Rituals form an integral part of the Tibetan Buddhism. Throughout the year, in the temples and the various other places, daily as well as special rituals are performed. The special rituals are carried out to appease the deities; to bring rainfall and good harvest; to avoid destructive storms, disease and death; to control demons and evil spirits and lastly to overpower the passions of the mind and ego. Meditation is an important ritual which is carried out with the help of certain hand gestures and chanting of mantras. The techinique for meditation differs in different traditions but the aim is same, to aid the inner spiritual development.
Non initiates of Tibetan Buddhism perform rituals like offering of food, flower and water. They undertake religious pilgrimage, chant prayers, light butter lamps at the local temple and sometimes also fund monks to carry out the rituals on their behalf.
Seeing or Participating in Chham dances is considered auspicious for the villagers for they offer moral instructions and blessings. In Bhutan, these sacred dances are performed during the annual tsechu festival, and sometimes these festivals also see the unfurling of the thongdrol, or a large painting. Sighting of these thogdrol, too, is considered extremely auspicious and is believed to absolve the sins of the onlookers.
Performance of rituals require the presence of certain objects. Each ritual object has a symbolic meaning and many of them are also the hand held objects of different Buddhist deities.
Offering Bowl : They are kept on the altar and contain seven outer offerings including drinking and cleansing water, flower, incense, light, perfume, food and music.
Butter Lamps : Butter Lamps are invariably seen in Buddhist Temple and Monasteries and help in focusing the mind while meditating. Initially, clarified yak butter was used, however now, it has been replaced by vegetable oil. They are seen as eliminator of darkness externally while cenceptuallly, they turn dull and unimaginative mind into enligtened one. The lamps are managed by the monks of the monasteries and are sometimes kept in a separate enclosure so as to circumvent any accidental fire hazard.
Mandala : A mandala is a sacred geometric figure representing the universe. It functions as a sacred area open to deities and forces. The centre of Mandala is used for focussing attention during meditation.
Prayer Wheels and Prayer Flags : Prayer Wheels are wheels on spindle and inscribed on them are the prayers and the mantras. It is believed that spinning of the prayer wheel in a clockwise direction sends prayer prayers to all the Buddhas. This spinning of the prayer wheel is comaparable to oral recitation of prayers. The prayer wheels are made of copper and silver and have bamboo handle. Prayer Flags are colourful panels or rectangles cloth tied along mountain ridges and peaks. They are believed to carry the prayers upward to the deities and bring back their blessings to one and all - those who hang it, those who are in close vicinity and even all over the world. However, the flags are hung on precise astrological date, replaced annually ion Tibetan New Year, should not be kept on ground or worn as clothes.
Phurpa : Quiet often referred as a magic dagger, phurpa is made use of by high level tantric practitioners to conquer evil spirits and to destroy obstacles. It signifies stability on a prayer ground during ceremonies. Guru Padmasambhava is believed to be the originator of this implement. It was with the help of this implement that he bound the evil spirits and consecrated the ground which became the site for the Samye Monastery. The practitioner first meditates and then recites the sadhana of the phurpa. This is followed by an invitation to the deity to enter the phurpa. While doing so, the practitioners visualizes that he is scaring and overpowering the evil spirits by placing them under the point of the phurpa.
Dorje : It is a small sceptre which the Tibetan lamas hold in their right hand during religious ceremonies. Dorje derives from the Sanskrit word vajra and is supposed to eliminate all kind of ignorance. It is itself considered indestructible. It is symbolic of the male principle which represents compassion of Buddha. During rituals, dorje is paired with a bell, drilbu, which symbolizes female principle.
Drilbu : The bell or the Drilbu is an extremely important ritual object in Tibetan Buddhism. The sound of the bell, very much like that of a trumpet and the drum, is believed to warn the evil spirits to keep a distance from the consecrated area where the rituals are being performed. It is used along with the dorje in rituals and is representative of the wisdom. The male and the female principle, as symbolised by the dorje and drilbu, combine to achieve enlightenment. The use of the bell and vajra varies as per the ritual performed or the sadhana chanted.
Kapala or the Skull Cap : The skull cap is utilized as a libation ( pouring out of liquid offering in honor of a deity) vessel for a number of Vajrayana deities, primarily wrathful. During rituals, it is extremely important that the right kind of skull cap is chosen.
There is a common misconception that Buddhism is a purely intellectual affair, a thing of philosophical discussion. Another common misunderstanding is that because Buddhism is concerned with overcoming the suffering caused by attachment that it must be concerned with "overcoming" the emotions.
It may be true that an over-identification with our emotional responses may be unhelpful - particularly if those emotions are quite negative. However, it is difficult to achieve anything in life without a degree of emotional commitment. This is also true of the Buddhist path.
An engagement with Buddhism that did not involve the emotions would be a purely intellectual affair. While this would be OK for a scholar of Buddhism; an actual practitioner of Buddhism, seeking a path of transformation, needs to engage the whole of their being - the head and the heart. Ritual helps us to do this. Buddhist rituals are usually called Puja, meaning "worship". It is important to remember that Buddhists do not regard the Buddha as a God, so "worship" here has a different flavour to worship in the Christian context.
There are many different Pujas and new ones are being written all the time. Writing your own Pujas can be a very powerful way of engaging with the Buddhist vision.
Pujas can be very simple or very long and colourful. They generally involve a number of stages, each building on the previous one in order to cultivate particular positive emotions such as faith, gratitude and compassion.
During the chanting of a puja there are often spaces for making offerings, for the reading of Buddhist teachings, for quiet reflection and for the chanting of mantras.
Here is a simple Puja, one of many used in the FWBO.
The Threefold Puja
We reverence the Buddha,
the Perfectly Enlightened One,
the Shower of the Way.
We reverence the Dharma,
the Teaching of the Buddha,
which leads from darkness to Light.
We reverence the Sangha,
the fellowship of the Buddha's disciples,
that inspires and guides.
Reverence to the Three Jewels
We reverence the Buddha, and aspire to follow Him.
The Buddha was born as we are born.
What the Buddha overcame, we too can overcome;
What the Buddha attained, we too can attain.
We reverence the Dharma, and aspire to follow it
With body, speech and mind, until the end.
The Truth in all its aspects, the Path in all its stages,
We aspire to study, practise, realize.
We reverence the Sangha, and aspire to follow it:
The fellowship of those who tread the Way.
As, one by one, we make our own commitment,
An ever-widening circle, the Sangha grows.
Offerings to the Buddha
Reverencing the Buddha, we offer flowers:
Flowers that today are fresh and sweetly blooming,
Flowers that tomorrow are faded and fallen.
Our bodies too, like flowers, will pass away.
Reverencing the Buddha, we offer candles:
To Him, who is the Light, we offer light.
From His Greater lamp a lesser lamp we light within us:
The lamp of Bodhi shining within our hearts.
Reverencing the Buddha, we offer incense:
Incense whose fragrance pervades the air.
The fragrance of the perfect life, sweeter than incense,
Spreads in all directions throughout the world.
In making offerings to the Buddha, most buddhist will probably know you need to burn 3 incense, make two palms together and then make 3 kowtows. In modern times, some buddhist temples have reduced to 1 incense partly due to reasons of environmental protection. However, in most dharma services, the tradition is still 3 incense.
Not all buddhist know the significant meaning about the 3 incense, palms together and 3 kowtows. Let me explain.
In Mahayana Buddhist practice, the 3 incense represents "Precepts incense" (戒香）, "Concentration Incense" (定香）and "Wisdom Incense" （慧香）. It coincides with Mahayana Buddhist's spiritual practice towards enlightenment, particularly the 3 learning 三學：Precepts (戒）， Concentration (定）, Wisdom (慧）. Precepts are laid down to cut off all evils, to prevent bad karma from rising, to purify bad karma, in order for one's Bodhicitta to develop and for good karma to arise. If a person's mind is full of impediments and bad karma, it will continue to create obstacle to a person's spiritual practice, it will continue to create trouble and sufferings for him. With such obstacles and bad karma in a person, a person will not be able to subdue his own mind, let alone develop concentration. Therefore, beginners in buddhism typically focus on practising precepts to prevent bad karma from rising, to cut off all evil, to allow all good karma to rise up. And without creating any more bad karma, a bodhicitta pure mind can progress towards the next stage (particular in meditation) such as concentration (at the intermediate level) and the last stage wisdom (at the more advanced level) as the highest level of full enlightenment.
Palms Together (合十）
Holding two palms together. The Chinese buddhist term for this is called "He Shi 合十" (literally "10 together") represents putting 10 fingers together. Typically, it's angled about 45 degree to the body. Palms together is not just a typical ritual in making offerings to the Buddha, it's also a typical practice of greeting amongst buddhists, to venerables, to buddhist masters etc.
It has an internal effect of subduing one's internal mind and creates an impression of peace and humility. When we feel nervous, trouble, angry, holding the palms together allow us to feel internal peace, serenity and mind concentration. Although it looks simple, it is known in Buddhism to able to subdue a troubled mind.
Palms on top of each other (操手）
This involves putting two palms horizontally on top of each other and known in Chinese as "Chao Shou 操手 " In common practice, the right palm should be on top of the left palm, with both palms facing top. The two palms should be put around the front of abdomen. The position should be in a relaxed position.
This is a common practice in dharma services, sometimes in chanting, but usually after chanting esp. when listening to venerable's talk (known as Kai Shi 開示 in Chinese). It has an effect of remaining calm and relaxation.
Ritual of Finger tips (triangular position/shape) on head (問訊）
The Chinese buddhist term for this ritual is called "Wen Xun 問訊"
First of all, put your two palms together but focus your eye attention on your finger tips. Then bow 90 degree together (without kneeling down) to the Buddha with your two palms together. However when you come up, you need to change your palm signs. Basically, the thumb and 2nd finger of each left and right hand palm should form a triangular position/shape). The rests of other fingers should laid one after each other.
This palm position signifies the meaning of a lotus flower waiting to be blossom (it's shaped like a lotus flower), just like offering flowers to the Buddha and Bodhisattava.
When you rise up, put through your chest and rise your triangular palm signs on top of your head to your eye brow, but not touching the forehead. This presents offering to the buddha and bodhisattva to the top and is a form of respect, reverence and humbleness.
After this, slowly raise your palm back to the chest position and then change it to the palms together position.
3 kowtows (拜佛／禮佛）
The entire ritual of kowtow in Chinese Buddhism is known as "bai fo 拜佛／li fo 禮佛" (pay respect to Buddha/offering to Buddha)
Kowtows (磕頭） involve palms together, two legs slowly together (forming the Chinese word 八 shape). The distance between the legs should be around 5 cm. One then slowly kneel onto the ground. The right hand should touch the ground first followed by the left hand, then let your hand slide towards the front. The palm should face down initially and your knee should not move. Slowly let your head your head and hands down (palms facing down) touching the ground. The distance between your hands should be around 15 cm. Your forehead should touch the ground.
Then, flip your palms up and lay it align with the floor. This is known as 頭面接足禮( ritual of palm head accepting the legs). When you are getting up, you need to flip your palms back to face the ground. After that, you can get up.
In common practice, it's 3 kowtows to the Buddha.
The 3 kowtows to the Buddha typically means the following:
1st kowtow - pay respect to the Buddha
2nd kowtow - seek refuge in Buddhism and express the wish to learn the dharma from the Buddha
3rd kowtow - repentance for one's own wrong-doing, past bad karma and vow never to commit any more evils.
When doing the 3 kowtows to the Buddha, it actually means paying homage to the Buddha, to seek refuge in triple gems, to learn the dharma (teachings of the Buddha) and to do repentance service.
In many occasion, kowtow to the Buddha (拜佛） can be one time, esp. during chanting services.
The 3 Kowtows are often accompanied by Ritual of Finger tips (triangular position) on head (問訊）
Dedicating Merits (回向）
Many buddhists do not know the significance of dedicating merits. It's known as "Hui Xiang 回向" in Chinese. In chanting sutra, buddha's name, it's important to dedicate merits to other sentient beings, to your family members, to your friends, to those who are sufferings, and to all sentient beings.
Dedicating merits is a form of transferring the merits that you've gained through good dharma practice to all sentient beings. It allows one to progress towards bodhicitta and nirvana. One can also dedicate the good merits that you've gained through doing good to those who had passed away. It can actually create karmic affinity to the person you dedicate the merits to, esp. if you pray the person suffering from sickness hoping him to get better.
Dedicating merits usually come in the form of a verse where one chants after chanting. A common verse is as follow:
May I dedicate my good merits, to dignify the buddha pureland
To repay the 4 kindness on top, to save the 3 sufferings below
If any person hear this, may one vow a mind of bodhicitta
With this, I repay my body, to be born together in the pureland
Some verse can simply be:
愿以此功德， 回向給 ....(name of person)
May I dedicate this good merits to ....name of person
Dedicating merits can be categorized into common (一般回向）, personal （個人回向）, great（大回向）, mass（普回向）, and final dedication（縂回向）. In most common practice, dedicating merits typically involve great and mass dedication. Common dedication of merits is usually used for common merits. Personal dedication is individual dedication of merits to a particular person, to past debtors, karmic haters of you, to diminish disaster, to someone who is suffering etc. Great dedication involves massing all the powers of compassion and vows together to dedicate for all the sentient beings. Mass dedication basically follows the dedication of Samanthabadra Bodhisattava 普賢菩薩 (symbolizing great action) to all sentient beings. Final dedication is the last stage of dedication, usually done at the end of big dharma services and sometimes held at the end of year in buddhist temples.