Common questions

Are there any taboos concerning practicing Buddhism at home?

 There are many dos and don’ts in folk beliefs that are not orthodox Buddhism, but which are often mistakenly considered Buddhist taboos. For instance, in folk beliefs, it is not recommended to clean out the incense burner daily, thus leaving joss stick residue and ashes that litter easily and increase risk of fire. Actually, in our monasteries, there is an incense burner in front of every Buddha statue, and every morning we clean and empty each burner, keeping them clean and fresh as if they were being used for the first time.

 It is also common that during their menstrual cycle, many female lay practitioners would abstain from entering monasteries to light incense in front of the Buddha, recite sutras, meditate, or chant mantras. These are actually taboos of low-level spirits and deities, who covet blood and have insatiable desire when they sense blood. It is said that their appetite can easily be aroused when they sense bloody things nearby, but that menstrual blood is not clean and is thus insulting and mocking, causing them to react adversely. Therefore, as the belief goes, women in their menstrual cycle may draw negative consequences if they enter ancestral halls, temples and palace halls where spirits and deities are worshipped. But the fact is, female Buddhist novices, bhikshunis, and lay disciples have always been living, working, and visiting the monasteries. They are near Buddhist statues, sutras, and various Dharma instruments on a daily basis; yet they have never encountered any harm because of the so-called clashes with the supernatural beings during their periods.

 Another folk custom is to consult fortune-tellers to select auspicious dates and good locations for setting up altars and Buddha statues at home, and to invite experienced people to conduct the ritual to initiate the statues (kaiguang). From a “do as Romans do” perspective, this is understandable since the initiation ritual signifies prudence, and selecting a good time and location means seeking blessings and harmony. However, from the Buddhist perspective, the buddhas and bodhisattvas are omnipresent and universally responsive; the Three Jewels and divine guardians are everywhere. In this case, there is none of the sort of imagined problems present in folk beliefs. However, it would be fine, if you just select what you think is the most honorable location for the altar, and simply a sincere and respectful mind in choosing an appropriate time to place the Buddha statue.

 Some people think that they should not recite certain sutras or mantras at home, or in a certain two-hour time period, or that there is a certain time period where they can recite certain sutras or mantras. Actually, except for certain esoteric Buddhist sects, all sutras and mantras can be recited at anytime, anywhere, as long as it is done with sincerity and a respectful mind. Certainly, it is encouraged that it be done in a quiet and clean place; the reciters should first purify themselves by washing hands and rinsing mouths, burn incense, and pay homage to the Buddha.

 Where some family members practice Buddhism, but others believe in folk deities, is it all right to place the statues of the Buddha and folk deities on the same altar? This should not be a problem, to just place the Buddha statue in the middle, flanked by bodhisattva statues. Statues of deities (shen) can be positioned beside bodhisattvas to protect the Three Jewels, and to offer an opportunity for the folk gods to be near the Three Jewels to learn the Dharma and cultivate good karma. After a family member changes his or her beliefs to Buddhism and obtains permission from the other family members, one should light incense, give offerings, pray to the deities, and then store the non-Buddhist statues away. This is to avoid having too many idols and cluttering the altar.

 Many people don’t know how to dispose of incense ash, damaged sutras, statues, and other Buddhist paraphernalia; some of them even send these items to a monastery. Actually, you only need to burn the damaged items in a clean container at a clean and quiet place; then bury the ashes and remains underground. If the items are metal, you can store them away and handle them later as an antique or for recycling.

 Flowers, fruits, food, tea, and beverages placed in front of Buddha statue are perishable items that should be changed daily. If the food and fruits are still edible, don’t waste them; offer them to family members or use them in other ways. If the items become rotten and inedible, they should be discarded.

 There is no specific rule about the number of offerings we put on the altar. It can be even or odd numbers. For the sake of balance and symmetry, you may arrange an even number of offerings, but if there is concern over limited resources, finance, location and space, it would be fine to have an odd number of offerings. With respect to quality and type of offerings, it all depends on one’s financial situation, and one should provide offerings within one’s means. There is no need to either skimp or be ostentatious.

 The best times to practice is early morning and evening, when you are more relaxed and can focus and be devout. Of course, you can practice at other times to suit your work schedule. It is better not to place Buddha statues in bedrooms, or to meditate, prostrate, read or recite sutras in bed. If you have only one room, you should ordinarily cover the statue with a clean cloth, and before practice, clean and tidy up the bed and the room first, and then remove the cloth. If there is absolutely no place to practice, you may sit in bed to practice. In summary, one should practice with a peaceful and respectful attitude to attain a solemn and dignified state of mind.

 Once we have taken refuge in the Three Jewels, we should no longer seek refuge in other religions or temples and centers associated with folk beliefs, but we should still respect them. When entering a non-Buddhist church, temple or shrine, we should bow our head and join our palms to show respect. We should no longer treat other beliefs as the objects of devotion, but they can serve as objects of our outreach. One word of caution: it is not advisable for one who has not attained a clear understanding of Dharma to read or study other religions; this is to avoid confusion and being misguided.