Pūjā: Buddhist Pūjā

views updated


According to Buddhist texts, the gods worshipped Śākyamuni Buddha during his lifetime, as did humans. Gods and humans began the heartfelt ritual veneration of the Buddha's material remains as soon as he abandoned his mortal body. The term pūjā refers to such acts of ritualized worship. Relics, trees, mortuary monuments, and eventually images and texts associated with the three jewels (the Buddha, the teachings, and the community of Buddhists) as well as a wide range of pacific or ferocious buddhas and bodhisattvas were made the objects of worship. Yet conflicting interpretations of Śākyamuni's instructions, together with the philosophically subtle condition of possibility that the Buddha was both absent and immanent for such veneration, yielded a creative tension in the intellectual understanding of pūjā within the developing Buddhist traditions. Moreover, as the tradition developed local forms, which in turn took over the cults of local deities, the worship of deities who were neither buddhas nor bodhisattvas became part of the ritual calendar. Elite debates do not seem to have restrained the popular perception of ferocious dharma-protecting deities as very real agents, different only in efficacy from the great bodhisattvas and buddhas. Thus the form and interpretation of Buddhist pūjā varies widely, depending on the cultural context and social register of the worshipper, although the fundamental devotional impulse has never been denied.

Origins and Early Evidence

The verbal root pūj in early Buddhist sources, as with other early Indic material, refers to ritual worship generally. The Mahāparinirvāa-sūtra (MPNS), an early text that exists in Sanskrit, Pali, and Chinese versions, is particularly rich in descriptions of various kinds of worship: the gods worship Śākyamuni with showers of celestial blossoms, music and sandalwood powder; Mahākāśyapa, who races across India to be present for the cremation of his teacher's body, seizes the feet of his dead teacher and presses them onto his head; and Śākyamuni himself gives instructions for the construction of mortuary monuments (stūpas or caityas) and their proper worship. The earliest known Buddhist sites, the stūpas at Vaiśālī and Piprāwhā, give evidence for pre-Mauryan relic veneration. Aśoka is said to have redistributed the relics contained in the original eight stèpas into 84,000 stūpas across the Mauryan empire; and indeed, several sites that exist to this day, such as the four stūpas that surround the Newar city of Lalitpur in the Kathmandu Valley, are said to have been established by Aśoka. At the Aśokan stūpa complexes of Bharhut and Sañchi in central India, there are carvings of trees and stūpas being worshipped, as well as numerous inscriptions documenting relic worship by renunciant and lay Buddhists.

Practicing PŪjĀ

In the fifth chapter of the MPNS, Śākyamuni makes several overlapping statements about what, and how, to worship. It is taken for granted that the appropriate object of worship is a tathāgata, either directly or through mediating symbols. In other sūtras, the worship of deities is criticized; deities rather should worship the Tathāgata. When the gods do arrange a spontaneous rain of heavenly flowers and sandalwood, Śākyamuni takes the opportunity to distinguish between offering material things such as flowers and the offering of abiding in the dharma. Good practice, according to Śākyamuni, is the highest form of worship of a tathāgata by the four sections of the Buddhist community (nuns, monks, and female and male lay Buddhists), all of whom are clearly expected to be interested in performing pūjā s.

Pūjā offerings can be as simple as a handful of flowers offered by an unexpected visitor or a vast array of incense, lamps, garlands, sandalwood paste, delicious foods, water for washing and drinking, musical sounds ranging from the single peal of a bell up to a whole orchestra, dance, scatterings of unbroken rice, parasols, prayer flags and banners, circumambulations, and sculptures made from butter or flour.

Later in the same chapter of the MPNS, Śākyamuni recommends pilgrimage to the four sacred sites (that is, Lumbini, Bodhgayā, Sarnath, and Kapilvastu) and the creation and veneration of stūpas as appropriate forms of religious devotion. Morevoer, he instructs that his remains be enshrined in a stūpa. When, however, Ānanda asks the dying Śākyamuni, "What should we do about the Tathāgata's body?" he is told that the sagha ought not trouble themselves, as it will be dealt with by three sorts of pait, and he then receives instructions on funerary practices. Although this passage was taken by many Western scholars and some conservative reformists to mean that relic worship is only appropriate for lay Buddhists, it has become clear that the discussion in the MPNS is more to do with who should perform cremation rituals.

The ritual management of stūpas, as well as images and other material bases for the performance of pūjā, makes it clear that they are understood to be infused with a presence that makes their worship efficacious. The empowering of stūpas and images by the insertion of relics is a specially potent form of a general precondition for any Buddhist worship that takes a material item, such as a sculpture, painting, or manuscript, as its immediate object. The object must be ritually quickened before it can be worshipped. In Theravāda countries, the ritual of empowering a Buddha image is often referred to as "opening the eyes" of the image while Vajrayānists visualize, invoke, and install the appropriate deity. For certain deities, such as the ancient Newar Avalokiteśvara known as Bũgadya, there is an annual cycle of deconsecrating the image by removing its essence into a separate container, renovating the image, and then re-consecrating and re-empowering it.


The fundamental declaration for Buddhists is taking refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddhas, the truth that they understand and teach, and the community that preserves that teaching. Nonetheless, the original object of worship for the earliest Buddhists was the Tathāgatha himself, continuing to be present in the physical relics of his body, the implements he had carried, and the tree under which he attained enlightenment. The relic cult was not confined to Śākyamuni. At the passing of great teachers, whether in Thailand or Tibet, the cremated remains often yield tiny relic fragments. Among Tibetans, the most powerful of these relics can, when held in the hand of another great lama, spontaneously multiply. For all Buddhists, relics are treasured possessions; and when a new monastery is founded, such relics are often gathered or donated in order to be incorporated into its new statues and stūpas. The finding of such relics in the remains of a great teacher is a confirmation of her or his holiness, and the incorporation of such relics into an image or monastic site is one way of asserting membership in the lineage of such a teacher. In Theravāda countries, pūjā has come to be considered a popular affair; everyone participates, and the most precious objects of worship are relics. The Śrī Lakan Tooth Relic is still the center of an elaborate priestly ritual cycle that reminds us of the Indic heritage that Theravāda shares with Newar and Tibetan Buddhism.

In the highest Vajrayāna tantras, it is sometimes said that the material requisites for pūjā can be dispensed with and the entire ritual performed as a visualization. Regardless of whether the offerings are actually present, the practitioner identifies herself with the main deity of the maala and performs subsequent ritual actions as the deity. Within the Zen school, the question of just what is present within an external image is informed by the doctrine of buddha-nature, which is thought to be present in all beings. Therefore, when a Zen practitioner bows to an image of Śākyamuni, she is not bowing to something outside herself, but as a buddha aware of her own buddha-nature.

Indic patterns

Buddhism in South Asia and, later, Southeast Asia developed along with other Indic religions. From the perspective of the present, Indic Buddhist worship looks a great deal like Hindu worship, but in fact the mutual historical influence is so complex as to make such statements vacuous. From an elite perspective, Buddhist pūjā depends on a sophisticated understanding of emptiness and impermanence that is pointedly opposed to the sense of divine presence that drives devotional Hinduism bhakti. However, much of the language and theory is held in common, including the terms for many tools and elements of the offering and the distinction between daily (nityā), required (naimittikā), and optional (kāmyā) pūjā ; and at a popular level, the efficacy of the pūjā is far more interesting to the participants than its ontology. Vajrayāna Buddhists developed their own version of the Vedic fire sacrifice (homa) and this remains a common element among all surviving strands of Vajrayāna in Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, and Indonesia.

The Seven-Part Worship

With the rise of the Mahāyāna came a new understanding of pūjā. Behind almost all Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna pūjās is the Seven-Part Worship (saptāgapūjā), a framework for worship that is presaged in the second century Ajātaśatru-kauktya-vinodanā and crystallized in the Bhadracaryā-praidhāna, the vows of Samāntabhadra. This is an undated poem, still recited by Newar priests today, and it became the final chapter of the much larger fourth century text Gandhavyūha. Here, the structure of the Seven-Part Worship is as follows:

  1. Praise (vandanā ).
  2. Worship (pūjā ).
  3. Confession of misdeeds (pāpadeśanā ).
  4. Taking delight in the good deeds of others (anumodanā ).
  5. Requesting the buddhas (and their successors) to teach (adhyeaā ).
  6. Begging the buddhas (and their successors) to remain in the world (yācana ).
  7. Dedicating the merit arising from this pūjā (pariāmaā ).

The elements of the Seven-Part Worship can vary in number as well as order. Arousing the mind of awakening (bodhicitotpāda) is part of the ritual in both the earlier Ajātaśatru-kauktya-vinodanā and in the later Bodhicar-yāvatāra of Śāntideva, who also inserts going for refuge to the Three Jewels (śaraagāmanā). However flexible, the Seven-Part Worship forms a basic liturgy for the subsequent tradition.

Further rituals in Indic Buddhism

In high Indic Mahāyāna/Vajrayāna, such as is found among the Newar and Tibetan schools, Buddhist pūjās have developed a modularity reminiscent of Vedic ritual. For Newar Vajrayāna priests, the most basic pūjā is the Guru Maala Pūjā, and indeed the successful performance of this pūjā is part of the initiation of a Vajrcārya priest. Larger rituals, such as marriages, initiations, or guiding clients through the worship of the Bodhisattva Amoghapāśa all begin with the Guru Maala Pūjā but add more complex visualizations and the worship of other maalas. Medieval Indic visualization compendia such as the Sādhanamālā and the indigenous Tibetan or Newar works that follow them often begin with an abbreviated reference to the Seven-Part Worship and perhaps a suggestion of prior rituals to be completed before the main work of the visualization. Finally, mention should be made of the gcod offering, a development of the pūjā ritual influenced by Tibetan funerary practices. Here the practitioner, through a terrifying meditation in which she offers up her own body, senses, and life, uses pūjā as a means to sacrifice attachment to the self.

See Also

Relics; Stupa Worship; Worship and Devotional Life, articles on Buddhist Devotional Life in East Asia, Buddhist Devotional Life in Southeast Asia, and Buddhist Devotional Life in Tibet.


Gellner, David N. "Ritualized Altruism, Devotion and Meditation: The Offering of the Guru Maala in Newar Buddhism." Indo-Iranian Journal 34 (1991): 161197.

Śāntideva. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton. Oxford, 1996.

Suzuki, D. T., and Hokei Idzumi. Gaavyūha. Kyoto, Japan, 1934.

Trainor, Kevin. Relics, Ritual and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravada Tradition. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Tuladhar-Douglas, William. Remaking Buddhism for Medieval Nepal. London, 2005.

Walshe, Maurice. The Long Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, 1995.

William Tuladhar-Douglas (2005)