From Rituals to Real Buddhist Practice

Vesak this year is the 2600th anniversary of the Enlightenment of the Buddha and it would be prudent on this important occasion to review whether the practise of the Dhamma has developed in the wrong directions. In -Sri Lanka and in many other Buddhist countries, it is observed that most Buddhists are interested in the ritualistic practises associated with Buddhism’ rather than the- real practise of the Dhamma. The essence of Buddhism is in the four Noble Truths, Dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of life; the cause of Dukkha; the cessation of Dukkha; and the path leading to the cessation of Dukkha, the Noble eight-fold path. The real practise of the Dhamma is to follow the Noble eight-fold path for our liberation from Dukkha, the unsatisfactory features of life and Samsara, the cycle of births and deaths.

There are many rituals associated with Buddhism. Some may be useful if practiced correctly and others are of no value at all and contradictory to the teachings of the Buddha. The former become mere rituals if practiced in the wrong way. To this category falls even the recitation of the five precepts, Panchasila, where it is often undertaken without any attention or concentration and reduced to the level of a valueless ritual. Then there is the worship and offering of flowers to the images of the Buddha where most Buddhists - perform this act with a wandering mind and not concentrating on the virtues of the greatest teacher who showed the way to liberation. Moreover, the flowers symbolize the impermanence and changing nature of things, where the flowers now beautiful would shortly fade and wither away and so are our own bodies over a period of time. There is also the similar worship of offering of flowers to the Chaitya containing the relics of the Buddha but often undertaken without being mindful of the significance of this performance.

Among the rituals to be discarded altogether is the worship of Devas and Bodhi Poojas (to be distinguished from the worship of the Bo-Tree which signifies the importance of gratitude), which came to be adopted long after the Parinibbhana- of the Buddha where the main objective is seeking favours from such activities either for one’s gain or to overcome unfortunate happenings in life. Such activities encourage rather than discourage the craving and clinging for sense pleasures, a root defilement in Buddhism, contrary to the teachings of the Buddha. The desire strong enough to warrant the seeking of external assistance from Devas and Bodhi Poojas could be classified as a deep craving. The worship and seeking of material assistance of Devas was roundly condemned by the Late Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera, the well-known Buddhist preacher, who called upon Buddhists to adhere to the true practice of the Dhamma and not engage in valueless rites and rituals. He stated that during a time Sinhala Kings had South Indian Queens, who were Hindus, and it was convenient to have Devales in Buddhist Temples so that both the King and the Queen could observe their religious practces in one place.

This practice has continued thereafter except in a few temples such as the well-known Vajiraramaya temple in Bambalapitiya. According to Buddhism, Devas do have limited powers but their ir influence is marginal. Since the salvation of man is in his own hands, the Buddha declared in no uncertain terms that he himself cannot help others but could only show the way to liberation and how to lead a contented life here and now.

There is also the worship of parents and teachers, which could also be considered a ritual if mechanically observed. However, it could be undertaken as genuine affection and respect for elders. Even -otherwise, it has the beneficial effect that hands used for worship are unlikely to be utilized for violence against elders even in the most difficult circumstances. Violence towards one’s parents is considered a heinous action in Buddhism. Moreover, the worship of monks and elders would have the salutary effect of developing the noble quality of humility.

Rather than condemn and look down condescendingly at ordinary Buddhists irrationally attached to Buddhist rituals, they should be initially encouraged to practise rituals the proper way where they would be helpful to lead a Buddhist way of life. They also could be gently persuaded thereafter to abandon other rituals that are useless from a Buddhist standpoint and even harmful for the pursuit of the Dhamma.

Finally, these devotional Buddhists should be encouraged to engage in the real practice of the Dhamma by establishing themselves in virtue and developing mental concentration and wisdom. In this connection, the important role of Bhavana, both the formal seated meditation as well as Sati or mindfulness of all actions - physical, verbal and mental - should be encouraged for the purification of the mind. This would enable the development of wisdom to see things in their proper perspective as Anicca or impermanence; Dukkha or unsatisfactory nature s of life; and Anatta, the absence of a permanent unchanging self.

Thus, on the 2600th anniversary of the ‘enlightenment of the Buddha, which is to be officially commemorated from Vesak this year to the Vesak next year 2012, the monks, lay Buddhist meditation masters, lay Buddhist scholars and preachers could play an invaluable role to encourage Buddhists to progressively -shift from the practice of rituals to live a life in accordance with the Dhamma. For the Buddha has categorically stated that they honour him best who honour his teaching best.

Rajah Kuruppu

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