand all that is written in this verse or that I even adhere to all of its teaching yet but as a thing to look over every now and then I find to be a very useful as a reminder of what I am working towards. It even renders me breathless at times to think of the impact of the words and the effect they have. 

I thought to have it at the end of this post is the best way to draw to a close, something for you to ponder on.

The Heart Sutra

The Bodhisattva of compassion
When he meditated deeply,
Saw the emptiness of all five skandhas
And sundered the bonds that caused him suffering.

Here then,
Form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other then form.
Form is only emptiness,
Emptiness only form.

Feeling, thought, and choice,
Consciousness itself,
Are the same as this.

All things are the primal void,
Which is not born or destroyed;
Nor is it stained or pure,
Nor do they wax or wane.

So, in emptiness, no form,
No feeling, thought, or choice,
Nor is there consciousness.

No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;
No colour, sound, smell, taste, or touch,
Or what the mind takes hold of,
Nor even act of sensing.

No ignorance or end of it,
Nor all that comes of ignorance;
No withering, no death,
No end of them.

Nor is there pain, or cause of pain
Or cease in pain, or noble path
to lead from pain;
Not even wisdom to attain!
Attainment too is emptiness.

So know that the Bodhisattva
Holding to nothing whatever,
But dwelling in Prajna wisdom,
Is freed of delusive hindrance,
Rid of the fear bred by it,
And reaches clearest nirvana.

All Buddhas of past and present,
Buddhas of future time,
Using this Prajna wisdom,
Come to full and perfect vision.

Here then the great dharani,
The radiant peerless mantra,
The Prajnaparamita
Whose words allay all pain;
Hear and believe its truth!