Rituals, which are procedures for conducting religious practices cannot all be eliminated, because they are the customary practices that kept a belief system alive. Different religions have different rituals and religious practices some of which such as animal sacrifice, and smearing of animal blood are unacceptable and should be removed by all means . Even the worship of « lingam » though it is an ancient custom seems out of place in an environment of sanctity and worship, but they are not connected to Buddhism and therefore no further elaboration seems necessary.
As far as Buddhism is concerned some of the rituals and ceremonies have their origin in ancient religious environment into which the teachings of the Buddha was introduced. That is more evident in Mahayana Buddhism, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. In Sri Lanka most of the rituals and ceremonies are the later additions to the Buddhism, which are a mild version of rituals and ceremonies of Hindu religious « cults » that had found their way into our Buddhist Temples and Viharas. For instances the devalas and the statues of Hindu Gods like Ganesh, Vishnu and so on with connected rituals and ceremonies certainly have no place in Buddhist places of worship.
A culture of a people has the religion it practices as its base. Therefore, some of the cultural symbols , functions and ceremonies have got mixed up with Buddhism, and they remain an outer covering of the teachings of the Buddha which is the core. It is the rituals and ceremonies that attract the lay devotees to the sublime teachings, they play a role in the perpetuation of the « Dhamma » and keeping the people and the Temple together. The Dalanda Perahera and such other festivities have also taken a religious character, though they are a distant away from the teachings of the Buddha.
Even a Sinhala Buddhist marriage is a mixture of many cultures. Specially the low country wedding where the bride wears a veil which is undoubtedly a Christian influence, then there is the auspicious time and exchange of rings which seems to be of Hindu influence and the “poruwa” ceremony takes a Buddhist turn in the recitations of gathas which are descriptive of the Buddhist teachings, and invariably there is the recitation of Jaya Mangala Gatha. Therefore a Sinhala Buddhist Wedding has a religious character though not performed in a Temple and Buddhist monks.
The Buddha did not speak of the practice of ceremonies and rituals, but there are instances when the Buddha had given in to symbolic performances of rituals by his followers. One such is when Anathapindika constructed the Jetavanaramaya Monastery for the Buddha and dedicated it to the Buddha and his Sangha. It is said that the people came to the Jetavanaramaya bringing along with them garlands of followers and other offerings which they left near the Gandhakuti, where the Buddha was residing.
Anathapindika who visited Jetavanaramaya every day, saw that people who came to see the Buddha were disappointed when the Buddha was not there and went throwing away the offerings they had brought with them. Anatapindika informed this to the Venerable Ananda who went to the Buddha and asked what were the objects of veneration. And the Buddha said that they are those appertaining to the body (saririka) , appertaining to personal use(paribhogika) and object reminiscent of the Buddha(uddesika) .
The Buddha told Venerable Ananda that no objects of reverence (cetiya) appertaining to his body should serve as an object of reverence during his life time, as an object of reverence reminiscent of the Buddha has no physical basis ; it is purely mental. He said that the great Bodhi tree used by the Buddha whether he is alive or dead is an object of reverence(cetiya).
Then the Venerable Ananda told the Buddha of the disappointment of the people who come to see him when he is away from Jetavanaramaya and asked whether he could bring a seed from the Great Bodhi tree and plant it in the compound of the Jetavanaramaya as an object of reverence for the people . Then the Buddha asked him to do so and said that the tree would be a reminiscent object of reverence. (The Buddha and his teachings-by Narada Thero) . It is said that when the bo sapling which is now known as the Ananda Bodhi had grown the Buddha sat meditating under it for one whole night giving it a special sanctity.
The Buddhist rituals and ceremonies have a great attraction to children. The Buddhist children growing up in such pleasant environment of rituals and ceremonies will remember them as catalysts that awakened them to Dhamma. What a pleasure it is to enter silently into a shrine room of a Temple glowing in the weak yellow flames of oil lamps on a poya day, where the devotees clad in white kneel down reciting in a mixed mumble the gathas and see the smiling face of the seated Buddha, and kneel in sacred admiration at the foot of the reclining statue of the Buddha ?
It is a special joy specially for the young children, a joy different from any other, to recite the gathas ( the stanzas) together with the family, imitating the father or the mother , in sacred muted voice coyly smiling when making a mistake in recitation, offering flowers trying to remember the correct gatha praying at the dagaba and light lamps and inhale the odour of incense sticks in the shrine rooms. These lead later to keep the higher precepts to observe “ sil “, and even take to meditation. Hence the ceremonies and rituals are in a way the stepping stones to follow the teachings of the Buddha.
A Buddhist family goes to the temple on the poya day clad in white carrying with them flowers to offer, oil for lamps, and incense sticks to burn. These have been adopted by the laity to venerate the Buddha and his teachings in their way, though the Buddha had not given such instructions of what to wear, and what to offer. But turning away from those practices which are also rituals, is turning away from devotion to the Dhamma which represents the living Buddha. The Statues are symbols conceptualizing the compassion of the Buddha, mere looking at the statue of a serene Buddha statue reciting silently the nine qualities of the Buddha inflames one’s piety and devotion to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
Without the ceremonies and ritual the temples and shrine rooms will be abandoned by the people. The life of the Buddhist people will be monotonous and boring as it is not all who take to meditation, and it is not all who seek an intellectual understanding of teachings bereft of rituals, and ceremonies The teachings of the Buddha are more pragmatic. The teachings show that there are three aspects of worship. There is generosity (dana) offering of alms to the Sangha, there is the keeping of the higher precepts on the “poya” days (sila), and then the meditation (bhavana) .
Generosity or offering of alms(dana) to the Buddhist monks is shrouded with rituals and ceremonies. In a home the preparation of alms is done with utmost faith (sardha). Best vegetables are selected, all ingredients are prepared fresh, sure to keep clean every pot, pan and plate used in the kitchen in the preparation of the dana. The food is not even tasted to see whether there is enough salt or condiments. The rituals continue through faith, saddha or bhakti.
There is a time, before which the alms offerings have to be taken to the Temple. Those who carry the food are dressed in white , carrying pots and pans duly covered in white on their head. There is the Buddha puja an offering in reminiscent of the Buddha, which is preceded by drums (hevisi pooja), flute (horane) and the sound of the conch “sak”.
The offering of the Dana is preceded by the Offering to the Buddha where every one repeats the stanzas after the Monk who conducts the ceremony. At the end of it every one is happy that everything had gone off well . They have accumulated maha kusala kamma.
Even during the time of the Buddha there may have been such ceremonies but less elaborate. The Buddha after sitting down always asked for the head of the household or the one who offers the dana.
Some of these ceremonies may have been mixed up with those of Hinduism but yet they serve their purpose. But these rituals and ceremonies inspire the Buddhists in Dhamma the teachings of the Buddha.
Certain of these rituals also give psychological comfort, such as listening to pirith ceremony which is a very satisfying experience. Every stanza in “pirith” has a special way of being recited, and one is kept attentive to the recitations. The “pirith noola”, which certainly has a Hindu influence nevertheless gives a person who had gone through the whole recitation of pirith a great satisfaction, a mental fulfillment. Recitation of “pirith” and sprinkling of water was even recommended by the Buddha.
In Vesali there was a famine, a pestilence , and was haunted by evil spirits. The Buddha asked Venerable Ananda to tour Vesali with Licchavi citizens reciting the Ratana Sutta and sprinkling the sanctified water to give protection to the people of Vesali from famine, pestilence and evil spirits. Venerable Ananda returned Back to the town hall where the Buddha and his retinue of Bikkhus had assembled. Then the Buddha recited the Ratana Sutta to the people who had gathered there.
There will always be those who listen to sermons, or recitation of “pirith”, or discourses superficially pretending to be devout Buddhists but those hypocrites are common but that should not be the reason to eliminate rituals and ceremonies from Buddhism.
Politics and spirituality have a complex relation ship. Some of the Politicians go bear bodied to attend a Hindu Ceremony in the morning and come in pure white dress to attend Buddhist ceremonies in the evening. Most of them wear excessive number of “pirith nool” even without having listened to the recitation of “pirith’.
There are no doubt the more intelligent who would prefer to practice meditation and follow the path of Buddhism more meaningfully, but the ordinary people want rituals and ceremonies without which the Buddha Sasana will not exist. Buddha Sasana is not the practice of higher Dhamma and meditation alone, but rituals and ceremonies are also a part of it. There should be Buddhist laity to provide alms, shelter and robes. Those are also necessary activities expected of the Buddhist laity for the Community of Buddhist monks, which result in wholesome kamma for worldly existence.
Of course there are certain influences that have crept into the ritual and ceremonial aspect of Buddhism which should be removed lest we loose the importance of the teachings of the Buddha. These are the worship of Hindu Gods in Buddhist temples. There are the Kapuralas conducting their thevavas as a part of Buddhist worship with their different Devalas dedicated to Vishnu, Pattini, Natha, Ganesha, Dadimunda and Huniyamn devathavo within the Buddhist Vihara premises. The statues of Gods in the Shrine rooms of the Buddhist temples should be removed. Devales should not be allowed to function within Buddhist temple premises.
Katharagama Devale has become a shameless business enterprise. These Diyawadane Nilames and Kapuralas have no place in a country dedicated to Buddha Dhamma and Sanga by the good King Devanampiyatissa at the behest of Venerable Arahat Mahinda more than 2300 years ago.
Then there are the rituals around funerals where a Mataka vastha is offered to the Sangha, followed by a Mathaka Dana. There are pinkamas to transfer merit from the third day after the death, then the seventh day, third months and one year after death. Then there are also Bali and Thovil to chase away evil spirits.
These rituals console the people but the necessity to turn them away from these false views ( micca ditthi) is the duty of the Maha Sangha. The Buddhist monk has to protect the Buddha Sasana and therefore they should be alive to the fact they are suitable for that task.
These rituals that have crept into Buddhism are outside the teachings itself of the Buddha, but nevertheless they are a part of the Buddhist culture. The Buddhist culture which are the customs, rituals and ceremonies, and the teachings of the Buddha are bound together and one cannot remove one without removing the other.
It is therefore the duty of the Buddhist monk to lead the Buddhist laity away from the rituals and ceremonies towards the path of the Dhamma. This the Buddhist monks could do by making every Temple in Sri Lanka a meditation Centre, so that any villager who wants to meditate could do so at his convenience by coming to the temple and asking for meditation instruction from the monk in charge of meditation.
That is why the Buddha organized the Order of the Sangha from those who gave up their householders lives to follow a homeless life which is bereft of rituals and ceremonies a middle path leading to meditation and Nibbana. When the Buddha had 60 disciples who had attained the state of noble Arahats, he told them:
Charatha Bhikkhave charikam, bahujana hithaya bahu jana sukhaya- Go Bikkhus, not two in the same direction and spread the teachings for the good of all beings.
Buddhist Lay followers