FAQ's (frequently asked questions) about Buddhist culture.
• Do Buddhists pray?
Buddhists don’t pray to a Creator God, but they do have devotional meditation practices which could be compared to praying. Radiating loving-kindness to all living beings is a practice which is believed to benefit those beings. The sharing of merit is a practice where one dedicates the goodness of one’s life to the benefit of all living beings as well as praying for a particular person.
In Tibet prayer is going on most of the time. Tibetans pray in a special way. They believe that when certain sounds and words, called mantras, are said many times, they arouse good vibrations within the person. If a mantra is repeated often enough it can open up the mind to a consciousness which is beyond words and thoughts.
In Japan millions of Buddhists pray to Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. They believe that Amida has created a Pure Land in the west and that those who have faith and repeat Amida’s name in prayer will go there. Yet they also believe that Amida is really within them.
• How do you become a Buddhist?
In one way being a Buddhist means belonging to a particular community of people and following a path of life taught by the Buddhas (enlightened beings). Members of the Buddhist community are formally joined by taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the teaching) and the Sangha (the community of noble disciples).
• When visiting Centres and Temples - what is expected?
Many people are shy of visiting centres or temples because they think that:
a) they will be asked for money
b) they will be harassed about converting and followed up by calls, spam email, and stuff like that.
First: the teaching of Buddhism is always free. Going along to a temple is free and meditation teaching is usually free. The Buddhist belief is that religion should be free, open and truthful. It is a custom, if you go to a temple, to take a small offering such as flowers or food. If you talk to a master for long periods, you may wish to leave a small donation.
For some activities - public talks, meditation courses, retreats - a charge is made, because the expenses involved in organising them can be substantial. If you have a strong interest and are sincere but have a financial problem, this can be discussed with the organisers. The teaching is not supposed to be denied to people who lack financial accumulation.
It is very, very rare for anyone to have people try to convert them and almost unknown to have any sort of mail or email solicitation (and I would stay away from any such temple). New students who have only just discovered Buddhism tend to want to tell all their friends how wonderful it is. Older students know everyone has their own path and their own pace.
Buddhists are human. There are a few bad organisations. It is obligatory to answer truthfully questions concerning one's teachers and lineage. The teachers one finds in Buddhist temples, especially if they have been trained traditionally, overseas, are incredibly qualified, with decades of experience. If a temple is open and honest, if it is connected to the mainstream of Buddhist tradition, then it is almost certainly okay. Cults are closed and secretive. Trust your own judgment.
• Why do Buddhists chant?
It reminds one of the Dharma so that it is not forgotten; when meditation is not possible and when bare mindfulness does not give much consolation, it can be used to great advantage as an extension of meditation into words to produce calm, some peace within; and certainly, it expresses one’s strong confidence in the Dharma. Reciting the same chants day after day also has an advantage - the making of wholesome repetitive karma which of course will bear very good fruit.
• What about Buddhist shrines and images?
The shrine found in Buddhist homes or temples is a focal point of Buddhist observances. At the centre of the shrine, there is usually an image of the Buddha. This image may be made of a variety of materials such as marble, gold, wood or even clay. The image is a symbol that helps people to recall the qualities of the Buddha.
The shrine may also have such objects as a volume of Buddhist scriptures to represent the Dharma. Some shrines may include other items such as images, pictures or photographs of Buddhist monks and masters to represent the Sangha. When a Buddhist stands before a shrine, the objects he sees on it help him to recall the qualities that are found in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This inspires him to work towards cultivating these qualities in himself.
• Why do Buddhists bow?
In Buddhism, the traditional gesture of reverence to the Triple Gem is to place the palms of both hands together and raise them high in front, usually up to the level of the forehead. In order to express deep veneration, a Buddhist may bow or prostrate before the image of the Buddha, members of the Sangha and the masters of the Teaching. When a Buddhist prostrates before an image, he acknowledges the fact that the Buddha has attained the perfect and supreme Enlightenment. Such an act helps the Buddhist to overcome egoistic feelings and he becomes more ready to listen to the Teaching of the Buddha.
• Are there Buddhist holy places?
The four holy sites as places of pilgrimage for Buddhists are Lumbini, where the Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree; Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first teaching of the Dharma; and Kusinagara, where the Buddha passed away.
• What about Buddhist festivals?
Buddhist festivals are always joyful occasions. Every May, on the night of the full moon, Buddhists all over the world celebrate Vesak for the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha such a long time ago.
In the Theravada tradition, practices observed by laypeople at Vesak include the observance of eight precepts (the regular five plus not taking food after midday and celibacy and not over indulging in sleep). Also the laypeople may participate in chanting and meditation and listening to sermons.
In Thai villages people get ready during the day. They clean their houses and hang up garlands of flowers. The men take clean sand from the river bank and spread it over the temple courtyard, where everyone walks with bare feet. Statues of the Buddha are brought out of the temple to be washed and polished and all the books come out to be dusted. When it is dark, the villagers gather with candles or small oil lamps. The biggest Buddha statue is put on a platform outside the temple and lights shine all round it. Scented water is thrown onto it. Holding their lights, everyone starts to move round the Buddha statue so that in the end it is encircled with light.
• Can a non-Buddhist attend a Buddhist service?
Many, perhaps even most, Buddhist temples welcome non-Buddhists. Larger, more well-established temples often post announcements in local newspapers as to their schedules of services. It is appropriate to call ahead to ask whether visitors are welcome at a given religious observance. Visitors are free to participate in communal ritual as the wish. Major ritual activities include offering incense, chanting texts from the Sutras or singing hymns, and quiet meditation. Guests who choose not to participate should observe in silence from the back or side of the temple.
• What about Buddhist marriage ceremonies?
Monks are prohibited from being marriage celebrants but they can "bless" the couple by reciting the Dharma (chanting) after the secular ceremony.
• What is a Buddhist funeral like?
A simple ceremony where the good deeds of the departed are remembered, a Loving-kindness meditation can be done and a sharing of merits.
• What is a Stupa?
When the person who has died is a Buddha (enlightened one) or an Arhant (saint) or an especially great teacher, relics are collected after the cremation. These may be placed in a stupa or pagoda (burial mound) or in a Buddha-rupa (image of the Buddha). Whenever the Buddhist sees a stupa in the countryside or a Buddha-rupa in a shrine room it is a reminder of the Dharma (teaching) and it is honoured because of that.
(Written by the team at BuddhaNet.Net)