Buddhism - ceremonies and statues

How rituals cannot be seen route to a holy pay-off in the future

Part of the Buddhist tradition in the East is to support the monastic community. In Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma and Southeast Asia, for instance, people will line the sides of the roads every morning where monks are likely to pass in order to place food into their bowls, and this in itself is regarded as a holy act. The monk does not openly ask, but merely passes silently with his eyes cast down, and those making the offerings will bow as an indication to the monk that they wish to put food into his bowl. It is carried out in silence and is not meant as one person giving food to another, but more as a form of veneration and support for those who are living the holy life and for the teachings themselves.

Special ceremonies are also held throughout the year in temples when food is offered for the storerooms as well as candles, incense, medicines and other requisites. One ceremonial day is specifically for the formal offering of robes to the monks, for example, but by far the most important and the biggest Buddhist ceremony of the year is to commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing, all of which are commemorated on the one day. These special days will be attended usually by the whole family. There will be chanting and talks on Buddhism and it is generally a happy and joyful occasion.

There is much bowing in Buddhism. In its truest sense, however, when bowing to a monastic this is not bowing to a human being but to the robe, to the high principles by which that person lives. The same is true of bowing to Buddha-images. The image represents the wisdom and compassion that the Buddha discovered and lived by. Bowing, therefore, is not an act of supplication or worship but of deep reverence and gratitude for the teachings which are meaningful in one’s own life. Indeed, for many hundreds of years after his demise, the Buddha was represented merely by an empty space, a footprint, a lotus flower, or an eight-spoked wheel, because it was the truth of the teachings that were being represented, not a person, as such. The very earliest Buddha-images, in fact, are generally believed to have been influenced by the Greeks and made in Gandhara, an ancient Indian kingdom.

Western Buddhists rarely take on board the ceremonial side of Buddhism, apart from any chanting and bowing which might be integrated into their meditation practices. Also many will have shrines and sit on the floor to meditate finding these things of great benefit.

The Buddha was always clear that putting one’s faith in rites and rituals was a hindrance to awakening. Saying a mantra, for example, is practised as a form of meditation, the same with using malas (like a Christian rosary). The key always in Buddhism is to find wisdom and compassion and liberation from suffering, all of which are readily available in everyone’s mind and heart. To pay respects for something noble, to sincerely revere something out of gratitude, is spiritually wholesome and nourishing as well as being an antidote to arrogance and self-righteousness. That is the attitude encouraged in Buddhism towards ceremonies and anything regarded as religious. So, to mindlessly go through ceremonies or feel that performing specific rituals will lead to some holy pay-off in the future, is something the Buddha warned against. Buddhist practices are not meant to be ritualistic.

The point is to find awakening (enlightenment or buddhahood) within one’s life in any and all circumstances.

Diana St Ruth has been a practising Buddhist since the early 1960s. A director of the Buddhist Publishing Group since 1983, she lived in a Buddhist Community in Devon from 1989-1993 and is the editor of Buddhism Now. She is also the author of several books on Buddhism.
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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.