Ritual purification is a feature of many religions. The aim of these rituals is to remove specifically defined uncleanliness prior to a particular type of activity, and especially prior to the worship of a deity. This ritual uncleanliness is not identical with ordinary physical impurity, such as dirt stains; nevertheless, body fluids are generally considered ritually unclean.
Most of these rituals existed long before the germ theory of disease, and figure prominently from the earliest known religious systems of the Ancient Near East. Some writers remark that similarities between cleansing actions, engaged in by obsessive compulsive disorder sufferers and those of religious purification rites, point to an ultimate origin of the rituals in the personal grooming behaviour of the primates, but others connect the rituals to primitive taboos.
Some have seen benefits of these practices that as a point of health and preventing infections especially in areas where humans come in close contact with each other. While these practices came before the idea of the germ theory was public in areas that use daily cleaning, the destruction of infectious agents seems to be dramatic. Others have described a 'dimension of purity' that is universal in religions that seeks to move us away from disgust, (at one extreme) and to uplift us towards purity and divinity, (at the other extreme). Away from uncleanliness to purity, and away from deviant to moral behavior, (within one's cultural context)
Buddhists engage in rituals as part of their spiritual practice. These sacraments are meant to cleanse the spiritual being or soul. Cleansing rituals may be performed either alone or with others in a setting of collective worship. They take place during celebrations, as well as moments of profound spiritual reverence. Whether minimal or complex, rituals are performed to commune with Buddhist deities, fend off evil and bring good fortune. Cleansing rituals take various forms, including meditation or fruit offerings, and incorporate specific objects, such as sacred bowls and bells.
The enactment of a Buddhist ritual often requires an offering. As with other ritual objects, an offering bowl has a symbolic meaning. Its purpose is to hold gifts to Buddhist deities. In Tibetan Buddhism, seven offering bowls occupy the altar and contain seven offerings, including drinking and cleansing water, flowers, incense, light, perfume and food items.
A butter lamp, not unlike a candle holder, helps to create focus during meditation. It consists of a base and a basin on top for burning vegetable oil, or, traditionally, yak butter. Often a butter lamp is inscribed with decorative designs. Buddhists believe that in addition to providing light, this lamp also enlightens and purifies the mind.
A phurpa is a three-sided dagger, similar to a tent stake. Although referred to as a magic dagger, the phurpa’s blade is not sharp. This object’s purpose is to intimidate evil spirits and overcome challenges. During a ritual, Buddhists chant mantras while meditating on frightening away evil forces with the phurpa.
A mandala is a symbolic geometric object representing the universe. Its basic shape is a square with four gates encompassing a circle with a center point. It functions as a sacred space open to Buddhist deities and spiritual forces. The mandala is used as a focal point during meditation.
The use of a prayer wheel takes the place of chanting mantras. Buddhists spin a wheel on which prayers and mantras are inscribed; in doing so, these sacred words are sent into the universe. Prayer wheels are made by winding inscribed paper around itself, and then placing the roll inside a copper or wood container. The container is then attached to a spindle, which is spun around.
Vajra or Dorje
A vajra or dorje is a ceremonial object symbolizing the indestructible and irresistible forces of the soul and spiritual power. It is a small wand resembling a scepter, with a ball or round finial on both ends. It is commonly made of copper, but can also be silver. Always held in the right hand, it is used in cleansing or purification rituals intended to bring forth enlightenment. Buddhists use the vajra or dorje in conjunction with the drilbu.
The drilbu is a ceremonial object symbolizing compassion and wisdom. It looks and sounds like a bell, except that the handle has a round knob corresponding to the dorje's finial. The drilbu is made from the same metal as the dorje used with it. Buddhists believe that the sound of the drilbu purifies the spirit, invites good energy and banishes evil.
Kapala or Skull Cup
The kapala, also called a skull cup, is created simply by using the upper portion of a human skull. It can be ornamented with engraved designs or other embellishments. It looks like an upturned bowl, except that it is made from an actual skull. The kapala is most often used to bestow offerings to Buddhist deities.
Buddhist Tourism: Rituals and Ritual Objects
Serindia Publications: The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols
Losang Samten: The Purification Ritual of Dorje Namjum
The New York Times: At Buddhist Temple, Cleansing Rituals to Ring in the New Year
Buddhist Gateway: The Rituals and Festivals of the Buddhist Life
About the Author
Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.