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Ceremonies: The Heartbeat of the Monastery

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The ceremonies can be considered as the heartbeat of the monastery because they provide a structure and rhythm for daily life.

They are also times when the community gathers together to practice, thus bringing a sense of cooperation and harmony to the monastery.

Numerous visitors are often surprised to find that their most meaningful memories of their visits are of participating in ceremonies.

One college student, after attending a bowing ceremony, commented that she felt like she was connecting to an ancient practice that her own background never gave her.

A few more benefits are described in an article “Introduction to Buddhist Ceremonies.”

    1. Ceremonies satisfy the human spirit’s need to find an anchor, a refuge with a higher and purer vision beyond human imperfection.

    2. Ceremonies put us in touch with our roots, as we take part in a ritual observance that has been handed down for generations, spanning many successive cultures, languages, and musical patterns.

They put us where we belong between heaven and earth.

Bowing, in particular, sets the mind in balance and subdues the body.

    3. Ceremonies can open one’s inherent wisdom, and can lead to an elevated state of clear seeing and keen insight.

Ceremonies are a way to transform our body, mind, and spirit, and the best way to find out how this transformation occurs is to participate in one and experience it for yourself.

Here are some basic tips on how to participate in the ceremony.

(Another way is just to observe or follow people who look like they know what they are doing.)

First, the ceremony begins with three and a half bows.

Bowing is a practice in humility, as well as a gesture of respect.

Bowing in Buddhism is often misunderstood in the West as bowing to idols, but it really is a method for overcoming one’s egoism and finding one’s true nature.

The Buddhas are not thought of as beings separate from oneself, but are symbolic of one’s potential for awakening.

When you are mindful as you bow, the seeds of humility and respect in your heart are nurtured and watered.

You begin with your palms together, and as you bend down, put your right hand in the center of the cushion (or directly in front of you on the ground), and then as your body rocks forward, your left hand goes to the upper left corner of the cushion along with your knees at the bottom of the cushion.

With your weight now primarily on your knees, you move your right hand to the upper-right corner of the cushion and place your head in between your two hands.

As your head touches the cushion, you turn your hands palm up.

Coming up from the bow is the same process in reverse.

You turn your hands palm down, while lifting your head from the cushion, then place your right hand in the center of the cushion.

Push firmly to bring yourself back into a standing position with your palms together again. You have completed a full bow.

We hope you will find that bowing is something easy to learn and meaningful to practice.

Since this is probably your first time in the monastery, you should refer to a Daily Recitation Handbook to follow along through the ceremony.

Try not to put the book on the ground between bows, which makes the bowing awkward and is considered disrespectful.

Chanting is an important part of the cultivation in the monastery.

To get a full experience of chanting, it is important to be single-minded and concentrated.

You’ll find that if you chant in a concentrated way, then at the end, you will feel recharged and energized in body and mind.

If the chanting is in English, it should be pretty easy to follow, but if it is in Chinese, it takes a bit more effort (unless you know Chinese).

Don’t be discouraged if the first few times you get lost or don’t know where you are because it is actually quite difficult the first few times.

Fortunately, there are some things that can help to orient you in the Handbook.

First, the resounding thump on the “wooden fish” (a block of wood that is shaped like a fish) gives the rhythm and pace of the chant.

Each knock of the wooden fish is one Chinese character (or syllable of sound).

Sometimes, on the page, there is a symbol that is a circle within a circle, which denotes the striking of the big bell.

These are helpful markers in case you get lost.

Also, people are usually very happy to point out where you are in the Handbook.

If you can’t follow or keep up, you can simply concentrate on the sounds or read the English translations of the chants.

There are three main ceremonies that occur in the monastery: morning ceremony, the meal offering, and evening ceremony.

All three of these ceremonies are chances for the community to practice together.

Just as many different kinds of medicines are needed to heal different types of illnesses, the ceremonies include many distinct practices to give each person something that they find meaningful and transformative.

We will describe some of these different practices in the next section.