Worship and Practices
In countries where Buddhism is the majority religion, devotion to the Buddhist life is a natural part of it: diet; the job, trade, or profession chosen; daily meditation; and giving offerings at shrines, temples, and/or monasteries.
Like other religions, Buddhism has a collection of its own practices; two of these are deeply rooted in the Buddhist history. The first one is the veneration of the Buddha. Most Buddhists recognize the existence of many Buddhas, depending upon which Buddhist sect they belong to, the part of the country they live in, and maybe even how their family was brought up. When they go to the temple, they will make their devotions to any number of Buddhas. The devotions will be carried out in the shrine room; many adherents also have a shrine room in their homes. In carrying out a devotion, the person stands before a holy image — art that shows, perhaps, the Buddha sitting in the lotus position (a yoga meditation position with the legs crossed) with his outstretched arm touching the earth, signifying his enlightenment — then the adherent would recite the three refuges:
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the dharma.
I take refuge in the sangha.
After saying the devotions, the adherent usually bows three times before the holy image in respect to the three refuges, which are also known as the Three Jewels. Chanting may be done and offerings made.
The second basic practice is the exchange that takes place between monks and the laity. Buddhists have always stressed involvement in the community, and an understanding of the relationship between the monks and nuns and the lay segments of the community has developed.
An assembly of monks, for instance in a monastery, is called by a generic name, sangha, which dates to the origins of Buddhism. Ordination as a Buddhist monk requires accepting and keeping certain monastic rules, including the Three Jewels and the Five Precepts that prohibit drinking, lying, stealing, harming a living being, and what some call misuse of the senses.
Most people know the common image of a Buddhist monk — the shaven head, robe, and look of serenity and pleasure. A monk will own nothing except the robe on his back and his alms bowl. Originally, the life of a monk was one of poverty and begging; today, most of these practices have become symbolic. Nevertheless, the life of a monk is still one of strict adherence to the monastic rules.
A new monk has to accept the Five Precepts as absolute rules. Other rules are contained in the Vinaya Texts, and depending on the school, number between 227 and 253 rules. The first part of the texts has the four gravest rules — the prohibition of sexual intercourse, theft, murder, and exaggeration of one's miraculous powers. A monk who breaks one of these rules may be expelled from the monastery.
Every two weeks the monks assemble and recite all the rules. They pause after each one so that any monk who has transgressed may confess and receive his punishment. Other rules deal with transgressions of a lesser nature.
Most Buddhist schools still stress celibacy, although some groups, particularly in Tibet and Japan, have relaxed this discipline. In other areas, young men can join a monastery for a short time, but do not have to vow to remain celibate for the rest of their lives.
Meditation, which has carved out a secular place for itself in the Western world, has been part of the practice of many Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, for centuries. Meditation can open the door to subtle perceptions, which can change conviction and character, and the daily practice of meditation nourishes the roots of the personality. According to medical literature, meditation calms the emotions, strengthens the nerves, and even lowers blood pressure. However, wonderful though that might be for health, it is not the prime reason a Buddhist practices meditation.
Because the Buddha reached his enlightenment through meditation, the practice is the most important aspect of Buddhism. The Sanskrit word, “samadhi,” recognized in both Hinduism and Buddhism, means “total self-collectedness.” It is the highest state of mental concentration that a person can achieve while still bound to the body. It is a state of profound, utter absorption, undisturbed by desire, anger, or any ego-generated emotion. Samadhi is an absolute necessity for attaining release from the cycle of rebirth.
Zen is one of the oldest traditional schools of Buddhism in Japan. It originated in China, where it's referred to as Ch'an Buddhism. Zen teaches that the potential to achieve enlightenment is in everyone, but lies dormant because of ignorance. This potential can be awakened by breaking through the boundaries of logical thought. A person must try to understand that words are only the surface of things and learn to get beyond words alone in order to understand the meaning of existence.
The most famous koan is the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This riddle is not solvable using conceptual, rational thought. The purpose of this and other koans is to block reasons and permit a direct realization of reality.
Zen monks spend endless time, more than most people could handle, meditating on a phrase called a koan. A koan is a special kind of problem or paradoxical statement used as a meditation discipline. The effort to solve a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egotistic will.