Buddhism has changed and adapted to every culture it encountered after it began in the north of India. As such, Buddhism practices change depending upon the tradition and society. Tolerance is a key Buddhist virtue, whilst maintaining integrity to one’s core beliefs. Some rituals are important if only to define one’s motivation and give expression and definition to one’s religion. There is even a growing ‘western’ Buddhism, which can be said to encourage environmental acts, respect for human rights, and social equality. However, below we will outline some of the more well known Buddhism practices from traditionally Buddhist cultures.
Most Buddhist practices have the central aim of avoiding future karmic problems (by avoiding harming others), karmic benefit (through helping others), as well as various practices and ritualized activities that focus the mind, help to purify it and to assist in one’s attainment of enlightenment and ridding of suffering for oneself and others.
Perhaps the key Buddhist practice, it is central to most traditions, and the only means to enlightenment for some. An excellent introduction to Buddhist meditation practices is available at MeditationInstructions.com (coming soon). The benefits of meditation are many, including physical and mental health, relaxation, improved relaxation and mental ability, and happiness. It is primarily the ability to understand and control the mind and its use for practices that lead to enlightenment that is considered the most important.
The position of prayer in Buddhism varies from tradition to tradition. A Buddhist solution to this may be to try each approach, and see which not only makes intellectual sense, but which leads to a better understanding of oneself and benefits to one’s well being.
In Tibet particularly, prayer to various deities (influenced by the indigenous religion Bon, as well as various Indian practices) featured prominently, with prayer focusing the mind. With the ‘merit’ of a prayer affecting one’s future reality, and the number of times a prayer is said being important, Tibetans have developed ‘machinery’ to magnify the quantity of prayers. Prayer wheels can contain a prayer written down many thousands of times – turning a wheel thus has a magnified – physical or mental – effect. Similarly, prayer flags ‘activate’ their written prayers with each flapping of the wind, sending their good wishes far and wide.
In contrast, Therevada emphasizes the fact that Buddhism does not posit the existence of a separate creator god, and that the Buddha himself discouraged his own worship. Indeed, Therevada believes the Buddha is outside of any call of prayer and it is wrong practice to pray to the Buddha (Tibetan Buddhism, by contrast, equates enlightenment with a heightened, intimate awareness of all beings). In both traditions, various rituals allows one to reflect on the qualities of the Buddha, and all of these practices are mutually reinforcing in internalizing true Buddhist beliefs.
Rituals have a cumulative affect of training one’s mind and systematizing one’s practice. The act of bowing and prostrating is a challenge to one’s egoism itself and may be beneficial merely on that level.
Chanting is a common sound in Buddhist communities from Zen monasteries in Japan, to communities in Laos, Thailand, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Originating in India, where writing was rare, chanting enabled important texts to be passed from person to person. Later, the ritual of chanting was found to be a useful way to focus the mind, and remember and internalize key Buddhist ideas. In some communities it may even be said to have a protective aspect, with Buddhists chanting during important life events, or during or before times of danger or otherwise personal importance.
As with all of these rituals, the benefit is seen as less the result of an external agent, and more in the personal effort and resulting benefits from focusing one’s good intentions, motivations, and purifying the mind from wrong views and understandings.
Many Buddhists are vegetarian, however it must be said that the Buddha himself did not prohibit the eating of meat. Many monasteries still serve meat today, and in Tibet, a high protein and fat diet was important in such a cold, often snow-covered environment. Buddhism acknowledges that rigid rules are often counterproductive, individual medical situations mean that vegetarianism may not always be the best course of action for one’s spiritual practice. However – one is not immune from the karmic consequences of eating meat, particularly if it is killed for you. Some choose to eat only ethically raised and well treated animals, offer prayers and thanks to the deceased creature, or limit meat eating to a minimum. As always, Buddha’s teachings leave ultimate responsibility with the individual, and so do not remove the obligation of finding one’s own answer to the wisest course of action for a person to follow.
Coming soon, an outline of other Buddhist practices, including symbolic hand gestures or Mudras, the reciting of Mantras or sacred sounds, making offerings, lighting incense and candles, making pilgrimage, and other practices surrounding the Buddha and various teachers and deities. There is also set Buddhism Marriage and funeral practices, however these are later inventions, culturally dependent and not traceable back to the time of the Buddha.
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