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RITES OF PASSAGE

Initiation

To become a Buddhist there is no special ceremony needed although one is often held only the sincere repetition of the sacred formula, 'the Three Refuges' and the Five Precepts. After this acceptance one investigates the Buddha's teaching and puts effort into practicing the suggestions made.

To become a Bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) however there is a long process of disciplinary training and education ceremony involving the novice (the name given to a person seeking to become a monk), the abbot (head of the monastery) and the Sangha (the community of monks). Before initiation the naag must shave off all hair on the head and answer questions from the elder monks. If the answers are satisfactory, and none of the monks object, the naag is admitted to the Sangha and his religious training begins.

All monks must observe altogether 227 rules which guide them in their everyday living. The first five are also applicable to all Buddhists, and are known as the 'Five Precepts'. The next key five apply only to monks. These rules state that they:

must not take the life of any living creature;
must not steal anyone's possessions;
must not be involved in sexual misconduct;
must not tell any lies;
must not use any alcohol or misuse drugs;

must not eat after midday;
must not attend shows where there is music or dancing;
must not use any perfume or personal jewellery;
must not sleep on raised or upholstered beds;
must not accept gifts of gold or silver (money).

Marriage

In most Buddhist countries marriages are arranged by the parents of the couple. This is because parents are thought to know best since they have had more experience of life. It is also because marriages join families, and so the decision should be made by the families. Often the parents will ask astrologers (people who tell the future from the stars) to suggest which would be the best day for the wedding ceremony to be held. Modern trends however are, as with all religions, subject to modification and change.

There is no religious wedding ceremony in the temple or monastery; instead a simple ceremony takes place in the home. In Britain, marriages are not allowed to be held in ordinary houses, so Buddhists often marry in Buddhist temples. Although monks are usually invited, they do not perform the ceremony. A male relative of the bride is usually in charge. There is also a civil ceremony.

The bride and groom exchange vows promising to honour and respect each other. The couple usually give each other rings, and the thumbs of their right hands are tied together. Sometimes, their wrists are tied together with a silk scarf, instead. This is a symbol that they are being 'joined' as husband and wife. At a later stage the bride and groom will visit the monastery to receive the monks' blessing and hear a sermon of the Buddha's teaching about married life. At the end of the ceremony, everyone shares a meal. The celebrations may go on for several days.

Funerals

Buddhists may be buried or cremated. At the place of burial the monks will recite the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts. The relatives perform the symbolic actions of giving the white cloth which covers the coffin to the monks, and the mourners pour water into a cup until it overflows, symbolising the transfer of merit to the deceased. The monks will then recite suitable verses from Buddhist scripture and give a sermon on life and death.

Early life | Four signs | Bodhi tree | Enlightenment | Noble Truths | Life & Death | Asoka | Books | Buildings | Festivals | Practices | Rites | Glossary