The Place of Rituals in Buddhism by Vijaya Samarawickrama

The Place of Rituals in Buddhism

Vijaya Samarawickrama

We are living in a world that is so vastly different from anything our ancestors had experienced over the last twenty thousand years. Beginning from that time early humans sought to ensure their survival by calling upon unseen beings in nature to overcome dangers and guarantee adequate supplies of food. They did this through ‘sympathetic magic’. In this context magic means making nature do what we want it to do, like calling for rain, ensuring success in war and hunting, safe childbirth and the like. These rituals were considered very sacred and effective and could only be performed by highly gifted and trained individuals called shamans. Over time these shamans realized they had great power over the people and devised more and more complicated rituals and guarded their knowledge jealously so that others could not enjoy their prestige. Over time, even when circumstances changed and humans developed from hunting to agriculture and then to technology, shamans became priests in organized religions and continued to exploit ignorance and spread fear among people by insisting on the efficacy of rituals in pleasing the gods. In India for example, twenty five centuries ago these priests, called Brahmins held almost complete power over society and people, even kings, were at their mercy. However, even then a movement grew, called the shramana tradition where independent thinkers like the Buddha challenged the efficacy of rituals in being able to bring true happiness.

In Europe also a similar situation occurred. About three hundred years ago in Europe, great thinkers risked their lives to challenge the existing beliefs and ushered in what is called the “Age of Reason” and they introduced scientific rational thought to explain the problems of human existence. Many long held religious ideas were severely questioned in spite of desperate attempts by religious authorities to silence them. The result was that ever since the 17th century and especially since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, and the spread of education, the vast majority of people simply turned their backs on the old religious practices because they considered them superstitious and irrelevant to their lives. Humans then moved into an era where people, especially young people, became totally secular (non-religious), thinking that science and technology alone could provide them with the happiness they yearned for. But they soon discovered that while materialism could provide an almost unlimited supply of sensual pleasure, true happiness still eluded them. Science and Technology could provide for the senses but spiritually and mentally, people still felt unfulfilled. The reason for this is that by rejecting religion completely people were also rejecting the many spiritual, aesthetic and psychological benefits that religion had provided in the past. People had gone from one extreme to another: from blindly participating in meaningless rituals to totally rejecting everything that religion had to offer. In other words, to quote an old saying, they “threw the baby out with the bath water”.

This trend was not confined to the west alone. Popular Buddhism also experienced the same phenomenon. Over the last seventy years or so, many young, western educated people who had been born “Buddhist” rejected their religion because they saw that it was burdened with endless rituals whose significance no one could explain. These young people can hardly be faulted because to their western “scientific” sensibilities these rituals were barbaric superstitious practices which had no place in a “civilized”, rational western oriented society. They could not see that many practices which were described as “Buddhist” were not Buddhist at all. As a result youths discarded the religion of their ancestors and turned, either to a totally materialistic, hedonistic way of life, or to other religions which for some strange reason, they found more “modern”, although these religions are just as riddled with meaningless rites and rituals.

A direct result of this rejection of organized religion is that many people lost their sense of direction and became lost in mental suffering with nowhere to turn for solace. We may have more knowledge to make our lives more comfortable physically, but have not at the same time gained the wisdom to make ourselves happier. This is because we fail to realize that while religion may have many shortcomings, it is also a source of spirituality if we know how to look for it. Satisfying the needs of the body alone cannot fulfill us: we need to satisfy the needs of the mind as well. In short, we need to find a personal meaning in our lives.

This point could be made clearer if we understand the difference between Religion and Spirituality. Religion, in the generally accepted meaning of the word has to do with dogma, belief, scriptures, ceremonies, prayer, submission, faith and so on. The word itself comes from the Latin ‘religio’ which means ‘to bind’. It has to do with faith and surrender. “Spirituality” on the other hand, has to do with a human being raising him or herself to a higher state of being emotionally and psychologically, of transcending the coarse desires of the senses and rising to the higher states of mind consciousness. It need not necessarily mean accepting a higher power outside of oneself. But the two are related and many elements of religion can give rise to spirituality and many spiritual exercises can bring about profound religious experiences.

Religion is not the only source of spirituality, though. In many primitive societies, as for example among the Native Americans or the Australian aborigines, people lived very spiritual lives, being closely connected to nature, keenly aware of their close ties with the elements, of the seasons and of the various changes which take place in their lives. These people understood the meaning of the “the sacred” although they were not “religious” in the modern sense, because they knew nothing about temples, scriptures, priests and so on. Many modern human beings who have rejected conventional religion have found deep fulfillment in spirituality, simply practicing compassion and indulging in the arts –music, theater, dance, poetry and so on. These aspects of human activity are still to be found in modern religions and can be a great source of solace to us.

Spirituality is the experience of the spirit: experience of the beyond, of the ultimate, of what we could call the divine. Spirituality is that which opens up the infinite horizons of the mind, that which gives the courage to BE.

Religion, on the other hand, is the manifestation of spirituality. The needs of our deep consciousness unfold in the physical expression which we see as organized religion and religious symbols. Spirituality is a universal experience, religion is a particular expression. Spirituality points to the underlying sacred unity of reality, religion refers to the diversity of experiences. Spirituality is based on a deep mystical perception, religion is conditioned by history and culture. (Fr S. Painadath SJ: “A Spiritual Response to the Challenges Facing Humanity”)

Hence, when one rejects the dogmatism and the ritualism of organized religion one should not also reject the spirituality it can lead to. One way to do this is for everyone to go back to the original meaning and practice of the religion and understand how its present external manifestation developed out of its deep spiritual beginnings. Buddhism discovered the means to this spirituality in each of its great traditions through the rituals that they developed over the centuries.


One way we can study a religion is by looking at its rituals and trying to uncover their deeper spiritual meanings. But what are rituals? According to Wikipedia, a ritual is “a set of actions performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including by a religious community. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized”.

“Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various worship rites and sacraments of organized religions and cults, but also the rites of passage of certain societies, atonement and purification rites….”

From the above we can see that all societies have rituals as part of their organizational structure and Buddhism is no exception. Rituals are very much part of popular Buddhism and no one can practice the teaching of the Buddha without in some way or another taking part in at least some of the rituals.

However, many people object to the practice of rituals in Buddhism by arguing that the Buddha Himself had condemned rituals in His teachings. Yes, it is true that on various occasions the Buddha did condemn reliance on Rites and Rituals for salvation. For example when He once observed an ascetic ritually bathing in the holy river in order to be purified, the Blessed One remarked that if purification was possible merely by bathing in a river, then the fish who lived in the river must be more pure than the human who would return home after the bath!

Again the Buddha says (in the Dhammapada)

Not by matted hair, by clan, or by birth,
is one a brahman.
Whoever has truth & rectitude:
he is a pure one,
he, is a brahman. (v141)

 And also:

“Not wandering naked, nor matted locks, nor filth, nor lying on the ground, nor dust, nor ashes, nor striving to squat on heels, can purify a mortal who has not overcome doubts” (v 393 )

(Meaning: external manifestations of piety alone do not constitute true spiritual development)

It is perhaps for this reason that this statement appears in Wikipedia: “Note that the only religion in the world that rejects religious rites and rituals is Buddhism”. This statement is not entirely correct.

What the Buddha condemned was not rituals themselves but the false notion that physical actions could bring about purification without any effort to purify the mind. The Buddha saw the value of rituals as an important means to an end and not an end by itself. In the Dhamma Sangani we are told that we must avoid four types of clinging:

1. Clinging to Sense desires

2. Clinging to Views

3. Clinging to Rites and Rituals

4. Clinging to Personality belief

Clinging to Rites and Rituals is defined as “The holding firmly to the view that through mere rites and rituals one may reach purification”. This reliance on mere rites and rituals is called “Silabbata Paramasa”. As a result of a serious misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teaching on this matter many people have declared that a Buddhist need not practice any form of ritual as part of his or her spiritual practice. What they fail to realize is that one must not rely on them SOLELY as a means to final deliverance. During the Buddha’s time many brahmins carried out expensive and elaborate rituals involving the sacrifice of many innocent animals in the mistaken belief that these alone could help one to be free from the cycle of rebirths which we call samsara, that devotion alone could lead to salvation without the effort to purify the mind. The lines which follow the sentence quoted earlier from Wikipedia are useful to explain this concept: “One of three characteristics of the first level of Buddhist Sainthood (called Sotapanna), is the elimination of the clinging to rites and rituals. Buddhists believe that clinging to the view that one becomes pure simply through performing ritual and rigid moralism such as praying to a god for deliverance, slaughtering animals for sacrifice, ablutions, etc. need to be eradicated because the Sotapanna realizes that rites and rituals are nothing more than an obstructive tradition, repetitious rites and dead dogmas”.

In a famous parable the Buddha declared that one must use religion merely as a raft to cross the river of existence. Once one has successfully reached the other bank, one discards the raft. Here the implication is that rituals, as part of religion, are needed to cross the ‘river’ (existence) in the first place. Once we have become saints, then we can discard the rituals. But for the time being we must accept that rituals do play an important role in our practice of Buddhism.

The Buddha Himself instituted many rituals which have come down to us today, and they carry deep symbolic meanings aimed at ‘purifying the mind’. Rituals are a necessary part of the spiritual path laid down by the Buddha which consists of Sila, Samadhi and Panna. The practice of Sila requires physical discipline because it is clear that one cannot tame the mind (through Samadhi) and reach Wisdom (Panna) unless one first learns to control the body. Rituals are part of Sila, of do-ing good. As is obvious to even the most casual of observers, the “PUJA” or the ritual of paying respects to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha is an essential part of the religious practice of all Buddhists whether they are Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana. As part of Sila they are regarded as skillful means (Upaya), to help one prepare for cultivating the mind, the ultimate goal.

The Purpose of Rituals in Buddhism

One of the most important things we need to understand is that in Buddhism, rituals do not have the same purpose and function as they do in other religions. In Buddhism, rituals are a means to an end, and not an end by themselves. Rituals play the important role of disciplining the body before the mind is disciplined. It is an important first step.

Many people who reject the rituals of religion are quite unaware that they perform numerous rituals every day. In this sense rituals are habitual actions performed regularly which save a lot of time. Every morning for example, we perform the ritual of getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, brushing our teeth, taking a shower before going to work and so on! These are rituals, but of course they do not have any sacred or religious meaning attached to them. But they do give us a sense of order in our lives and make the management of our time that much more efficient. In exactly the same way, religious worshippers develop a sense of order in their minds when they perform rituals because basically humans are creatures of habit. Constantly repeated rituals give a sense of familiarity which is reassuring and calming. But we must not allow rituals to become mindless repetitions of prescribed actions. For a Buddhist, each action in the rituals must be performed with focused attention and awareness as if for the first time each time it is performed.

When we perform a religious ritual we sense a feeling of respect, awe, fascination towards the object of veneration. Of course in Buddhism, while this object is the Buddha, certainly we do not regard the Buddha as an all-powerful Creator who has complete control over our destiny and who needs to be supplicated to by us and to grant us favors. For a Buddhist, the Buddha is the Ultimate symbol of the ability of a human being to transcend all worldly limitations. This is spirituality at its best. When we have this understanding our whole attitude towards the ritual of the Buddhist PUJA takes on a different meaning and a different level of experience. It becomes an instrument of mental culture.

Communal Worship

Rituals can be performed privately or in the company of others. When performed with others, rituals create community and mutual support. The Buddha praised the value of “Kalyana Mitras” or spiritual friends who support us (as we support them) in our search for spiritual upliftment. When many people gather in a temple there is a sense of belonging and comradeship which develops. One of society’s greatest illnesses today is loneliness. Communal gatherings among like-minded people can go a long way to kill this sense of being alone. Primitive societies thrived on communal activities. Sadly, modern societies stress on individualism and that has led to the loneliness that many of us suffer today.

Another thing we need to remember about communal worship in a temple is that we are gathering in a “sacred place”. Some temples have existed for a long time and people have gathered there with sincere thoughts of goodwill, devotion, piety and purity. Such powerful positive mental states remain in the area as part of its aura. When we visit these places with the right attitude this atmosphere of spirituality and calm permeates through us. It has a powerful calming effect on us, cleansing us of the toxins of stress, anger, ill-will and so on. Even if we do not belong to a particular religion, we can still sense the powerful aura that the sacred space exudes.

Personal Devotion

While there are great benefits to be gained from communal participation in worship, as Buddhists we must also never lose sight of the private, personal aspect of prayer. Rituals lead us to become mindful. The purpose of Buddhist rituals is to create a sharper, clearer awareness of ourselves and this is something which happens in the mind.

During the PUJA we offer lights, water, flowers, incense and fruits. If we simply deposit them on the altar and mindlessly recite the relevant verses, nothing (or very little) is achieved. Remember, there is no magic inherent in the offering! We cannot simply make the offering and wish that all our problems will vanish. However if, as we make the offering, we reflect on Impermanence, and on the illusory nature of all beautiful objects, then something deeply psychological occurs within our consciousness. It leads to clarity, calm and understanding which helps us to bear whatever problems we may have and observe them objectively. In many religions the worshippers pray to be freed from danger or to be saved, but a Buddhist asks that he or she is freed from the suffering which that danger entails. It is a fact of human existence that we are subjected to suffering – old age, disease, death, separation from the pleasant, association with the undesirable. No matter how much we pray, these things will not go away. As Buddhists we are taught that rather than wishing that they will be removed we must learn not to suffer with the suffering, but to develop the patience and understanding to accept them , knowing that according to the Law of Impermanence they will eventually go away. Rituals prepare us to calm the body first and then to calm the mind. With minds calmed, we learn to step back and watch ourselves and thus detach ourselves from the subjectivity entailed in the suffering. This is equanimity.

When we perform rituals mindfully and with understanding we develop certain attitudes of mind, of calmness and serenity. Over time they become internalised and they remain with us even after we have performed the PUJA.

Transformational Power

One of the most important aspects of taking part in rituals with the right understanding is that they are TRANSFORMATIVE. The entire Buddhist path can be summarized as effecting a transformation of the mind. Once we get a glimpse of the nature of suffering as an aspect of the mind, we set about to change our confused mind into one which sees the true nature of suffering. When we understand suffering and how it arises we are in a position to transcend it. When we perform rituals, we carry out physical actions which prepare us to change the way we think and react to any situation which may arise. In this way rituals “can help people heal, develop and complete psychological and spiritual processes better than by any other method” (Gil Fronsdal).

Once we bring order into our lives by performing a puja formally we can bring that same sense of calm and self- control into our everyday lives – at home, among friends, at work and so on.

That is the magic of a Buddhist ritual – it helps you heal yourself through a transformation of the mind.

Being Comfortable with Buddhist Devotional Practices

Many newcomers to Buddhism are introduced to it either by reading or by listening to talks. They therefore have an “intellectual” or rational understanding of it. As a result they feel very uncomfortable when they are required to take part in physical actions which are so different from what they had been used to doing as part of their own culture and upbringing. They cannot bring themselves to greet monastics by raising their hands in the “anjali” gestures, they find it strange to sit on the floor, chant, to ring bells and so on. This is perfectly understandable. They would prefer to dispense with all the ritualistic behavior and stay with the intellectual aspects alone or go straight into meditation. Many adaptations have been made in recent years to accommodate the cultural diversity of the people Buddhism has reached but initially there can still be some degree of uncomfortableness, like wearing a new shirt.

However, if people want to be practicing Buddhists, they must appreciate that even during the Buddha’s time, Buddhism was not a matter of intellect alone. It was very much a matter of aesthetics and emotions as well. To be a Buddhist one must engage both the head and the heart.

While understanding can come by engaging intellectual thought, realization is a different matter altogether, it envelopes the entire being. This is the emotional part of Buddhism. Although they may seem strange at first one must allow oneself to become a part of the practices and over time when one lets go of one’s resistance, one will find the experience richly rewarding spiritually and aesthetically. This is why we constantly remind young parents that it is vital that these practices are inculcated in their children from very young, as soon as they begin to walk, in fact. As the child grows, this behavior is internalized and feels natural, it becomes part of the child’s personality. Adults too can benefit from this process of internalization.

“Man does not live by bread alone”. As human beings, we cannot simply exist by satisfying our basic survival needs for food, shelter and procreation. We need something to lift us out of the ordinary, to raise our spirits. Rituals, especially in religion have the power to do this in us in the same way that the Arts satisfy the mind through the senses. If we approach rituals and devotional practices with this understanding and engage our emotions we can be benefitted enormously at a psychological level.

On the surface, to an outsider, all the different Buddhist traditions appear to be bewilderingly diverse and confusing, but on closer inspection they are really very simple and surprisingly uniform. All Buddhist rituals are designed to transform a person from the physical level to the spiritual level where the mind becomes calm and undisturbed – like a lotus flower which rises above the water in a pond.

All Buddhist rituals can be reduced to at least some of these basics although there can be many variations.

  1. Going for refuge. Reciting a formula that one has come to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha to seek solace. It is a preliminary step expressing the confidence that solace can indeed be found here.

  1. Taking the Five Precepts. Each time one takes the Five Precepts with mindfulness one reiterates one’s determination to live a life of self- control.

  1. Offering respect to the Buddha the Supreme Teacher who showed us how to gain perfect happiness through self- effort.

  1. Offering light, water, incense and perfumed smoke. This reminds one that all beauty is not only illusory but impermanent as well. It is not offered TO the Buddha as a sacrifice in order to please Him.

  1. Acknowledgement of faults. Again this is not asking the Buddha for forgiveness, but to recognize one’s shortcomings so that one knows how to prevent it from occurring again.

  1. Calling on spiritual forces for support or protection. This is not a surrender to these forces but acknowledging their presence and invoking their goodwill.

  1. Blessings. Blessings are bestowing positive good wishes on all those present.

  1. Sharing of merits. Inviting others, including ancestors, to take part and rejoice in the good deeds that have been performed.

 These rituals can be performed as often as one desires and also on special occasions such as weddings, childbirth, anniversaries and funerals. They can also be practiced during initiation and ordination rites.

Rituals are Special

We live in a world which is characterized by a daily struggle for existence. As a result most of us are caught up in the rat race which characterizes our modern materialist culture. For our mental well-being we need to break away from this self-seeking routine. Rituals do this for us. Every day we set aside some “sacred time” to rest our bodies and minds in a “sacred space”. Sacred time can be fixed by us as part of our daily practice (mornings, evenings or nights) or even special days like Full moon and New moon days, Vesak, Kathina and so on. By “sacred space” we mean a temple or a special part of the house or even a quiet open area set aside for quiet reflection and prayer.

The benefit comes from the regular practice. It is preferable to keep the times regular so that a sense of order and physical discipline is experienced. The focal point could be the altar with an image, but even a single candle, flower or joss stick can be equally beneficial if one has the right frame of mind. It is good to indicate a definite starting point by striking a gong, taking a deep breath to relax the body or simply by saying “Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu”.

When the body and the mind are now brought to a state of calmness, the PUJA or central ritual can begin.

It is important not to hurry the first part. Give the mind and the body a moment to leave behind the delusion stress and pollution of the outside world. It is good to remember that you are actually entering the REAL world of the mind. If more than one person is present it is important to bear in mind that everyone acts together as in a dance. This unity of action has a calming effect and it also connects everyone who is present.

The PUJA always begins with everyone bowing three times to pay respect to each component of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

The end of the PUJA is as important as the rest. At the beginning the mind was brought into focus and this awareness was maintained throughout. Now at the end, it is good to slowly bring the mind back to the external world, to quietly reflect on its state and enjoy the stillness and peace. It would of course be excellent if some time could be spent on a meditation exercise. Beginners can do Metta bhavana or meditation on loving kindness.

We can then say “Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu” and prostrate ourselves three times before the image before quietly leaving the sacred place.

In conclusion let us reflect on this quotation from a Zen master James Ishmael Ford, Roshi :

We come to Buddhism looking for remedies for our pain and fear, but we bring with us our many issues and suspicions. We find ourselves in a place that is foreign and uncomfortable, and we wrap ourselves tighter in our armor. “For most of us as we come into this room, things are encountered with some distance. We place ourselves, frequently, just beyond where we might be touched,” the Roshi said.

“We must allow ourselves the possibility of being touched,” he continued. “This is, after all, about life and death, about our most intimate questions. So we need just a little openness to the possibilities of being moved, to turn in new directions”.


This paper was presented at the symposium, Buddhist Rituals – What, Why and How? organised by Poh Ming Tse Temple in Singapore on 25th August 2012. A compilation of answers to the questions raised at the symposium can be found at

Vijaya SamarawickramaAbout the author: Mr. Vijaya Samarawickrama obtained a B.A.(Hons) in English and Linguistics from the University of Malaya and an M.A. (Drama and Theater) from the University of Hawaii, USA. He has had a long career in teaching and imparting knowledge in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions including the University of Malaya, Universiti Sains Malaya and the University Technology MARA. Although retired, his passion for teaching has seen him returning to teach World Religions and Theater in the American Degree Program of Taylor’s College. Currently, he travels widely to give talks in schools, colleges and universities as well as Buddhist organizations in Malaysia and international Buddhist conferences in Japan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, India, Cambodia and Thailand. He is also active in promoting Interfaith among the Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.

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