The Buddhist daily practices, offerings and chanting are often questioned and criticized as unreasonable, ritualistic and against the true Buddhist ideals. Such disparaging remarks are gaining popularity among young generations who are influenced by the modern system of education. Therefore, it is important that we have some serious thoughts about the rationales behind the practices Buddhist chanting and such religious offerings as burning candle lights (oil-lamps), incenses, offering flowers etc.
To examine the rationality of these practices, we ought to concentrate on important factors, such as objects of veneration, materials utilized in offerings, devotional hymns or sutta-s chanted, and their impacts upon the devotees.
The statue of the Buddha is the most prominent among the objects of veneration in most countries. Cetiyas, the relics of the Buddha, historical places related to Buddhism, and Bodhi tree are greatly venerated in traditional Buddhist countries. The most prominent among Pāli chantings in respect of the Buddha is the ‘namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammāsambuddhassa’ (homage to the blessed one, Arahanth, the perfectly enlightened one). Beside this, the gāthā referring to the nine virtues of Buddha, six characteristics of the Dhamma and the nine qualities of saṅgha too are uttered in same devotional tone. In fact, the essence of Buddhist chanting lies in the refuges of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the saṅgha (buddhaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi …. .) As a person pays homage to the Buddha, he or she is advised to be contemplative on every word uttered in these gāthās. The Buddha has applied his ‘ehipassiko’ (come and see) theory for every person to truly understand what he or she is doing: be it in daily religious practices or in deep concentration meditations. Therefore, when we say buddha sarana gacchāmi (I go to the Buddha as my refuge …), proper questions to be raised are ‘who is the Buddha?’ ‘Why should I go to Him for refuge?’ ‘How should I go to Him for refuge?’ Likewise, all the qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma and saṅgha must be inquired.
Such inquiry is no less significant than the scientific inquiries. A true follower would not only, rather ritualistically, worship the Buddha uttering these verses but also should inspect into their true meanings or connotations by consulting a well-trained and experienced Dhamma practitioner. In answer to the first question generally, it is said that ‘Buddha is the enlightened being.’ Then probably you may ask ‘enlightened how’ or ‘on what?’ To answer this question, a diligent follower would certainly explore the whole philosophy of the Buddha. This has to be done not for anybody else but to clarify for himself or herself of the doubts of which he or she conceives. Early Buddhist monks composed an anthology of moral and ethical teachings of the Buddha named as ‘the books of protection’ (parittas). These extracts are not only devotional but also they focus on various aspects for the betterment of a social being. There are also small books on chantings which have practical significance. Therefore, it is important that everyone has an understanding of the books of protection so that he or she will not misconstrue these ritualistic chantings as unreasonable Buddhist cultural practices.
Among the materials used as sacred offerings are flowers, candle-lights (oil lamps in Sri-Lanka) and burning incense. These objects have religious value in other religions as well. However, in Buddhism the purpose of offering these objects are revealed in the verses that accompany. In the gāthā on lighting lamps, for example, the enlightenment of the Buddha has been symbolically compared with the material lamp that destroys darkness. In this way, objects offered in respect of the Buddha have symbolic values. They serve as reminders of the virtues of the Buddha and help greatly instill devotion. Devotion in fact, is regarded as the preliminary step to develop faith in gaining wisdom. These devotional offerings are not as harmful as sacrificing living beings as recommended in some religions. Most importantly, Buddhist chantings and offerings are the gāthās chanted in melodious tone and the suttas that accompany as parittas.
The Karanīya metta-sutta encompassing loving kindness for all the living creatures in the universe is one of the most prominent sutta-s chanted daily in Buddhist temples and most families. The Dhammacakkapavattanasutta – the first philosophical discourse of the Buddha and Mangala sutta indicating various aspects of worldly prosperity with righteousness are chanted with many other discourses of spiritual and social significance. The gāthā for avoiding evil, cultivating good, and purification of mind (sabbapāpassa akarana kusalassa upasampadā sacitta pariyodapana…) too is chanted in the same melody. Once you know the gāthās/suttas with their meanings you cannot help rejoicing on how precious they are. They serve as self-awareness and expected to be practiced daily. This is not a must-be-done ritual; but, every individual is free to do or not to. But, why should we not practice something good?
[i] While reading this, rather a short essay, readers are expected that have some knowledge of the Buddhist daily practices – how vandanas, offerings, chantings are conducted. Following website includes some instructions, and gāthā -s for Buddhist chantings – http://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/Texts-and-Translations/Daily-Chanting/index.htm