Daily and Periodic Rituals
Merit is made and shared through daily, periodic, and special
rituals and yearly festivals. Morning and evening services
of chanting or worship take place in every monastery, temple,
and home. With the placing of flowers and the lighting of
candles and incense before a Buddha-image or some other symbol
of the presence of the Buddha, monks chant together and the
lay family offers a prayer. The flowers, beautiful one moment
and wilted the next, remind the offerers of the impermanence
of life; the odor of the incense calls to their mind the sweet
scent of moral virtue that emanates from those who are devout;
the candle-flame symbolizes enlightenment.
The central daily rite of lay Buddhism is the offering of
food. Theravada laity make this offering to the monks. Mahayana
laity make it to the Buddha as part of the morning or evening
worship. In both settings merit is shared.
The weekly Observance Day rituals at the Theravada monastery
are opportunities for both laity and monks to quicken faith,
discipline, and understanding, and make and share merit. On
these days, twice each month, the monks change and reaffirm
the code of discipline. On all of these days, they administer
the Eight Precepts to the gathered laity, the laity repeating
them after the monks and offer a sermon on the Dharma. The
monks our water to transfer merit to the laity; the laity
pour water to share this merit with their ancestors.
Zen monks twice each month gather in the Buddha-hall of their
head temple and chant for the welfare of the Japanese people.
Pure Land Buddhist congregate at the temple once each week
to praise Amida.
Rites of Passage
There are special rituals to mark, protect, and bless the
occasions of major life transitions. They publicly mark and
protect times of passage from one status to another times
of unusual vulnerability such as birth, birthdays, coming
of age, marriage, the entering into a new house, and death.
Monks preside over ordinations, funerals, and death commemoration
rites. In the Theravada tradition, ordination is a puberty
or coming-of-age rite. Theravada monks also preside over birthday
and new-house blessing rites. Ex-monks elders in the lay community
perform the rituals for childbirth and marriage.
In Japanese Pure Land, the lay priest presides over rituals
of the first presentation of a child at the temple, confirmation
of boys and girls at the age of puberty, and death. Japanese
Buddhists undertake marriage at the Shinto shrine, presided
over by Shinto priests.
Buddhists everywhere celebrate the New Year and the Buddha's
birth, enlightenment, and death. The beginning of a new year
is, generally, a time for'taking stock' of one's
karma, cleansing, and well-wishing. In Theravada communities
the New Year is celebrated in mid-April on the lunar calendar
and lasts for two or three days. The laity ritually bathe
the Buddha-images and sprinkle water on the monks and the
elders, showing respect and offering good wishes. The monks
chant blessings on the laity, and together they share the
merit of the occasion with the dead. The New Year appropriately
begins at the end of the dry season and the beginning of new
life in nature. The pouring of water is not only an honoring
of the Buddha, the monks, the elders, and the dead but also
an offering for plentiful rain and prosperity in the days
to come. In Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, the laity build
sand mounds (stupas) at the monastery or on the bank of the
river. Each grain of sand represents a demerit, and placing
the grains in the monastery or letting them be washed away
by the river symbolizes a cleansing from bad deeds. Bringing
sand to the monastery also serves to renew the floor of the
Zen and Pure Land Buddhists celebrate the New Year on the
Western calendar. This is an occasion for Zen monks to publicly
read large volumes of sacred sutras, thereby sending out cleansing
and enlivening sound waves for the benefit of all beings.
Pure Land Buddhist hold special services at the temple twice
daily in praise of the Buddha Amida.
Theravada Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and
death of the Buddha on the same day the full moon of May,
called Vaisakha. In Sri Lanka, it is a festival of lights,
and house, gardens, and streets are decorated with lanterns.
It is not a major festival in other Theravada countries, but,
occurring on an Observance Day, it is at least an occasion
for special food offerings to the monks and more than the
usual devotion to keeping the moral precepts.
Japanese Buddhist celebrate the Buddha's birth, death,
and enlightenment on different days of the year: the birth
on April 8, the enlightenment on December 8, and the death
on February 15. The birth celebration, Hanamatsuri, is a flower
festival and time for ritually bathing images of the Buddha.
Enlightenment Day (Bodhi) and Death Day (Nehan [Nirvana]),
are simply occasions for social worship.
Theravada Buddhists mark the beginning and end of the rain-retreat,
which generally coincide with the beginning and end of the
rains. They conclude the year with a harvest festival. Theravada
monks enter rain-retreat on the full moon of either June or
July. The three- or four-month period is a time of relative
austerity for both laity and monks.
The monks remain in the monastery, spending more than the
usual time in study and meditation. No marriages or public
entertainments occur in the lay community and the laity are
more devout in their attendance of Observance Day ceremonies
and in their daily food offerings. The Observance Day on which
rain-retreat commences is generally occasion for the entire
lay community to offer food and many more than usual undertake
to spend the day at the monastery, keeping the monastic precepts.
The full-moon observance with which the rain-retreat ends
is much like that with which it begins, with the exception
that the monks gather privately and invite each other to point
out infractions of the monastic code during the retreat period.
The mood of this observance is a happy one the rains have
ended (usually), the monks may again move about, and public
celebrations are in order. The month that follows, mid-October
to mid-November, is the time for Kathina, the offering of
cloth from which the monks prepare new robes. Kathina offerings
are typically a group effort of an entire village, a lay association
for merit making, a government agency, or the employees of
a prominent commercial establishment. Typically, the group
approaches the monastery in joyful procession. Upon arrival,
the presiding monk administers the Five Precepts to the laity,
receives the cloth, and declares the great merit of such offerings.
The monks jointly chant a blessing verse and the laity pour
water, symbolically transferring apportion of the merit to
Theravada Buddhist honor and transfer merit to their ancestors
on every occasion of merit making and sharing. Japanese Buddhist
give special honor and merit to their ancestors three times
each year: on the spring and autumn equinoxes in March and
September and during the month July 15-August 15. The equinox
festivals, called Higan, 'Other Shore,' mark times
of transition in nature and therefore are occasions to reflect
on the passage of time and the progress of being toward enlightenment
- the other shore.