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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.