Buddhism: Practices and Expressions

So far we have looked at the Beliefs and Teachings that form the core of Buddhism, and the Sources of Buddhist Wisdom and Authority. This page will look at how these beliefs and teachings shape Buddhist societies; their structure, practices, and traditions. Adherence to a specific belief system is shown, intentionally or not, by how a person lives their lives. This page focuses on how Buddhism is shown in the symbols, clothing, art, and actions of Buddhists around the world. Buddhism is diverse, so we will also take note of the diverse forms that these practices take among different Buddhist groups and communities.

As we discussed previously Buddhism is seen as offering refuge to people through the Three Jewels: The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha. The simplest way of understanding this is in terms of Teacher (Buddha), Teachings (Dharma), and Students (Sangha). The previous page can be seen as focusing primarily on the Buddha and the Dharma; here we will focus in more detail on the Sangha.

There is some difference of opinion in Buddhism about who counts as part of the Sangha. In Mahayana Buddhism the word Sangha refers to everybody who identifies as Buddhist; monks, nuns, and lay people. In Theravada Buddhism the word Sangha is reserved for the communities of monks and nuns with the word pariṣā being used to refer to lay Buddhists.

Either way, Buddhist societies are centered on monastic communities; communities of monks and nuns who are dedicated to walking the Eightfold Path, following in the Buddha’s steps to achieve enlightenment. These communities live alongside lay Buddhists in a kind of symbiotic relationship. The monks and nuns rely on the wider community for offerings of shelter, food, and donations to meet their physical needs; in return they preserve the teachings of the Buddha in the Dharma and spread these teachings. This ensures a way out of suffering for anyone and everyone in society.

Places

Buddhist monks and nuns originally did not settle. The earliest monks and nuns wandered between towns and villages visiting different Caityas; natural sites that were seen to have special spiritual significance. These sites became meeting places where monks would retreat to and settle temporarily during the rainy season, when it became too difficult to continue to wander. During this time of retreat they would meet together every two weeks, during full and new moons, to collectively recite their monastic code. These Caityas grew in size and the buildings became places for regular prayer. Now the term Caitya is more closely related to meditation or prayer hall. They would become sites of local pilgrimage for lay Buddhists. This tradition of reciting the monastic code every fortnight is still observed by some Theravada Buddhist groups.

Monks‘ by sasint is licensed under CC0 1.0

Over time, the number of monks and nuns grew, as did the support they received form the wider society. These are probably the main factors that contributed to some monastic communities settling down in these places permanently, this is the birth of the monastery, or Vihara, the building that monks and nuns lived permanently. The offerings to the community of land and buildings provided them with security and meant that they could be in a settled place, available for lay Buddhists to come and learn the Dharma. As a result, most monks and nuns became settled in monasteries and nunneries. However. some monks and nuns, especially in Theravada Buddhism, continue to live the wandering lifestyle.

Over time, specific places grew in significance. This was for multiple reasons. The main reason was the collection of relics. The remains of leaders, including the Buddha himself, as well as artifacts that bore some connection to these leaders, found homes in various communities of monks and nuns. They became housed in either smaller shrines or in Stupas. A Stupa is a domed building with a tall spire that would then become a site of prayer, meditation and pilgrimage, normally connected to a temple, monastery or nunnery.

As communities grew larger, some became famous as places of learning, specialized in teaching the Dharma. These became known as Mahavihara or Great-Vihara. They were the equivalent of universities, the greatest of them attracted travelers from great distances to study and share ideas. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Chinese Monk Xuanzang who traveled from Tang Dynasty China and stayed for many years as a student and then lecturer at Nalanda in what is now North-East India, returning to China with scrolls and writings that were instrumental in spreading Mahayana Buddhism to China, Korea, and Japan. His journey has become legendary, the most famous retelling gives him three companions: Sha Wujing, a river monster called ‘Sandy’; Zhu Bajie, a pigman called ‘Pigsy’; and Sun Wukong, The Monkey King. These companions become his disciples; protecting him on the journey along the Silk Road. 

Viharas, monastic communities, often chose locations that kept them separate from society, especially mountainous places and caves. This is in keeping with the idea of detachment, but it also served the practical purpose of defending the community. This is especially true in the Himalayas: Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and areas of India and China. A particular style of building, known as a Gompa, blended the roles of temple, university, and fortress, while also housing relics and artifacts in surrounding Stupas. 

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As discussed in the previous section, the main function for these places is to provide shelter and space for Buddhists to focus on following the Eightfold path and achieving Enlightenment.

As we learned in our previous section, the Eightfold path can be divided into three parts. Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Meditation. It is Meditation that is the key practice in the life of the monks and nuns as they live their lives in Viharas.

Meditation

Buddhist Monk Sitting‘ by sasint is licensed under CC0 1.0

Meditation is a hugely significant practice in Buddhism. This significance flows directly from Buddhist teachings. The Dharma maintains that the Three Poisons: Ignorance, Greed, and Hatred, can and must be overcome if humans are to free themselves from the cycle of suffering that is existence. This means ridding ourselves of the desire to hold on to the illusions of our existence, and the pleasure and resentment that it brings.

Buddhism recognizes just how difficult overcoming these illusions are; the idea that nothing really exists is a difficult thing to convince ourselves of. It requires specific characteristics that Meditation is designed to instill in Buddhist practitioners. Meditation practices follow a general pattern:

  1. Samatha refers to establishing control of the mind through concentrating on a single object or action. A common form of this is mindfulness. It involves being seated and focusing the concentration on a single point.
  2. Mettā bhāvanā, or loving kindness is perhaps the best example of a type of meditation that aims at ridding yourself of the Three Poisons, and developing their opposites in compassion, kindness, and tranquility.
  3. Vipassanā and Zazen flow naturally from this. They focus on overcoming the poison of ignorance. The focus here is developing an insight into the true nature of reality. This is interpreted differently depending on the school of Buddhist thought, but it normally means attempting to come to terms with the Three Marks of Existence: everything is impermanent, existence is suffering, and there is no self.

Focusing concentration is difficult, various techniques that form part of Buddhist meditation involve distracting the mind with a mundane, repeatable, task. A good example of this is chanting; monks and nuns often repeatedly say or sing, words, syllables or mantras while meditating. Popular things to chant include Sutras, like the Diamond and Heart Sutras. While chanting, a Mala, a type of prayer bead, is often used to help the person meditating to keep track of how much they have chanted.  

Boy Monks‘ by sasint is licensed under CC0 1.0

Rituals and Festivals

Meditation is a common practice for Buddhist monks and nuns, but lay Buddhists often do not find the time to devote themselves to progressing along the Eightfold path. As a result, they show their devotion in different ways. 

Smaller devotional rituals, sometimes referred to as puja,  and practices are centered around focusing on the refuge offered by the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. This means trying to emulate the Buddha, study the Dharma, and develop connections to the Sangha. 

Devotional practices like chanting, prayer, or undertaking a pilgrimage, are often done by those who seek a blessing from those close to Buddhahood, or those who have achieved enlightenment.  Rituals can also involve prostration before something considered sacred; doing good deeds in order to attain merit or positive karma; or, offering food, money, or shelter to a monk, nun, or vihara.

Rituals that surround death are especially important in Buddhist societies. Death marks a highly significant transition, one that is effected by karma, the devotion of the deceased, and the nature of their death. Buddhist funeral rites vary from place to place, but they can be said to hold certain things in common.

The emotions felt at the moment of death are thought to carry a large significance; any strong emotions are thought to be carried over after death and are likely to drag the person deeper into to cycle of suffering, further trapped by saṃsāra. Upon death the body is usually symbolically bathed and clothed in a ritual manner. Monks lead the mourners in chants and other practices to ensure that the person passes away in peace. Bodies are usually cremated rather than buried, which reflects the view that there is no permanent self, death means a transition and thus any attempt to preserve the body would be pointless. In some cases in Tibet, the body is dismembered and fed to vultures; this ‘sky burial’ exemplifies these ideals of detachment, and willingness to give for the sake of other sentient beings.

The Buddhist Calendar 

Festivals that involve the entire Buddhist world are determined by the Buddhist calendar. This is actually a collection of calendars used primarily in South-East Asia and used to determine holidays and festivals by Buddhist communities across the world.

It is a lunisolar calendar, meaning that it follows the sun and the moon for its cycle. The Buddhist year starts in Spring and each year is twelve months. The starting date of the calendar, year zero, is the time that Siddhartha achieved enlightenment. There isn’t consensus about how long ago this was, but most versions of the calendar have counted just over 540 years. Important days are marked with special observances, these are known as Uposatha days. In this section we will briefly look over the most important dates in the Buddhist year.

The New Year’s celebrations are known as Vesak, or Buddha Day. It commemorates Siddhartha’s Birth, Death, and Enlightenment. It takes on different forms depending on the Buddhist community; Theravada Buddhists recognize Vesak, among Mahayana Buddhist this is celebrated earlier and is known as Parinivarna Day. Siddhartha is the not the only Buddha who is celebrated, nor the only person whose Enlightenment is commemorated. In Tibet, for example, Lama Tsongkhapa’s enlightenment celebrated every December. Click the links to learn more.

One of the most important periods in the Buddhist calendar is Vassa. This is a three month long observance that was born out of the rain retreats that are discussed above. It runs during the rainy season, roughly the summer months in South Asia, and is mainly observed by Theravada Buddhists. The three month period, bookmarked by Asalha Puja, which falls the day before Vassa starts, and Kathina, which marks its end.

Mahayana celebrations often have blended with other East Asian traditions, especially practices like ancestor worship. A good example of this is the various versions of Ulambana, including Ghost Month and the Japanese festival of Obon.

Symbols

Symbols are images that point to something larger than themselves. Specific symbols are used by Buddhists to point to certain ideas and teachings that are seen as central to the Dharma. There are eight symbols in particular that are often referred to in Buddhism, known collectively as the Ashtamangala. Of these the two that stand out as the most widely used and relevant for Buddhism in particular are the Lotus flower and the Dharmachakra.

The Lotus Flower is an important symbol, not just to Buddhists, but to many cultures across Asia. The Lotus flower grows from mud underwater and unfurls as it rises above the water. This is toed in Buddhism to the process of enlightenment itself. The flower starts in mud and must grow in order to escape. When it does escape it is liberated and unfurls without any dirt; this is tied to the purity and beauty of achieving nirvana. As we grow in understanding we liberate ourselves from the suffering and darkness that we are born into, finally blossoming in a pure unblemished radiance.

The Dharmachakra, or Wheel of Life, reflects the cyclical conception of reality that underpins Buddhist thought. This refers to both the cycle of Saṃsāra and the way out of the cycle along the Eightfold path. The Tibetan Wheel of Life, the Bhavachakra, is a much more fleshed out version of the wheel, that incorporates all of the key Beliefs and Teachings of Buddhism, from the Three Poisons that keep people spinning at the center of the circle, to the Outer Rim where the Buddha offers to potential for liberation from the cycle. Symbols like this are used to visualise Buddhist teachings; the Bhavachakra is a near perfect example of exactly this.

Art

Buddhist art traces its history back to the early Buddhist community that recorded stories about the Buddha in carvings and friezes. Since this time Buddhist art has become diverse and complex as it has spread and interacted with different cultures and art forms form around the world.

History

The first major impact on Buddhist art came as the result of Alexander the Great’s conquests. After Alexander died, his empire splintered, in North-West India there were many small kingdoms that inherited both Indian and Greek artistic styles and cultures. These artistic styles continued when the Greco-Indian Kingdoms were conquered by the founder of the Mauryan Empire, and grandfather of the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka. This blending had a profound effect on Buddhist art.

Further variations and influences developed as Buddhism spread North and East both along the silk road, mainly Mahayana Buddhism, and the South Asian Coast, mainly Theravada Buddhism. 

Depicting the Buddha

Since it was influenced by Greek art, Buddhist art focused a lot more on depicting the Buddha in statues and paintings. These are known as Buddharūpas; ‘rūpa’ means form or shape; so this translates as ‘form of the Buddha’. These did not merely focus on Siddhartha, but all who have been said to achieve enlightenment.

Ancient Greek art focused on showing the form of a body accurately, with all the different parts in proportion. In general this was maintained as Buddhist art spread, but different places added their own stylistic features and focuses.

‘Statue of Buddha at Yungang Grotto’ Copyright Theo Poward

Having said this, there are certain commonalities that are kept the same among Buddharūpas around the world:

  • Elongated Fingers and Toes
  • Long, strong Nose
  • Elongated Earlobes 
  • Large Head
  • Broad Shoulders 

It is considered a sign of good fortune, in many societies that have been influenced of exposed to Buddhism, to have one or more of these physical traits.

Posture and Gesture

Another commonality among the statues is the posture. Most depictions of the Buddha usually show him in one of two common positions:

  • Lotus Seated position – This is the position that Buddha was in when he achieved enlightenment. It is perhaps the most common position that he is depicted in as it also combines with the image of him as a teacher. In this way followers are able to sit before the Buddha as his original disciples did; learning the path to enlightenment.
  • Reclining Position – This is the position the Buddha was in when he departed the world. It is perhaps the second most common posture that the Buddha is depicted in.

This feeds into the use of mudras (hand and body gestures) in iconography and their use in worship. Here is a list of the some of the most common mudras, what position they are, and what they mean.

  • Dhyāna – Mudra of meditation: The fingers of the right hand rest on top of the fingers of the left with the finger tips facing the palms, and the thumbs lightly touch at their ends. The right hand being above the left is symbolic of the superiority of the enlightened mind over the world of illusions.
  • Anjali – Mudra of Greeting – Palms placed together at the level of the heart. This is symbolic of a heartfelt and respectful greeting.
  • Abhaya – Mudra of Blessing – The right hand hand at shoulder level with the palm facing either to the left or outwards. This is supposedly the posture the Buddha held as he achieved enlightenment. It is a gesture that conveys the reassurance that liberation form suffering is possible.
  • Bhūmisparśa –  The Earth Touching Mudra – The left hand rests on the lap with the palm facing upward. The right hand rests palm down on the right knee, with its fingers pointing toward the ground.  This is supposed to be the posture that the Buddha held after he first achieved enlightenment, the gesture towards the earth signals the victory over the material illusions of existence.
  • Vitarka – The right hand’s thumb and forefinger touch with the rest of the hand uncurled. The left hand is wide open either facing palm up or outwards. The circle formed by the thumb and forefinger represents the wheel of the Dharma. The openness of the left hand reflects the openness of the person to teaching the Dharma.

These mudras are used to communicate meaning through the position of the body. This ties in perfectly with the Buddhist emphasis on control. We communicate with our bodies all the time. The use of mudras, not just in art, allows for us to take control of this fact; and use our bodies to communicate positive ideas, stances and teachings.

Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage was encouraged by Siddhartha Buddha; he argued that by visiting specific places of significance followers could get a greater sense of urgency, compelling them to dedicate themselves to following the Eightfold path. The Buddha name four places that he encouraged his followers to visit:

Buddhism‘ by AOMSIN is licensed under CC0 1.0
  • Bodh Gaya – The site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment.
  • Deer Park at Sarnath –  The site of the Buddha’s first teaching of the Dharma.
  • Lumbini – The Buddha’s Birthplace.
  • Kushinagar – The Buddha’s Death-place, where he attained final nirvana. 

The fact that spiritual urgency was highlighted as the reason for pilgrimage is said to show the Buddha’s care for all sentient beings and the hope that all would free themselves from the cycle of suffering that is existence.

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