Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Lesson 7 - Temple Life

Today I would like to share with you a little about temple life. Many westerners learn the dharma by spending much of their time reading about the dharma. This however is not the mode of instruction in the east. Most Buddhist in a traditional setting learn the dharma through their own practices at home and through their involvement in ceremonies and dharma talks given in the temple or shrine. I would like to give you today an insight into that life and prepare you for visiting a temple.

In most temples when you arrive you will notice a main hall where ceremonies take place and where the main altars may be held and surrounding buildings which usually hold monastic living quarters, buildings for secondary deity altars, dining halls and occasionally a public book store or monastery library. The principal image (the most important Buddhist image at the temple) is enshrined in the main temple building. All monasteries/temples are different but if you follow these general rules of protocol you will be fine when you make a temple visit. Upon walking up to the main hall you should see outside the main entrance door a place to put your shoes. Remove your shoes before entering the temple. After taking off your shoes, they should be placed neatly to the side. NEVER enter a temple wearing your shoes. Upon entering the temple doors you will usually see an offertory box. One should always be prepared to leave a monetary offering when visiting a temple. The donation box will either be directly inside the entrance door or adjacent to the altar. Bow twice upon entering the temple door and leave your monetary donation in the box. Now you will proceed to the main altar. Buddhist come to the temple as a part of daily life to make offerings and to pray. So when you walk to the main altar you should always do so in great respect with your palms together in reverence. Once you are in front of the main deity enshrined in the temple or shrine with your palms together touch your forehead (third eye), then your throat, then your heart and bow, this is a sign of respect and is symbolic of clearing the mind, speech and heart, then bow (in Tibetan Buddhism one would fully prostrate on the ground, in Chinese temples what is known as the half prostration where one goes down on both knees and bows is done) but for westerners visiting the temple a deep bow would be acceptable also in some temples or shrines the space available may not permit a partial or full prostration. If there is an offertory box there, people put money inside the box, in some japanese shrines there might be a large corded bell if this is the case ring the bell and offer a prayer. Then stand up straight and respectfully pray again. After that clap your hands together twice to pray once again. In most temples you may also light an offering of incense, which might be on the altar. If this is available light the incense, DO NOT BLOW OUT THE FLAME WITH YOUR BREATH, this is considered unclean so fan the flame out with your hand. Place the incense in the burner. You may then retreat to the temple or shrine floor to meditate or further pray. If you have lit incense it is not polite to leave until the incense has burned completely as this is disrespectful and not safe for the temple. I would like to make a note at this point about the deity or deities’ statues or paintings enshrined in a temple. Many westerners think that Buddhist believe that there is a spirit inside the statue that they are praying to this is most incorrect. No Buddhist thinks there is a spirit inside the statues or paintings; these iconic images are only used as symbols of the attributes of the Buddhas or bodhisattvas. This is not idolic worship in any fashion so please be clear on that. Here are some things NOT TO DO when visiting a temple or shrine. Taking photos inside of buildings, including temples and shrines, is generally prohibited. It is best to refrain from taking photos even at places where it is not posted. Eating and drinking is prohibited inside of most traditional buildings. It is best not to touch sliding doors, pull doors, hanging lattices and other fittings when it is not necessary to do so. Since these cultural properties are merely fitted into their running grooves, not only are they apt to become detached but they might also be damaged as a result. It is also just not acceptable to touch these iconic images this would be viewed as unclean as these items are tended carefully by fully ordained monks and nuns and are not to be touched by the laity. Please refrain from making noise, but rather visit these sacred places in silence. Even if you are not visiting them for religious reasons, you should nevertheless be quiet when viewing them.

If you are visiting a temple for a dharma talk or ceremony you would follow the same rules above then sit quietly on the floor or cushion to await the service. Speaking of dharma talks in giving you a little taste of the temple life I would like to give you a great web resource for dharma talks by one of the leading Tibetan masters Gehlek Rimpoche. Also below you will find a link to Buddha net where you can find a temple or shrine near you. Namaste!

To listen to dharma talk by Gehlek Rimpoche:

To find a temple:

Temples and Shrines are beautiful, peaceful places of worship and I would highly encourage any westerner to visit a temple. You will find that you will be very welcomed and it will certainly enhance your practice to experience Buddhism in its true form.

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