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.