1. Why do all Buddhist temples have a statue of the Buddha? Is he a god or an idol?
The meaning of the statue is that physically Buddha is not with us but mentally we think his teaching is with us. When we go in front of the statue we bow out of respect since he is our teacher. Seeing the different statues of Buddha sitting and lying are seeing him in different meditations as a guide for us.
2. Can you explain what exactly a Buddha is?
A Buddha is a perfectly enlightened being without anger, hatred or delusion. He is the wisest and most compassionate person in this world who spent his life trying to help others get to a similar state. His statue is representative of loving kindness, wisdom and compassion. Everyone can become a Buddha through the attainment of Nibanna (Nirvana) and enlightenment.
3. Why do people put flowers in front of the Buddha?
We put flowers in front of the statue out of respect for our teacher and the flowers represent impermanence. When we put them down, the flowers smell nice and are very beautiful. Over a few days, they lose their life, beauty, scent and die. The flowers are just like us in that they will pass away at some point.
4. What do all the candles represent?
The candles are lit out of respect for Buddha, our teacher, and they also represent wisdom. Just as one candle lights the next one, wisdom is what keeps this tradition alive by spreading it from teacher to student. Through the candle's light (wisdom) we can reduce the darkness in our mind. It is also another meditation to explain life. We typically light three candles which represent Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha (his disciples) which is commonly referred to as the Triple Gem. In Sri Lanka we usually light three oil lamps. The oil lamps represent life. When the thread is good and the oil is ok, sometimes the wind comes and light goes out. It is just like our human body. Some children can continue their life while others die. Sometimes the thread burns up while the oil is still there. Lastly sometimes the thread is ok but the oil burns up. Whether they are candles, oil lamps or incense, it is another form of meditation to be mindful of their dissolution.
5. In Asia, why do people offer food to the monks?
Some people offer food as an act of merit for themselves and their ancestors. These kinds of ritual practices are very helpful for society as these actions are based upon wholesome thoughts (loving kindness) and are completely selfless. Before the monks eat, they will offer some to the Buddha, to harness a wholesome thought and practice dana. All these things like candles, incense, food, we are trying to reduce our tanha (craving).
6. Why do monks wear orange robes and shave their heads?
Different monks where different colors although the color has no meaning. During the Buddhas time they made the robes out of saffron to disinfect the fabric which gave the robes their color during that time. The forest monks wear dark colors as it provides protection from wild animals. A very bright color may attract danger. Colors like Orange, Yellow and dark brown show calmness and peace. The color is also supposed to be calm and simple.
7. Are Buddhist Monks vegetarian?
Some monks are vegetarian although some monks are not. Different cultures have different practices regarding this. In Tibet (Vajrayana Buddhism), vegetables were very hard to come by so it was extremely difficult to practice a vegetarian diet. In Mahayana Buddhism, being a vegetarian is part of the practice. For Theravada Buddhism it is up to the monk (in our case the Chief Reverend) to decide. Monks are supposed to eat whatever is offered without asking for specific foods. When someone is offering something to eat they are acting on a wholesome thought. In certain situation like when a lay person kills an animal strictly for the monks, a monk may explain to the lay person the effects of their action in a polite way.
8. Why are the monks always cleaning the temple? Is it that dirty?
The temple represents the mind which we are constantly trying to purify. We are cleaning mindfully which is a form of meditation. The temple is also a public place so it is important to have a standard of cleanliness.
9. Why do devotees bow three times?
In Asian countries, it is common practice to bow three times in front of Buddha's statue. The three prostrations represent the triple gem which is Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. (1)“Prostrating in front of a Buddha is a way of paying respectful homage, not to a god but to ultimate wisdom and someone who embodies it. The Buddha’s wisdom, as well as the teachings that he gave, have enormous value for the person bowing before him. To pay homage to that wisdom is also a gesture of humility. It acts as an antidote to pride, which is a hindrance to any deep-seated transformation. Pride prevents wisdom and compassion from emerging. ‘Just as water doesn't collect on a mountain peak, true merit doesn't accumulate on the peak of pride,’ says a proverb. Moreover, prostrations aren't just a mechanical movement. When you touch the ground with your two hands, two knees, and forehead, making five points, you aspire to purify the five poisons – hatred, desire, ignorance, pride, and jealousy – by transforming them into the five corresponding aspects of wisdom.”
10. What do the offerings represent?
Any type of offering is a pure action which is based upon a wholesome thought.
11. What does Karma (Kamma) really mean?
Karma means action. It is simply cause and effect. (i.e. Newton's Third Law of Motion)
12. What is Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana)?
Nibbana means the ending of the circle of samsara (rebirth). A person who has become fully enlightened will not be returning to the circle of rebirth. (i.e. the end of a loop for programmers)
13. What is the purpose of meditation?
There are two different meanings: It teaches how to live in this world serenely, honestly and kind hearted. It also helps clear and purify our minds/body. Meditation helps promote positive thoughts while observing when negative thoughts arise. It also can lead to Nibbana.
14. Why do lay Buddhists have five precepts? What's the point of them?
The five precepts are not only for ourself, they also have a positive impact on society. Through the five precepts we can live a happy peaceful life while remaining relatively harmless. This will significantly reduce the chance of doing something unwholesome. The 5 precepts will also lead to happiness in the future by developing kindness.
15. Why do some people choose to become monks?
Every monk has a different reason for ordaining. In some cultures, it is quite common to ordain as a temporary monk or nun before the age of 18. For someone who ordains for a long time they may have different reasons such as living a peaceful and happy life, attaining Nibbana in this lifetime, helping society, spreading peace, reducing their unwholesome thoughts like anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, ill will, etc.
16. In Buddhism, is there a leader like a pope?
There are many spiritual teachers but our main teacher is Dhamma. So there is no main "head" of Buddhism, but there are figureheads of Buddhism such as the Dalai Lama, our Chief Reverend, Master Cheng Yen, etc.
1. Revel, Jean Francois; Ricard, Matthieu (2011-03-16). The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (p. 259). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Taken from the Indiana Buddhist Vihara Website: http://www.indianabuddhistvihara.org/services.html