Monday, March 20, 2017

Island lay-Buddhist rituals

A.G.S. Kariyawasam (Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka) edited with expanded explanations by Bhante, Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Crystal Quintero, Wisdom Quarterly
Traditional Sri Lankan island harvesting dance (Sri Lankan Friendship Association of BC/W)
Flower offering to statue (Pariyatti Press)
Ritual acts undertaken and performed by the Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka may be broadly classified under three headings.

(1) There are acts performed for the acquisition of merit.

Offerings and good actions made with the Buddha in mind) calculated to provide a basis for achieving nirvana, which is release from the otherwise endless Cycle of Rebirths (samsara).

Avalokiteshvara, Weligama (AaA)
Such acts of merit are, at the same time, expected to offer semi-temporal rewards of comfort and happiness here and now as well as in the lesser heavenly worlds in future lives. These supplementary forms of "religious" ritual activity have arisen out of a natural need to augment the more austere way followed by the world-renouncing disciples of the Buddha.

Happiness now
(2) There are acts directed towards securing worldly prosperity and averting the calamities of disease and unseen beings or forces of evil, such as encouraging monastics to utter protective chants or incantations (pirith), making symbolic offerings (bodhi-puja, etc.)

Sri Lankan kings showing hospitality to a "worthy one" (arhat), possibly the great Indian commentator Buddhaghosa, who worked in Sri Lanka, Kelaniya Temple, (denishc/flickr).

Tovil, "devil's dance," mask from Sri Lanka
(3) There are many rituals that have been adopted from older folk religions. These are mainly semi-religious in character like the "anti-devil dances" called tovil ceremonies.

They derive their power and authority primarily through the superhuman power of the Buddha and also through the hosts of spirits who are, as it were, commanded by invoking the power of the Buddha or of the Three Guides: the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
  • These three guides (not "refuges" as sarana is commonly mistranslated) are the Enlightened One, Enlightening Teachings, and Enlightened Disciples. Enlightened disciples, the arya-sangha, the "Community of Noble Ones," which does not mean all monastics, as the word usually denotes, but only those people, ordained or not, who have achieved at least the first stage of enlightenment.
Almost all the religious activities that have a ceremonial and a ritualistic significance are regarded as acts for the acquisition of merit (called pinkama in Sinhalese from the ancient Pali punnakamma and Sanskrit punyakarma).

Colorful buddhas of the past, Dadagamuwa Raja Maha Viharaya, Sri Lanka (Malka001/flickr).

In this sense, all the religious activities of Sri Lankan lay Buddhism can be explained as being oriented towards that end.

Accordingly, the first two types of rituals basically have a merit-generating character and thereby receive religious sanction.

For instance, the idea of acquisition of merit through a religious act and its transference to the deities (devas) and soliciting their help has the scriptural sanction of the "Greater Final Nirvana Discourse" (Maha-Parinibbana Sutta, DN.ii,88-89).

Here the Buddha says that wise people, when residing in a particular area, first offer alms to spiritual recluses and then transfer the merits of those offerings to the deities of the area, who in return help them. This seems to indicate the early beginning of adoring vatthu-devata or local physical deities in Buddhism.
Merit earned by the performance of a wholesome act is regarded as a sure way of obtaining a better life in the future.

The performance of these is also a means of expiation in the sense that the meritorious deeds have the effect of countering and hindering the operation of unwholesome karma (Pali kamma) previously acquired and inherited. Thus the range of merit is very wide.
For the ordinary householder, nirvana (Pali nibbana) is an ultimate goal to be achieved through a gradual process of personal evolution extending over many lives. Therefore, until one achieves that sublime and exalted state at some future date one continues to perform these acts in order to lead a happy life. All merit-generating rituals are performed mainly with this end in view. More

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