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Introduction to Korean Buddhism

03. Buddhist Behavior and Etiquette - Temple Customs

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Writer Jogye Date08 Jan 2020 Read6,012 Comment0


03. Buddhist Behavior and Etiquette -Temple Customs

03. Temple Customs

(1) Customs When Visiting Temples

Buddhist temples are sacred places dedicated to Buddhas. Visiting the temple helps to clear one’s mind, to penitently recollect one’s mistakes and to pledge oneself to lead a better life. Temples provide a place monastics study and practice. Therefore, one should maintain a respectful attitude and proper etiquette in the temple grounds, both in mind and body.

At all traditional Korean temples, one must pass through the Iljumun, or "One Pillar Gate" (一 柱 门), to reach the main Buddha Hall. Following this gate, one will pass through the Geumgangmun or Diamond Deva Gate (金刚 门), the Cheonwangmun or Gate of the Four Heavenly Guardians (天王 门), and the Bulyimun or Haetalmun, the Gate of Non-duality or the Gate of Enlightenment (不二 门or解脱 门).

Since the temple space starts at Iljumun, one should first calm one’s mind and show respect with a half bow before entering the Iljumun. After passing through the Iljumun, the same ritual is performed at Cheonwangmun and Bulyimun gates. After the Bulyimun, one finally reaches the temple lawnwhere the main Dharma Hall stands. In general, stūpas enshrining the relics of the Buddha or Buddhist scriptures are found in this part of the temple complex. Before entering the main Buddha hall, one performs three standing half bows while facing the stūpa. When circumambulating the stūpa (that is, walking around the stūpa in a circle) in prayers, the right shoulder should be closest to the subject of homage (that is, the stūpa). In Buddhism, walking around the venerated object in a clockwise direction is a proper way of showing respect. Also, before reaching the grounds of the Dharma Hall, one should give a half bow toward the stūpas wherethe relics of Buddhist masters of the temple are enshrined.

(2) Dharma Hall Customs

There are many doors through which one might enter the Dharma Hall; there is a central door at the front, and there aredoors to the left and right of the central door. Inside the Dharma Hall, at the center, a Sangdan or main altar (上坛) enshrines Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. To the right and left of this altar are other altars or platforms enshrining the Dharma protectors, or Shinjungdan (神衆壇), and the spirits of the ancestors, or Youngdan. With the Buddha Statue as the reference point, the main altar on the central aisle is called Eogan (御 间), and the central door on the façade is called Eoganmun.

The Dharma Hall is a sacred location dedicated to the Buddha, a place for monastics and lay Buddhists to practice and pray. Therefore, it is important to be cautious and not disturb other practitioners. If there are central and side stairs going in to the Dharma Hall, lay Buddhists are advised to always use these, rather than the central stairs. In addition, be cautious not to make loud noises when opening and closing the door, and make sure to leave your shoes properly organized by the door with the other shoes before entering the Hall. Even something as simple as making sure one's shoes are properly lined up displays the virtuous mind of the Buddhist practitioner. Upon entering the hall, first pay respect to the main Buddha with palms together in a half bow.

Offerings of incense and candles demonstrates the true meaning of almsgiving by offering a beautiful fragrance and a brilliant light which symbolize the immolation of one’s body for the benefit of all sentient beings. When offering incense, place hands together in a prayer position and walk silently toward the altar and offer a half bow. With the right hand holding the middle section of the incense, and holding the right wrist with the left hand, light the incense with the burning candle. When the incense ignites, extinguish the flame and bring the incense to your forehead to properly make a respectful offering. After placing the incense in the incense burner, take a step back with hands in prayer position and offer a standing half bow. Return to your seat and, continuing to face the altar, offer a full prostration before sitting down. If there is already incense burning in the incense burner, one does not have to offer another stick. Simply offer three prostrations. After offering incense on the main altar, repeat the procedure before the shrine of the Dharma protectors.However, if the main Dharma Hall is very busy, make prostrations to other altars by simply turning in their direction.

If one needs to move to make offerings and prayers, walk quietly with one's heels off the floor and hands in a prayer position. If it is absolutely necessary to pass the central aisle, keep hands in a prayer position with waist slightly bent. Since most Dharma Halls are wooden structures and are also sacred places, we should be very cautious about preventing unexpected fire. Thus, we should make sure to extinguish the candles and tidy up before leaving the hall. It is customary not to blow out the candles, but use the candle snuffer.

After extinguishing the candle, step back with a half bow and exit the hall. Similar to the way you entered the hall, put your hands together in hapjang and make a half bow to the Buddha on the main altar. Finally, exit the hall by slowly walking backward.

After exiting the hall, maintain a peaceful state of mind while waiting one's turn to locate one's shoes. After finding your shoes, help others by placing the remaining shoes in a more convenient location or organizing them neatly.

The following are negative behaviors to watch out for:

Sitting in the central aisle

Saving seats for someone

Flappingthe jwabok (cushion used for prayer) or throwing it with one hand

Walking on jwabok (cushions)

Leaving the hall without appropriately tidying the jwabok

Taking down other people’s offerings and replacing them with one’s own

(3) Dharma Teachings and Buddhist Ceremony Customs

Dharma teachings and Buddhist ceremonies are the very center of Buddhist practices of faith. Therefore, Buddhists should attend the teachings and ceremonies, pay respect to the Buddha with a pious mind, and listen carefully to the teachings of the Sunims (monastics).

Ceremonies mark the start and end of the day and are a time to venerate the Buddha. It may be very difficult for Lay Buddhists to attend to the daily responsibilities and Buddhist ceremonies every day. However, it is compulsory to attend the ceremonies and teachings when participating in a retreat or staying at temples. In morning ceremonies, rise with the sound of the Moktak (wooden percussion), tidy one’s bedding, and freshen up before joining the ceremony with a pure mind.

The sessions of dharma teachings and ceremonies are opportunities to learn the teachings of the Buddha and a time to resolve to lead the proper Buddhist way of life.

It is also a time to learn Buddhist customs and make precious connections with other fellow Buddhist friends. Participating in ceremonies is a responsibility that has the potential to fill one's life with wisdom and meaning. This can help one lead the life of a guiding light for families and neighbors and propagate the Buddhist teachings to others.

Buddhist services are conducted according to a certain ceremonial and ritualistic flow. Therefore, it is important to be on time for the service and stay until the end, without leaving the hall. There are some people who do not participate in the ritualistic part of the service, but enter the hall during the dharma talks and leave when the dharma teaching is not yet over. However, this is not appropriate behavior for a Buddhist. For the most part, dharma teachings are conducted with everyone sitting on the floor. Thus, when someone enters or leaves during the service, the devotional atmosphere can be very easily distracted. Therefore, if one thinks one might need to leave during the service, sit where there would be the least amount of disturbance to other attendees and leave quietly.

When listening to the teachings, one must approach the teachings with some equanimity. That is, one should neither take the content too lightly, believing that one already understands it, nor should one give up too easily if the teaching seems too difficult to understand. Even if one understands the content, listen carefully with a mind to make the teachings one’s own or, if one does not understand, try to understand by studying more intently. When studying the teachings carefully and with patience, one will eventually develop wisdom as bright as the sun.

(4) Customary Offerings

Offerings of incense, candles, flowers, rice, tea, fruit, and so forth are made to the Buddha to benefit all sentient beings and to end their suffering. This is called Gongyang (供养). Gongyang originally referred to the offerings of necessities such as food, clothing, and bedding that were made to the Buddha and Sunims in order to support their practice. However, offering land or buildings to the Sangha also became a common practice over time. Therefore, everything offered with a sincere heart to the Three Jewels is understood to be Gongyang. For example, chanting sūtras during a ceremony is considered a Sound Gongyang.

In Buddhism, taking meals is also called “Gongyang” because the act of eating can also be considered a Dharma practice or ritual. In particular, for renunciates, the act of consuming food is not simply for the purpose of satisfying hunger or enjoying the taste of food. Rather, this is a method of skillful means that is practiced to repay the kindness of the Three Jewels, parents, teachers, and those who have made offerings to the Sangha, as well as a means to save those suffering in the hell, hungry ghost, and animal realms.

The merit of Gongyang depends mainly on three aspects: pure intention on the part of the one making the offering, the one receiving the offering, and in terms of what is being offered. Therefore, it is crucial for Buddhists to offer Gongyang with a pure heart filled with good intentions and motivations.

< Pre-Meal Chant: Observing the Five Points>

Where has this food come from?


I am ashamed to be eating it.


I will take it as medicine to get ridof greed in my mind 〔防心離過貪等爲宗〕

and to maintain my physical being 〔正思良藥爲療形枯〕

in order to achieve enlightenment. 〔爲成道業應受此食〕

The pre-meal chant portrays the mind of the person who eats the meal as an offering. Each meal is offered with the aspiration to be blessed with the Buddha’s enlightenment and the altruistic intention to help all sentient beings below. Contemplate during the meal how farmers and many other people put such great effort into producing something as simple as a single grain of rice and express one's gratitude in receiving the fruit of such sincere efforts. Their efforts are the reason why even a single grain of rice is valued and should never be thrown away.As such, the process of Balwogongyang (to be explained below) portrays gratitude to the Buddha and all those who helped the food make it to the table. Moreover, one can ponder the suffering of all sentient beings and make the dedication that this food is consumed in order to help all beings be free from suffering.

Meals are often divided into two types: Sanggongyang(床)and Balwugongyang(鉢盂). Sanggongyang is an ordinary meal often consumed at a dinner table or miniature meal table, such as one would eat at home. Balwugongyang is a traditional Buddhist meal procedure that is practiced during publicly shared meals, retreats, and monastic practices. Moreover, when Balwugongyang is practiced in temples with large assembly, it is called the mass meal offering("great Sangha",大众)because a large gathering of people get together to eat.

Balwugongyang adheres to the same tradition practiced since the time of the Buddha, where one meal is begged and consumed in a large alms bowl each day before noon. "Balwoo" denotes the monastic alms bowl. “Bal” is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word "Patra," which refers to a suitably sized alms bowl for a practitioner. “Woo” in Chinese means rice bowl.

Procedures in Balwugongyang are seen as an alternative means to fundamentally solving food wastage problems that we face in today's modern society. The “Empty Bowl Campaign” stemming from this Buddhist tradition and having spread to the rest of Korean society was begun in the spirit of Balwu monastic meals.

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