Ask A Buddhist: Visiting a Buddhist Temple

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By Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Do you visit a temple for worship? If so, what does it mean to you? I recently visited a local temple, and people had many different worship styles. What do you do when you go?

While all Buddhist traditions and temples have common element in their rites and ceremonies, each one has its individual elements as well. I will describe what we do at Sravasti Abbey. We have a lovely Meditation Hall, which is where the community does its daily meditation practice. It’s also where we hear teachings and celebrate special Buddhist events.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many statues and lovely paintings called “thangkas” that depict and symbolize qualities of the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and great teachers of our tradition. We do not worship these images; they are symbolic and remind us of the Buddha’s qualities. They represent virtues such as ethical conduct, love, compassion, and wisdom that we, as Buddhist practitioners, aspire to develop in ourselves.

Our Meditation Hall is a sacred space where anyone can go to connect with the stillness and peace within us. We do not socialize in the Meditation Hall, nor do we consume food or beverages there since it is a place for contemplation and practice. When we enter the Hall, we bow three times to show our respect to the Buddhas and to acknowledge that we are moving into a special place.

When we travel we often have the fortune to visit temples, especially in Asia where Buddhism was established over 2,000 years ago. We also go on pilgrimage to Buddhist holy sites where the Buddha and other holy beings lived and taught. Many are vast and stunning in iconography and statuary. As we do at home, when we enter the main hall we bow three times to the Buddha, his teachings, and all the wise and compassionates practitioners and teachers. We respect the space as we do our own.

Buddhists from many traditions may visit these temples and pilgrimage sites. Without knowing the specifics of your observations and where you visited, I can’t comment on the worship styles you saw. I can tell you generally that the way of bowing and chanting differ in various Buddhist traditions, as do the way people sit or kneel when they pray or meditate. Most Buddhist traditions include chanting in their practices, but the melodies, styles, and languages vary greatly.

As a guest in a temple, I pay my respects to the Buddha by bowing three times after I enter. I keep my voice low and respect the tradition of the temple by sitting where I am asked to sit. I try to participate in the ceremony, chant if I can follow along, or just sit quietly and meditate on the qualities of the Buddha. In this way, I learn more about the varieties of ways the Buddha’s teachings are expressed and shared. Visiting a temple inspires me to see that the Buddha’s teachings have a home in the world where Buddhists can come and share and be inspired.

If you are not familiar with the customs of bowing and so forth in a temple that you visit, don’t worry; we are not offended when people with a sincere motivation come to explore the Buddha’s teachings. We welcome your earnestness and curiosity.

About Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Venerable Tenzin Tsepal met Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey, in Seattle and studied Buddhism with her from 1995 to 1999. During that time, Venerable Tsepal attended the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India in 1996 as a lay supporter. An interest in ordination surfaced after she completed a three-month meditation retreat in 1998. She lived in India for two years while continuing to explore monastic life. In 2001, she received sramanerika (novice) ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

While Venerable Tsepal was in India, some Australians friends introduced her to the 5 year Buddhist Studies Program at Chenrezig Institute (CI) north of Brisbane, Queensland, where she subsequently lived and engaged in intensive residential study from 2002-2015. As the Western Teacher at CI, she tutored weekend teachings and retreats, and taught the Discovering Buddhism courses.

Prior to ordaining, Venerable Tsepal completed a degree in Dental Hygiene, and then pursued graduate school in hospital administration at the University of Washington. Not finding happiness in 60 hour work weeks, she was self-employed for 10 years as a Reiki teacher and practitioner.

Now a member of the resident community at Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Tsepal is compiling and editing the many years of Venerable Chodron’s teachings on monastic training as well as leading a review on the Buddhist philosophical tenets for the residents.

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