Vipassana Fellowship © 2012
Vipassana Fellowship - Calm and Insight meditation inspired by the early Buddhist tradition.
Mindfulness meditation from the Theravada tradition for the spiritual development of people of all faiths & none. Online courses & support since 1997

Lay Buddhist Practice by Bhikkhu Khantipalo

Daily Practice

The Shrine Room

It is best to start with practices which are common to all Buddhist traditions for every-day observance. It is usual, among the more wealthy lay Buddhists, to have a small room set aside for their daily devotions, or at least a curtained-off recess. A few might even have a small separate building. Even poor people, with little space in their houses, have a special shelf high on the wall on which a Buddha-image or picture is placed together with the usual offerings (see below). Nowhere in the Buddhist world are Buddha-images treated as ornaments for a living room. And a Buddha image is always given the highest "seat" in the room, that is, the Buddha-image is displayed in the place of honor. In the shrine-room this will be on the highest part of a shrine. If on a special shelf (often carved and decorated with color and gold), then that shelf is usually high on the wall and has nothing above it. The fact that one places the symbol of one's Teacher in the highest place shows one's high regard for him. For this reason alone it is obvious that Buddha-images should not be placed on mantelpieces and miscellaneous furniture. Also, if the shrine occupies part of the room used for sleeping (this would be contrary to some Buddhist traditions), it should be near the head of the bed, not at its foot. This is because that part of the body which houses most of the organs of sense and is the physical base of much mental activity -- that is, the head -- the topmost part of a person, should be directed to what one esteems as the highest, in this case, the symbol of the Buddha. But feet, however useful, are easily dirtied and become ill-smelling quickly and should never be pointed at any person who is respected and certainly not at a shrine, whether Buddha-image or stupa.

Perhaps some may object to such matters. One may be able to hear some people growling, "Buddhism has nothing to do with such things!" But this attitude ignores the fact that the Dhamma is relevant to all circumstances, also that fine conduct was praised by the Buddha, not ignored by him. So such things do matter if one is going to have objects of reverence such as Buddha-images. Whenever we think that such matters are not worth troubling over then we are just careless and unmindful. A Buddha-image should be treated respectfully and it is a good way of training oneself to treat the Buddha-image as one would Gotama the Buddha himself. Reverence (apacayana) is a part of the Dhamma which should not be neglected for it helps in the overcoming of conceit. Buddhists of all traditions have shrines with images, paintings, stupas and so on, just because reverence is an essential part of Buddhist training. From practices based on reverence are born humility in oneself and harmonious relationships with others and the Buddha tells us that four qualities increase for those who are respectful and honor those who are senior to them: "Long life and beauty, happiness and strength" (Dhp 109). Who does not want them?

To digress a little here on the objection raised above. This might be made by a person of rational temperament who had been able to read some translations from the Pali Canon but who had never met with Buddhist teachers or been to Buddhist countries. From his reading such a person might get the impression that Theravada is coolly logical, in fact a sort of eastern humanism. But this shows the selectiveness of the mind since all through the Suttas there are examples of reverence and devotion. It is true that the Buddha did not encourage his followers to give full reign to their emotions with unrestrained outbursts (in contrast to Hindu and other teachers who have emphasized that bhakti (devotion to a god) is all). However, He did lay down three forms of reverence for bhikkhus; wearing the robe with the right shoulder bared, kneeling down, and holding the palms of the hands together in the gesture of reverence. Prostration at the feet of the Buddha is also mentioned many times in the Suttas. Lay people are free to show their reverence in any suitable way and people of those times were recorded in the Suttas as expressing their reverence variously:

So the Kalamas of Kesaputta approached the Lord. Having approached him, some prostrated towards the Lord and sat down at one side; some greeted the Lord politely, and having conversed in a friendly and courteous way, sat down to one side; some raising their hands in anjali to the Lord sat down to one side, some called out their names and those of their clans and sat down to one side; while others saying nothing sat down to one side.

[Kalama Sutta, Anguttara-nikaya iii 65 (PTS edition). See, "A Criterion of True Religion," Mahamakut Press, Bangkok, and "The Kalama Sutta," Wheel No. 8, BPS, Kandy, Sri Lanka]

No doubt these expressions depended upon their confidence and serenity (saddha-pasada). Down to the present time, Theravada tradition in any Buddhist country is rich in the various forms of reverence accorded to Buddha-images, stupas and to the Sangha. So a negative view as the one mentioned is neither an advantage for practice nor in agreement with tradition.

But other people too might have such ideas, for instance some who have read about the iconoclastic attitude of some Zen masters, or of the siddhas who were the last partly Buddhist teachers in India before the extinction of Buddhism there. There are remarks and actions recorded of some of the former teachers which might lead one to expect that whatever else Zen is, surely reverence plays no part in it. Such people are bound to be a little startled by the emphasis on reverence and the large devotional element present in the daily training of anyone, monastic or lay, who stays in a Zen training temple. The siddhas too spoke against rituals but that was because they were faced with a great overgrowth of Buddhist ritualistic devotion gradually accumulated through centuries of Mahayana and Vajrayana. In matters of devotion, as in other things, one should remember that the Buddha himself taught "Dhamma in the middle", with the rejection of extremes, Confidence (saddha) should be balanced with wisdom (panna), but one-sided practice will not lead to great fruits.

Another sort of objection which has been raised is that the forms of respect in Buddhist tradition are specially Asiatic and not suitable for Buddhists in other countries. One hears of calls for a peculiarly British or American Buddhism divested of "Asiatic trimmings". Perhaps the various non-Indian peoples to whom Buddhism has spread also raised such objections when Buddhist tradition contrasted with their own established cultures. However that may have been, the Dhamma requires some time before it puts its roots down in any culture and before one can even begin to imagine western forms of Buddhism, westerners who have long trained in the Sangha, become learned and serene in their hearts are necessary. The priority in Buddhism is on properly trained people, not on arguments as to exterior forms.

Now, to return to the shrine room. Lay people will find it most useful in the morning and evening, and perhaps on some days when more time can be given to the cultivation of calm and insight. The usual course of practice taught for lay people in Buddhist countries is that they should practice giving (dana) according to their faith, and as far as their circumstances allow make an effort to keep the precepts (sila) pure, and as far as they are able so develop the mind in meditation (bhavana). That is to say, those who are less interested in Dhamma practice should at least make an effort to be generous. If they give nothing, or very little when more could be given, they are making little or no effort to go against the worldly stream of craving. Some who cultivate generosity may not be very good at keeping some of the Precepts but they are practicing a valuable part of Dhamma. And it is reckoned much more practical to be open-handed and devoted to the Buddha than it is merely to have a lot of unpracticed book-learning. Next will come people who not only make an effort to give generously but also try to keep the precepts. They try to conform their actions to what agrees with the Five Precepts and perhaps on special occasions undertake Eight Precepts as well, a subject to be discussed below. Finally, there are those who are able to practice more than dana and sila and try to cultivate their minds every day through meditation. Now the shrine-room is the place where at least the last two of these Dhamma-practices may be undertaken.

It should be a quiet place and one which is screened or curtained off from the sight of people not interested in Dhamma. it is desirable to have some such place apart from ordinary living rooms, devoted only to Dhamma-practice and where the furnishings will remind one only of Dhamma. though these may be quite elaborate in Buddhist countries, really nothing is needed which is difficult to obtain. Probably the most difficult and perhaps expensive, is the Buddha-image. Failing to obtain that, an inspiring picture of the Buddha may be used. Or if one cannot be found then a good reproduction of some famous stupa could be one's focus. Whatever it is, with its beauty it should evoke harmony and peace. If there is an image then one requires a low table to place it on-so that the Buddha-image is just a little higher than one's head when kneeling down. So it will be an advantage if one can kneel down on a soft mat on the floor and dispense with chairs. Once kneeling, it is easy to seat oneself after offerings and recollections in meditation posture. The table upon which the Buddha-image is placed could be covered with a new cloth, perhaps something beautiful in color and texture, for beauty used with restraint, is an aid to devotion. In front of the Buddha-table another and lower one might be used for the offerings, something like the sketch on the facing page.

The Offerings

Apart from the Buddha-image in the place of honor, one may have other Buddhist objects round or on the shrine, such as scroll-paintings, Buddhist symbols such as the lotus-bud, wheel of Dhamma or the Bodhi-leaf, or miniature stupas, and so on. But three things are certainly needed on the shrine for making the usual offerings: candlesticks (lamps for oil, etc. in some traditions), an incense burner and vases or trays for flowers.

In Asian countries one may see many other things offered: food, water, drinks, fruit, etc. The idea behind this kind of offering is gratitude to the Teacher, and the consideration that one should not partake of good things without first having offered something, symbolically, to Lord Buddha. The word "offering" rather suggests that one expects those things to be "accepted" but of course the Buddha having attained Nibbana is beyond acceptance and rejection. the Pali word for these things makes this matter clearer: sakkara is that which should be done properly and means firstly, honor and hospitality given to guests and so by extension, to a symbol of one's Teacher.

Regarding the incense-burner, though various patterns are used in the East, the cleanest method is to part fill an open- mouthed bowl with clean sand and to place this on a saucer or other flat vessel. This should collect most of the ash. Some Buddhist traditions do not use vases but as in Sri Lanka arrange the flowers in patterns on trays or platters. This method, of course, requires time, while the flowers quickly demonstrated their impermanence.

People quite often ask why these three things in particular are offered. The offering of flowers is a bridge to the contemplation of the body's impermanence. An ancient Sinhalese Pali composition may be translated like this:

     These flowers, bright and beautiful, fragrant and good-smelling,
       handsome and well-formed -- soon indeed discolored, ill-smelling
       and ugly they become.
     This very body, beautiful, fragrant and well-formed, soon indeed
       discolored, ill-smelling and ugly it becomes.
     This body of mine too is of the same nature,
     will become like this,
     and has not escaped from this.

Candles or lights are lit to symbolize the light of Dhamma which one should find in one's own heart, driving out the darkness of the defilements there. In the Dhammapada (verse 387) there is a suitable verse for recitation while making this offering:

        The sun is bright by day,
        the moon lights up the night,
        armored shines the warrior,
        contemplative, the brahmana,
        but all the day and night-time too
        resplendent does the Buddha shine.

Incense having a good smell is lighted to remind one that the Dhamma-light can only be found with the aid of good moral conduct (sila) which has been so many times praised by the Buddha, as in these Dhammapada verses (56, 54, 55):

        Slight is this perfume
        of tagara and sandalwood,
        best the perfume of the virtuous
        blowing even to the devas.
        The perfume of flowers does not go against
           the wind,
        neither that of sandalwood, jasmine, or tagara:
        but the perfume of the virtuous does go
           against the wind.
        The good man suffuses all directions,
        Sandalwood or tagara,
        lotus or the jasmine great --
        of these perfumes various,
        virtue's perfume is unexcelled.

If these offerings are made with mindfulness of their meaning then they are not without good results.[*] Also, they act as objects for focusing the mind, which in the morning may still be sleepy, or in the evening may be distracted by the events of the day. These offering lead one to concentrate the mind when reciting the Refuges and Precepts, the recollections and during meditation. So we can see that these actions agree with that quality of the Dhamma called "leading inward" (opanayiko). However, before we come to these aspects of practice a few words should be said on the traditional gestures of respect.

* [Perhaps at this point someone who has read the discourses of the Buddha might object, "But the Buddha before his Parinibbana said, 'Ananda, the twin sala trees are quite covered with blossoms though it is not the season. They scatter and sprinkle and strew themselves on the Perfect One's body out of veneration for him. And heavenly Mandarava flowers and heavenly sandalwood powder fall from the sky and are scattered and sprinkled and strewed over the Perfect One's body out of veneration for him. But this is not how a Perfect One is honored, respected, revered, venerated or reverenced: rather it is the bhikkhu or bhikkhuni, or the man or woman lay-follower, who lives according to Dhamma, who enters upon the proper way, who walks in the Dhamma that honors, respects, reveres and venerates a Perfect One with the highest veneration of all. Therefore, Ananda, train thus: "We will live in the way of the Dhamma, entering upon the proper way, and walking in the Dhamma."'" (Ven. Nanamoli's translation).

There is no doubt that the practice of giving (dana), moral conduct (sila), meditation (samadhi) and wisdom (panna) are the best way of honoring the Buddha -- they are called the puja of practice (patipatti-puja), but offerings and chanting are found useful by many people as it stimulates practice. It is only when sakkara-puja, the puja with material offerings, supplants patipatti-puja that there is the danger that peoples' "Buddhism" becomes mere ceremonials. In time, these tend to become complex, like a strangling vine overgrowing the majestic tree of the Buddhasasana.]

Gestures of Respect

Dhamma is the way for training mind, speech and body. But the Buddha dhamma is sometimes regarded in way which is too intellectual and theoretical so that there is a danger that it is not practiced as a way of training. To help with the training of the body there are various gestures which are expressions of one's confidence in and reverence for the three Treasures. These actions when performed with due mindfulness are wholesome kamma made by way of the body. Repeated frequently they become habitual bodily kamma and it is good to have the habit of reverence as part of one's character. The Buddha, soon after his Enlightenment, thought that to live without reverence was not suitable, so he looked around with the divine eye to find some teacher under whom he could live, revering him and his teachings. But he found no teacher superior to himself, nor any teaching superior to the Dhamma which he had discovered. But out of reverence for that Dhamma he decided to make the Dhamma his Teacher and to live revering Dhamma. We who are his followers should follow in his footsteps and live with reverence for those three aspects of Enlightenment: Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

The gestures used for this are mainly two: respectful salutation with the hands (anjalikamma)[*], and the five-limb prostration (panc'anga-vandana)[**].

* [Anjali, in many Asiatic lands, is the common form of greeting, just as shaking hands is in the west. The latter custom is said to have been derived from the need to show that one had no kind of weapon in one's right hand, while anjali perhaps derives from a gentle attitude towards other people. This respect becomes reverence when anjali is made to religious teachers, and so by extension to the objects symbolizing the Teacher of gods and men (the Buddha), such as images and stupas. In the Buddhasasana it does not have the significance -- that of prayer -- given to it in western religion.]

** [This is not "surrender," as such an action might be in a "devotion-only" religion, nor of course is it an abject debasement of oneself, a sort of fawning of favors, since Buddhists do not approach their shrines with such ideas. And of course it is not "bowing down to idols." It is rather the bowing down of one's own idol -- self-pride - to Enlightenment.]

The first of these, which may be remembered as "anjali" as there is no satisfactory English equivalent, is made by bringing the palms of the hands together, and raising them to the region of the heart or higher, according to circumstances. For instance, in the shrine room after kneeling down in front of the Buddha image, one makes anjali before offering flowers, lights and incense. And as the Teacher was the highest in the world and one to go beyond the world, so one respects him by placing one's hands are held in anjali at heart level. This action and others described here, should be done with mindfulness and therefore gracefully. And one should be careful to see that exaggerated and impetuous movements are avoided. As we remarked before, the Dhamma does not encourage unrestrained expressions of emotion, rather with its aid one endeavors to calm one's heart.

After all these preliminary remarks, we have just got into our shrine room, knelt down, made anjali and offered the three offerings. Now there are flowers placed in their vases or upon some offering tray, candles or lamps burning brightly and a blue column of incense smoke rising to the ceiling. It is time to pay one's respects with the whole body to the Teacher. When afterwards one says "Namo tassa...." that word "namo" (homage) comes from the root nam meaning "to bend". So now one bends oneself, one's mind and body, down and acknowledges that the Buddha was indeed the Perfectly Enlightened One that one's own understanding of Dhamma is insignificant. In the kneeling position, one's hand in anjali are raised to the forehead and then lowered to the floor so that the whole forearm to the elbow is on the ground, the elbow touching the knee. The hands, palm down, are four to six inches apart with just enough room for the forehead to be brought to the ground between them. Feet are still as for the kneeling position and the knees are about a foot apart. this is called the prostration with the five limbs, that is the forehead, the forearms, and the knees. This prostration is made three times, the first time to the Buddha, the second to the Dhamma, and the third to the Noble Sangha.

An ancient tradition from Thailand makes this more explicit as it adds a Pali formula to be chanted before each of the prostrations. Before the first one may chant:


The Arahant, the Buddha perfected by himself, the Exalted One/
I bow low before the Exalted Buddha.

Before the second prostration:


The Dhamma well-expounded by the Exalted One/
I bow low before the Dhamma.

And before the last one:


The Sangha of the Exalted One's disciples who have practiced well/
I bow low before the Sangha.

Some people feel that this prostration is "foreign" and not at all important. They say that it may discourage people from the practice of Dhamma if their first sight of it is so alien a custom. As there are a few points to discuss here another digression must be made. Prostration in this way, or similar ways which may be more complicated (as in Chinese and Tibetan traditions) do not seem "foreign" at all when seen in a Buddhist country. There they are just the traditional ways of paying respect and western people, even some non-Buddhists, seldom have any difficulties. In these days when there are so many Asian religious and cultural movements in western countries, a practice of this sort loses its strangeness. Certainly it is a practice which any able-bodied Buddhist may do in the seclusion of his shrine room and not feel embarrassed but at public meetings where non-Buddhists may be present it is better perhaps to restrict one's courtesies to the anjali and a simple bow. It is well to consider whatever one's beliefs about this practice, that it is a long established way of showing respect in every Buddhist tradition, both in the Sangha and among lay people. It is part of the common inheritance of all Buddhists in Asia, while practices of this sort may be expected to spread in time to new Buddhists in other parts of the world with the increase in the number of Buddhist temples, images, stupas, and above all, with the gradual establishment of the Sangha in those countries.

The preliminary formula for revering the Buddha [see Appendix A1 for Pali]

Though most of one's devotions are made in English (etc.), it may be good to retain this short sentence (see below) in Pali. it is very ancient and found several times in the Suttas. Here is one example of its use:

Thus have I heard: At one time the Lord was staying near Savatthi in the Jeta Grove at Anathapindika's monastery. Now at that time the brahmin Janussoni was leaving Savatthi early in the day in an all-white carriage (drawn by four white) mares. The brahmin Janussoni saw the wanderer Pilotika coming in the distance and seeing him he spoke thus to the wanderer Pilotika: "Now where is the revered Vacchayana (Pilotika's clan-name) coming from so early in the day?"

"Sir, I am coming from the presence of the Samana Gotama."

"What do you think about this, Vacchayana? Has the Samana Gotama lucidity of wisdom? Do you think him wise?"

"But who am I, sir, that I should know whether the Samana Gotama has lucidity of wisdom? Surely only one like Him could know whether the Samana Gotama has lucidity of wisdom."

"Undoubtedly it is with lofty praise that the revered Vacchayana praises the Samana Gotama."

"But who am I, sir, that I should praise the Samana Gotama? Praised by the praised is the revered Gotama, chief among devas and men...."

When this had been said, Janussoni the brahmin got down from his all-white carriage (drawn by four white) mares, and having arranged his upper cloth over one (his left) shoulder, having bowed down to the Lord three times with his hands in anjali, he uttered these inspired words: "Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma-sambuddhassa! Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma- sambuddhassa! Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma-sambuddhassa!"

[translated by Dr. I.B. Horner in "Middle Length Sayings" (P.T.S.) Vol I, p 220, 222]

Evidently this sentence expressive of praise and devotion was quite widely known, as several lay people, some Buddhists and others not, some brahmins and at least one king, uttered these inspired words. So when today we chant these words, it is a sound that rings back through the ages to the Buddha-time. We may chant as the brahmin did:


three times in Pali while recollecting its meaning silently, or use may be made of a method of chanting which translates this formula, interspersing the Pali with English, like this:

                I (we) wish to revere with body, speech and mind
                that Lord apportioning Dhamma

                that One far from defilements/

                that One Perfectly Enlightened by himself.

(Repeat the Pali and English three times. This is according to an old Thai method of chanting, frequently heard today in that country's schools.)

* [BHAGAVA: a very frequent term of respect for the Buddha (usually translated, "Lord," "Blessed One," "Exalted One") is hard to render in English. It means: "The compassionate Lord who by his skillful means apportions Dhamma which exactly corresponds to the needs of those who hear."]

These three epithets of Gotama the Buddha express the three great qualities of Enlightenment. BHAGAVATO shows the Great Compassion (mahakaruna) of the Buddha and this we should recollect first as loving-kindness and compassion is the necessary base for our own practice of Dhamma. ARAHATO represents the Purity (visuddhi) of the Buddha, a purity unforced and ever- present to be approached by us through the practice of the Precepts. SAMMA-SAMBUDDHASSA stands for the quality of Wisdom (panna), the Unsurpassed Perfect Enlightenment (anuttara samma-sambodhi) which distinguishes a Buddha from all other men. Here, "Samma" means "perfect," "sam" stands for "by himself," and "Buddhassa" is "to the Enlightened" or "to the Awakened".

The Three Refuges (Tisarana) [See Appendix A2 for Pali]

When people ask, "Who is really a Buddhist?" the answer will be, "One who has accepted the Three Refuges" -- Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, as his shelter and guiding ideal." [*] So now that we have paid our respects to the Teacher, it is usual for Buddhists to continue by affirming their Refuge in Enlightenment (bodhi) in three aspects: the Buddha, the rediscoverer of Enlightenment; the Dhamma, the way to that Enlightenment; and the Sangha, those who are practicing that way have discovered Enlightenment for themselves. That which has the nature of the Unsurpassed Perfect Enlightenment, unconfused and brilliant with the qualities of Great Compassion, Purity and Wisdom, that is a secure refuge. So we recite this sure refuge as a reminder every day: [**]

* [See "The Three Refuges," Wheel No. 75, B.P.S, Kandy]

** [The Pali of the Going-for-Refuge (etc.) is in the Appendix at the end of this book. Where "Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha" are felt to be more meaningful, they can be used in place of "The Enlightened One," "The Way to Enlightenment," and "The Enlightened Community."]

     To the Enlightened One I go for refuge.
     To the Way to Enlightenment I go for for refuge,
     To the Enlightened Community I go for refuge.

     For the second time to the Enlightened One I go for refuge.
     For the second time to the Way to Enlightenment I go for refuge.
     For the second time to the Enlightened Community I go for refuge.

     For the third time to the Enlightened One I go for refuge.
     For the third time to the Way to Enlightenment I go for refuge.
     For the third tome to the Enlightened Community I go for refuge.

There is a reason for repeating each refuge three times. The mind is often distracted and if words are spoken or chanted at that time then it is as though they have not been spoken at all. There is no strong intention behind them and one's Going for Refuge will be like that of a parrot. Repeating words three times is common in many Buddhist ceremonies (such as ordination) and ensures that the mind is concentrated during at least one repetition.

When one has gone for refuge and so affirmed that one is following the way taught by the Buddha, then it is time to remind oneself of the basic moral precepts for daily conduct.

next: The Five Precepts

Dhamma Essay:
The Search for Security by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Meditation | Resources | Pali Canon | Training | Parisa
Audio | Links | Books | Newsletter | Feedback | Donate
to know - to shape - to liberate

Site Copyright © 2021, Vipassana Fellowship Ltd.     [Terms of Service & Privacy Policy]