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Dharma and Liturgy: A Comparative Theology of Ritual by Emmanuel Edward Te

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Dharma and Liturgy: A Comparative Theology of Ritual


Emmanuel Edward Te

Exchange across religious borders is not simply a necessity in today’s increasingly interconnected world, but rather “a recognized need and even positive desire to learn from the other, with a capacity to be transformed in that learning” (Clooney 2010b, 82). In attempting dialogue across religions, one can look to the past looking for some suitable course of action. But history is filled with numerous breakdowns in communication between religions, such as the encounters during the Portuguese colonization of Sri Lanka from 1506 to 1658. During this era of empire building, the Franciscans missionaries were sent to Kotte, a Buddhist kingdom on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. King Bhuvanekabahu VII (who ruled from 1521 to 1551) admired how the Franciscans were similar to the Buddhist monks in the way they lived simple, unmaterialistic lives. He decided to offer the Franciscan mission a huge sum of money as a sign of goodwill. Part of his role as a Buddhist king involved patronizing the Buddhist communities of Kotte; he thought he was doing good by doing the same for the Franciscans. Following St. Francis of Assisi’s vow of radical poverty, the Franciscans refused. The back and forth exchange of the king’s grand gesture of goodwill and the Franciscans’ equally grand gesture of declining the gift happened for five to six months until the king stopped offering.[1] This episode along with many more marked encounters resulted in a deterioration in relations between the Portuguese and Bhuvanekabahu.

David Clairmont offers this anecdote to highlight the misunderstandings that happened between the Sri Lankan Buddhists and Franciscan missionaries regarding perceptions of the other’s religion. This encounter was one part of the saga of the Portuguese telling Bhuvanekabahu that, in exchange for their aid in securing his grandson’s succession to the throne amidst family infighting, he had to convert to Catholicism. Such encounters bring up the question whether theological ideas that one has inherited from his/her own tradition mean anything outside of that tradition (Clairmont 2010, 84), even more so across cultures. One must not assume that they do, but inquiry can lead to initial understanding of other religions as well as better understanding of one’s own. Yet it is difficult “to get everyone’s view on even a small set of issues sufficiently clear that even proper disagreement is possible” (Clooney 2010a, 195). The history of interreligious dialogue has shown us that, like any conversation between two parties who misunderstand each other, communication breaks down when one religion is unclear about the beliefs and ideas motivating the actions of the other. Comparative theology is a way to initiate learning about the diversity of religions, because “interreligious understanding is not merely an intellectual or academic or (objective question]; it is also a religious question. To ask about other men’s faith is in itself to raise important issues about one’s own” (Smith 1962).

In this essay, I will be coming from my Roman Catholic heritage and beliefs as I look at Mahayana Buddhism, particularly Fo Guang Shan’s “humanistic Buddhism.”[2] I present here the framework for a comparative theology of ritual and apply it towards the dharma service and the Catholic Mass.[3] First I will establish my operational definitions of comparative theology and ritual analysis. Using the synthesis of these two interpretive lenses, what I call a comparative theology of ritual, I will show what elements are shared between the dharma service and the Mass. I will focus on the actions of the congregation in both services and propose that both Fo Guang Shan and Catholicism have a common ground via ritual in the ways they emphasize sacred texts, practice food sharing, and participate as a community.

Comparative Theology

Comparative theology is the academic and experiential comparison between two faith traditions, “for the sake of fresh theological insights that are indebted to the newly encountered tradition/s as well as the home tradition” (Clooney 2010b, 10). Comparative theology “proceeds with a purposeful movement outside of one’s own tradition that explores how the ideas and practices of one’s own tradition are related, in theory and in history, to the ideas and practices in another tradition” (Clairmont 2010, 68). In connecting a religion’s beliefs to its practices, one must understand where the other religion is coming from when conducting comparative theology. It is through learning another’s faith tradition that one forms the beginnings of interreligious dialogue and a deeper faith in one’s own tradition.

Ritual as Human Action

As a focal point of any faith tradition, ritual plays a role in connecting believers to a higher power. According to Catherine Bell, ritual is “a matter of relatively scripted actions, structurally distinct from nonritual action and possessing certain apparently universal properties (like formality, repetition, and divine beings)” (Bell 1998, 215), and the process is “full of real political opportunities and consequences” (Bell 2001). Ritual is activity, the fusion of thought and activity, and the affirmation and resolution of the integration of the “thinking theorist” and “acting actor” of ritual (Bell 1992, 31). As a central medium of human activity in religion, ritual provides an adherent personal empowerment through the “movements of the body in space and time” that attest to the presence of a higher power (Bell 2001). The efficacy present in ritual reflects our human efficacy; through ritual, we react to the forces named in our rites and create these forces through the same rites (2001).[4] Ritual both establishes a cosmological order for us in the here and now and allows us to respond to that order at the same time.

Ritual analysis attempts to capture the “performance” of ritual, recognizing the qualities of human action present in ritual (Bell 1998, 205).[5] The nature of human agency in ritual is emphasized rather than the hermeneutical stance and agenda of the individual scholar analyzing ritual (Bell, 207). People are active creators of cultural continuity and change, rather than passive replicators of a set of actions (Bell, 209). They do not engage in ritual simply as a matter of routine or habit, but for dealing with some specific circumstances (Bell 1992, 92). Bell states that ritual sees itself as a mode of response as the natural or appropriate thing to do in a particular circumstance – as an end, the rectification of a problematic (Bell, 109).[6]

Bell gives notable cautions when conducting ritual analysis. One cannot generalize culturally specific strategies as universal (Bell 1992, 205), since ritual is ultimately constructed in the image of the concerns of a particular cultural era and context (Bell, 222).[7] She further cautions that one must approach action in terms of a specific ethnographic instance and not a generalized abstract description, recognizing the movements of the body in space and time. The actor in ritual is not creating the environment of ritual but responding to his/her belief of the organization of reality. One analyzing ritual must define the context and agency that underlies the specific actions, and how the action involves personal and cultural strategies that invoke a defined set of terms, values and activities. Though this approach does not usually offer a definitive interpretation of ritual, the process allows the scholar to convey the multiple meanings and experiences of ritual as well as its human efficacy. Yet one must remember that even the most basic models of ritual – what constitutes it, its purpose, and how to go about it – differ between social contexts (Bell, 220).[8]

A Comparative Theology of Ritual

From the framework of comparative theology and the lens of ritual analysis, a comparative theology of ritual is the process of finding common themes between rituals of different traditions for the purposes of starting interreligious dialogue with another faith tradition and gaining insights into one’s own tradition through common themes present in ritual. A comparative theology of ritual is a thematic theory, combining the rigor of analyzing the human efficacy present in ritual and the “faith seeking understandingperspective, in which learning takes place in a transformative way in the light of one’s own faith.[9] Once one acknowledges a ritual’s visible actions and the context behind those actions, points of comparison emerge between that ritual and a ritual of one’s own tradition. By doing so, one can begin conversations with another faith tradition from those points of comparison.

Like ritual analysis, comparative theology is contextual. By itself, comparative theology is based in textual criticism and interpretation. It is very broad, theologically speaking, as it attempts interreligious dialogue, but does not go beyond the sacred texts of traditions. Bell’s framework for ritual analysis is also limited in generalizability, due to the fact that ritual itself is contextual. Actions in ritual can be generalized only when the context is emphasized. Thus, I propose that in the light of comparative theology, one can find common themes of human action between rituals while recognizing each religion’s own specific context. In the following sections, I will talk about the common themes that I noticed during the dharma service and the Mass: emphasis on sacred texts, food sharing, and community participation.[10]

Emphasis on Sacred Texts

The sutras, recordings of what the Buddhas and/or the Bodhisattvas said and taught from the writings of their disciples, are the focal point of the dharma service (Buddhism A to Z, 193).[11] The sutra, mantra, and other prayers recited by the congregation in the dharma service reflect what devotees of Fo Guang Shan strive to do in following the Buddha’s teachings in their everyday lives. In the dharma service, the congregation, including the head priest (the venerable) and monastics, recite the sutra and mantra for the day. A different sutra is said at every dharma service, depending on the day and occasion.[12]

Fo Guang Shan in particular focuses on active application of the dharma (the laws, rules, and teachings of the Buddha) to everyday life, to “participate in the world and be a source of energy that is beneficial to others” (Yun 2000, 154). For them, as well as the broader school of Mahayana Buddhism, the purpose of the dharma service is to cultivate better understanding of the sutras and cleanse the self of bad/ill thoughts (such as wants and physical desires).[13] This is expressed in additional prayers that may be said during a particular dharma service. For example, in my fieldwork, I noticed that there was a prayer to Guanyin.[14] The Grandmaster of the congregation wrote this prayer using simple/modern Chinese to make the ancient teachings more “current” and applicable to modern life. Such emphasis reflects the belief in Mahayana Buddhism of spreading the dharma and actively applying it beyond ritual in social contexts.[15]

An emphasis on sacred texts is also present in the Mass. Catholics learn from the readings and the Gospel about the life and teachings of Jesus and strive to practice their faith beyond the Mass. From the readings, responsorial psalm, the Gospel reading, and even in some prayers said by the priest and the responses of the congregation, the Mass is built on scripture and how believers remember Jesus in the Eucharist.[16] During the Liturgy, passages from the Bible are read aloud and reflected on by the priest in the homily. The Eucharistic Prayer also draws from scripture, recalling Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper.[17] From a Franciscan perspective (to draw a parallel to the anecdote at the start of this essay), God makes Himself present in the revelation of the Word during the Mass. Scripture read aloud by a lector and a priest during the Mass is not meant to recount how Jesus died for us 2000 years ago, but rather to recognize and make what happened 2000 years ago present in the Mass.[18]

Both the dharma service and the Mass are grounded in the sacred texts of their respective religions. There are efforts of both Mahayana Buddhists and Catholics to make real the teachings and beliefs of their religions in their respective services in order to manifest it in their everyday lives. The emphasis of sacred texts that both religions share establishes the context for ritual.

Food Sharing

During the dharma service, there is a meal offering made out of respect for the Buddha and for all sentient beings.[19] Prior to the start of the service, meal offerings are placed in front of the Triple Gem statue at the main altar.[20] After the sutras, a prayer is said by the whole congregation, including the venerable and monastics, blessing the food that was placed on the altar. A monastic takes some of the rice that is offered and goes outside to place it on a pedestal with a candle, as an offering out of respect for sentient beings that are also present. Upon conclusion, the meal offering is added to the rest of the food that the congregation can eat during the free lunch following the service.[21]

There is also an offering in the Mass, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the highest point of the Mass. The bread and wine offered by the community become the Body and Blood of Christ through transubstantiation. During communion, members of the congregation go up to the priest or Eucharistic minister and receive the Body of Christ, going to another minister to drink the cup of the Blood of Christ. This action goes beyond the simple human activity of sharing food with one another – it is “sharing Christ as food,” as being united with Him, the people present at the Mass, and the rest of the world (Leigh 1985). Sharing Christ as food in the Eucharist is a reminder of the sacrifice that God made when he took the form of man, humbling himself to show His love.[22]

Though very subtle and simple, sharing food in ritual reflects people’s basic need for sustenance. In the dharma service, the meal offering is a form of respect for all sentient life. In the Mass, the communal action of communion recognizes Christ’s sacrificial love and His presence in the Mass and in everyday life. Food sharing then is a response to the organization of reality that both religions ascribe to and create in ritual.

Community Participation

The most important theme between the dharma service and the Mass is the community’s participation in ritual. Everyone recites and responds together, and both religions have specific sets of actions that show respect and personal humility. In the dharma service, there are three particularly notable actions: chanting, prostration, and circumambulation. In the Mass, the congregation responds to the priest, kneels during the consecration, and gathers together “in presence” during communion.

At the beginning of the dharma service, once all have gathered together in the main hall, the congregation performs three prostrations towards the Triple Gem statue. [23] Everyone recites the sutra aloud together, and monastics maintain the rhythm and speed of recitation with the dharma instruments, a drum and bell that are only used during services.[24] The venerable hits the big bell-bowl to signal transitions from one part of the service to the next. After sutra recitation, there is a period of circumambulation in the main hall, in which the venerable and a monastic lead the devotees in chanting the Amitabha Buddha’s name for a specific amount of time in as a form respect for the Buddha.[25] Devotees also do this in actively applying what is being taught in sutras, to focus on one thing only during meditation. The congregation later chants prayers to transfer merits to others.[26] The service concludes with three final prostrations to the Triple Gem.

In the Mass, the congregation prays together, gathers “in presence,” and participates in communion. The priest leads the congregation in prayer, which has their own set of responses. During the Liturgy of the Word, the congregation sits, but when the priest is reading the Gospel, they stand, out of reverence for the Word of God. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest leads people in the Eucharistic prayer, and the people respond while kneeling, a posture of supplication towards God. During communion, the congregation walks up in line to receive the Body and Blood of Christ from the priest and/or Eucharistic minister. All these actions reflect community. The Mass as liturgy, “work of the people” in Greek, is a place and time when believers can express public affirmation of praise, prayer, and worship for God.[27] The encounter with mystery of God in the Mass is “a mediated experience;” one recognizes the presence of God through mediations of symbolic actions (Martos 2009, 12). There is also a time of intercessions for the dead present in both services, though this is more pronounced in the dharma service than in the Mass. The Mass has a period of intercessory prayers that a lector reads aloud and to which the congregation responds with “Lord, hear our prayer.” In the dharma service however, there is a set period of time when devotees can pay respects to their deceased ancestors in front of the Earth Store Bodhisattva at a side altar.[28]

The rest of the congregation faces the side altar, while the devotees in front of the side altar pray, kneel, stand, and offer incense for their deceased family members. They then prostrate three times in front of the Earth Store Bodhisattva before returning back to the main group.

Congregations in the dharma service and the Mass have a concrete, formulaic set of actions that they follow in participating in ritual as a community. Through ritual action, when they seriously intend to enter into ritual with their minds and hearts, people leave ordinary patterns of thinking and feeling behind (Martos 2009, 28). The congregation enters into union with their organized perceptions of reality proposed by their faith, and they respond in turn towards others that may not be physically present with them during the ritual. Such concrete actions reflect the human efficacy at the heart of religious ritual itself.


In conducting a comparative theology of ritual, I see that the process leads me back to my “core commitments, [that] the wider learning need not undercut [my own] faith’s particularity” (Clooney 2010b, 107). I can look at the dharma service in itself and see the power of human efficacy present in the ritual, yet come back to my own faith with a greater appreciation of the actions of the Mass. Throughout the comparative theology process, one must draw his/her findings “into a living connection with what [one already believes]” (Clooney 2010a, 194). I feel able to connect personally certain ideas present in the dharma service with my own Catholic beliefs. The phrase “Do this in memory of me” from the Eucharistic prayer comes to mind. Devotees in the dharma service recite sutras to recall the Buddha’s teachings, pray for deceased ancestors, and strive to actively follow those teachings in their lives. “Do this in memory of me” in the context of the Catholic Mass brings to mind the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and how I as a Catholic participate in the mystery of God and try to live out His teachings through Eucharist while remembering those who have died and those in need. Another Christian idea is “Living the Word,” in how believers in both traditions strive to follow the teachings found in their sacred texts. Catholics listen to the Word of God in the Mass, Buddhists recite sutras in the dharma service, and both show an emphasis on learning from their respective sacred texts and practicing them inside and outside of ritual. Through action, followers remember and apply the teachings and actions of their religions.

Ritual, such as the dharma service and the Mass, is comprised of a process of action, an actor’s physical movements, and the change that results from the combination of the two on an individual and social level. It is determined by cultural and social contexts, in how its complex actions reflect how adherents to a faith tradition strive to become better people living out the teachings of their faith in the present and in the future. The scholar analyzing ritual must focus on human efficacy, acknowledge that actions in ritual are not abstract, and attempt to define the context in which the actions are taking place. Ritual then is a common experience of shared action by a community, done in order to respond to and apply beliefs in a given context. Followers of a religion “come to experience [themselves] as trusting, autonomous, and creative persons, and it is through ritualization that (people) come to know [themselves] as members of a social group with definite beliefs and practices… individually and socially” (Martos 2009, 30). On a personal level, this exercise in a comparative theology of ritual has shown me that my own Catholic faith tradition ritual “has the power to create, through speech-acts, an alternate reality…time is suspended; Christ is present because time is not…we [begin] to think of the biblical narrative as an expression that comes from such a place, from the heart of liturgy” (Keating, 149). From a basis in sacred texts, a reminder of people’s physical and spiritual hunger, and a community brought together through participation, the dharma service and the Mass make present what a follower believes through his or her actions. Through ritual one can share in common human experiences and begin interreligious dialogues that delve into the heart of human nature.


  1. Story adapted from Clairmont, David A. 2010. “On Hegemonies Within: Franciscan Missions and Buddhist Kings in Comparative Theological Contexts.” The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation. Francis X. Clooney, S. J., ed. New York: Continuum International Publishing, pp. 79-80.
  2. From the Sanskrit mahā (great) and (yāna) vehicle, Mahayana Buddhism is one of the two major divisions of Buddhist teachings. Mahayana is “greater” in the sense that it refers to the path of seeking complete enlightenment for all beings through altruistic practices. From The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism.
  3. I recognize at the onset that the wordtheology” is a loaded term, especially in this essay where I talk about Buddhism, a religion which does not ascribe to a higher power. As Clooney says, one must honestly admit one’s bias, allowing for self-awareness of the limits of what can be accomplished when venturing across religious boundaries (Clooney 2010a, 197). Comparative theology has studied mainly Hinduism and Buddhism; Clooney himself writes that “we need not find theology everywhere, and should not make too much of it if theological exchange seems in the short run impossible” (Clooney, 198-199). Based on past practices of comparative theology, I understand the use of comparative theology in this essay as a method towards interreligious dialogue among religions that share some common attitudes and beliefs with Christianity.
  4. In her keynote speech at the University of San Francisco, “What’s So Powerful about Ritual?”, Bell refers to rituals as “gates of power” that connect the individual, the global human community, and the natural world to a cosmology (Bell 2001). Bell also says that ritual as an action can be used for good or evil, bringing to light socio-political situations and responding to them (Bell 2001).
  5. As an ambiguous term, performance can refer to the completion of a specific action, the enactment of a script or score. More recently, “performance” has been used to describe a type of event in which the activity of the agent is the most critical dimension and not the completion of the action itself (Bell 1998, 205).
  6. In Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, Bell talks of ritual more specifically as ritualization, the production of ritualized acts which can be described as that way of acting that sets itself off from other ways of acting by virtue of the way in which it does what it does (Bell 1992, 140). Ritualization temporally structures a space-time environment through a series of physical movement, thereby producing an arena that molds actors and validates and extends the schemes they are internalizing (Bell, 109-110). However, ritualization is only effective under certain cultural circumstances; it can rarely be pinned down in general since rituals play off the field of action in which they emerge (Bell, 141).
  7. Bell argues that one cannot have a true solid theory of ritual. The framework that she presents focuses on the generation of the ritualization of activity by returning ritual activities to the context of human action, because ritual cannot exist as a natural category of human practice (Bell 1992, 219). Thus, ritual acts “must be understood within a semantic framework whereby the significance of an action is dependent upon its place and relationship within a context of all other ways of acting: what it echoes, what it inverts, what it alludes to, what it denies” (Bell, 220).
  8. Bell warns that performance theory can generate interpretations of ritual that can go on the verge of “universalism” (Bell 1998, 218), the assumption that ritual is the same throughout all religions. Popular understanding of ritual has developed to encourage cross-cultural and interreligious experiences in engaging spirituality. Yet she asserts that performance theory, in its flexibility and its promotion of experimentation, needs to resist becoming a “formula with which to process the data of difference into some premature vision of universal humanity” (Bell, 220).
  9. I also want to put forward that a comparative theology of ritual is different from two possible modes of analysis that could be utilized in this current essay: a theology of ritual and a comparison of ritual. A theology of ritual would emphasize the beliefs behind the actions of one tradition, in much greater detail than I present here. It would be a confessional theology that highlights how actions as a whole reflect one’s own faith; it would be probably conducted from the point of view of a practitioner of a particular faith looking at the rituals present in his/her faith. A comparison of ritual would involve only the analyses of the physical actions and social implications of different rituals across religions. If not done without acknowledging the context behind each ritual action, the analysis would be disconnected from the beliefs of the religions of which they are a part. Thus, I propose that a comparative theology of ritual is a challenge for one’s own faith to look at another tradition’s rituals willingly towards the purpose of finding new insight into rituals in one’s own tradition.
  10. See Appendix.
  11. Bodhisattvas, from Bodhi (enlightened) and sattva (sentient being) are like Buddhas, but they vow to help sentient beings to overcome/eliminate afflictions, sickness, and suffering (Yun 2000, 141).
  12. As a general note, the whole dharma service is said in Cantonese. The service takes about an hour and a half or more, depending on the sutra being recited.
  13. Devotees of Mahayana Buddhism believe that everyone possesses the Buddha nature, the innate inherent potential to become a Buddha (Buddhism A to Z, 33). Through proper cultivation, one will attain enlightenment and become a Buddha. Special thanks to Kee Heng and Venerable Miao Jin for allowing me to interview them as well as providing me clarification when I needed it, as well as Cathy Te for interpreting for me during my interview with the Venerable.
  14. Special thanks to Cathy Te for bringing this to my attention, clarifying that this prayer is only exclusive to Fo Guang Shan’s dharma service for that day.
  15. The dharma can be understood as three things: (1) methods/teachings for enlightenment, (2) the reality that one realizes at enlightenment, and (3) the various divisions of the mental and physical world that are part of the teaching towards enlightenment (Buddhism A to Z, 54-55).
  16. The priest says the Eucharistic prayer during the consecration in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the priest elevates the bread and wine which then become the Body and Blood of Christ.
  17. The Eucharistic Prayers draw on Gospel verses, namely Mark 14:22-24; Matt 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20, in recounting the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In Eucharistic Prayer I, the priest says: “On the day before he was to suffer he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my Body which will be given up for you.” (From the Changes in the Priest's Parts - Eucharistic Prayer I (The Roman Canon), USCCB).
  18. Special thanks to Fr. Gregory Coiro, O.F.M. Cap. letting me interview him. He referred to the idea of kairos, the Greek notion of time that means a “time out of time,” a moment that requires recognition of the moment and action in response to that moment.
  19. Sentient beings are ghosts, animals, humans, heavenly beings, bodhisattvas, or Buddhas that all have a fundamental Buddha nature. Once a sentient being awakens to his Buddha nature, he becomes a Buddha (Yun 2000, 103).
  20. The Triple Gem is also known as the Three Refuges, referring to the idea that one takes refuge in the Buddha, his teachings (Dharma), and the Buddhist community (Sangha) (Yun 2000, 65). In the middle, there is Sakyamuni Buddha (founder of Buddhism); to the left, there is Amitabha Buddha; to the right there is the Medicine Buddha.
  21. The respect for all sentient beings is also manifested in a devotee’s vegetarian diet, as seen in how the temple offers a free lunch to promote vegetarianism. Special thanks again to Cathy Te for bringing this to my attention during the dharma service.
  22. To draw from Franciscan Spirituality, the Incarnation, God becoming man, is present in the Mass as well as our everyday lives. From Phil. 2:7, “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Special thanks to Fr. Gregory again for telling me how Franciscans emphasize this view of the Eucharist.
  23. One begins prostration by placing the palms together, then gradually bending the knees while extending the right arm towards the ground. The right knee touches the ground first; the tips of the feet must not move during prostration. Once one bends both knees, one places his/her hands palms down on the ground while placing the forehead flat on the ground. Then one makes two loose fists, turns them over, and has the backs of his/her palms lying flat face up. To get up, one makes the fists again, turns them back over, and with open palms, pushes with the right palm on the ground to get up, while lifting the forehead off the ground. Then one raises the left hand back to his/her chest and then stands upright with both palms pressed together. Description adapted from Buddhist rituals and observances. Illustrated World Buddhist Arts Editorial Committee, ed. Taiwan: Fo Guang Shan Foundation for Culture and Education, 2005.
  24. Dharma instruments are items that are used in prayers, offerings, services, and daily practices. Dharma instruments used in the temple, such as the bell, the drum, the big bell-bowl and the wooden fish, are only used during the services (and not for casual striking outside of the service). The big bell-bowl guides the congregation in changes in tempo or movements of the chanting. The wooden fish keeps time during the chanting of a sutra. Other dharma instruments are used in offerings to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: the incense burner, flower vase, and candlestick. Adapted from An Introduction to the Sutras and Dharma Instruments. 2005. Illustrated World Buddhist Arts Editorial Committee, ed. Taiwan: Fo Guang Shan Foundation for Culture and Education.
  25. The congregation physically snakes through the aisles with the venerable and wooden fish leading two different rows. Circumambulation is usually done in a large circle; however the venerable and another monastic lead the devotees through the aisles because of the tight space of the main hall of the San Bao Temple
  26. Merit is acquired through moral and ritual actions towards the end of a Buddhist attaining nirvana. One can transfer merit that one has accumulated to others, towards all sentient beings and ancestors. In a transactional sense, merit is quantifiable and can be transferred in the dharma service (as well as any other ritual), or outside of a ritual context. From “Merit and Merit-Making.” 2004. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. New York: Macmillan Reference, USA.
  27. From my interview with Fr. Gregory.
  28. Ksitigarbha, the Earth Store Bodhisattva, is one of the Bodhisattvas that vowed never to attain true enlightenment until every other sentient being achieves enlightenment (Buddhism A to Z, 61). Buddhists pray to him so he can help their deceased ancestors achieve enlightenment. There is a part of the dharma service where devotees pray at the Earth Store Bodhisattva’s altar because they had loved ones who recently passed away; they believe that their loved one’s spirits still remain on Earth 49 days after death and therefore need guidance from the Earth Store Bodhisattva to pass on.

Works Cited

  • Bell, Catherine M. 2001. “What’s So Powerful about Ritual?” Pacific Rim Report 22. May.
  • Bell, Catherine. 1992. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Bell, Catherine. 1998. “Performance.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Mark C. Taylor, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Buddhist Rituals and Observances. 2005. Illustrated World Buddhist Arts Editorial Committee, ed. Taiwan: Fo Guang Shan Foundation for Culture and Education.
  • Clairmont, David A. 2010. “On Hegemonies Within: Franciscan Missions and Buddhist Kings in Comparative Theological Contexts.” The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation. Francis X. Clooney, S. J., ed. New York: Continuum International Publishing.
  • Clooney, Francis X. 2010. “Response.” The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation. Francis X. Clooney, S. J., ed. New York: Continuum International Publishing. PDF e-book.
  • Clooney, Francis X. 2010. Comparative Theology: Deep Learning across Religious Borders. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Epstein, Ronald B. 2003. Buddhist Text Translation Society's Buddhism A to Z. Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Translation Society.
  • An Introduction to the Sutras and Dharma Instruments. 2005. Illustrated World Buddhist Arts Editorial Committee, ed. Taiwan: Fo Guang Shan Foundation for Culture and Education.
  • Keating, James. 2006. “The Moral Life of the Deacon.” The Deacon Reader. James Keating, ed. New York: Paulist Press.
  • Leigh, David J. 1985. “Toward a Sacrament of the World.” Spirituality Today 37. Accessed December 6, 2012.
  • “Mahayana Buddhism.” 2002. The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism. Tokyo: Soka Gakkai. Martos, Joseph. 2009. “Psychology and the Sacraments.” The Sacraments: An Interdisciplinary and Interactive Study. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press.
  • The New American Bible. Nashville: Catholic Bible Press, 1987.
  • Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Faith of Other Men. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1962. Accessed November 28, 2012. djvu.txt
  • Tanabe, George J. “Merit and Merit-Making.” 2004. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Robert E. Buswell, Jr., ed. New York: Macmillan Reference, USA.
  • USCCB. “Changes in the Priest's Parts - Eucharistic Prayer I (The Roman Canon).” Accessed December 5, 2012.
  • Yun, Hsing. 2000. Lotus in a Stream: Essays in Basic Buddhism. Tom Graham, trans. New York: Weatherhill.


As a reference throughout these sections, I provide here my breakdown of the dharma service and the Mass. Fieldwork was conducted at the San Bao Temple of the American Cultural Buddhist Society, located at 1750 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109, and the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, located at 610 Vallejo Street, San Francisco, CA 94133.

Dharma Service

1) Call for everyone to gather (including sentient beings and deities)
2) Opening chant with three prostrations
3) Sutra recitation, mantra (depending on day), bowing whenever Buddha/Bodhisattva’s name is said
4) Meal offering prayer
5) Circumambulation
6) Prayer the Grandmaster wrote (see section Emphasis on Sacred Texts)
7) Some people in congregation pay respects to deceased ancestors at Earth Store altar
8) Everyone comes back together
9) Transfer merits to others through prayer
10) End service with three prostrations


1) Introit Hymn/Opening Prayer
2) Liturgy of the Word: 1st reading, Responsorial Psalm, 2nd reading, Gospel
3) Homily
4) Credo
5) Intercessional Prayers
6) Liturgy of Eucharist: Offertory of Gifts (bread and wine), Eucharistic Prayers, Transubstantiation, Sign of Peace
7) Communion
8) Closing Prayer, Sending forth with Recessional Hymn