How should Buddhists hold liturgy practices at home?When doing liturgy practices at home, the main thing is to be consistent in doing it at fixed times. Ideally, the sessions should include making offerings, prostrating, meditating, reciting the Buddha’s name, reading and chanting sutras, making vows, and transferring merit. Making offerings means placing incense, flowers, lamps, fruits and other foods, as well as clean water, before the Buddha statue. If conditions allow, these items should be replaced daily to keep them fresh. We should never allow the offerings to become rotten, polluted, or wither. The principle is to keep the altar clean, tidy, and solemn.
We should designate a specific time each day to conduct the same service. It’s better to choose a time when our minds are clear and our bodies are relaxed. Usually, it is in the morning after washing up and before breakfast, or after dinner following a brief rest. These are the two best times for liturgy practice. These two routine sessions will take one to two hours daily in total, but need not be more than four hours. Spending too much time for services may interfere with regular family life and work. If these time periods are not feasible, we can also choose any other designated times in the morning or afternoon for liturgy practice.
These liturgy sessions are called “regular liturgy practices” or “daily liturgy practices,” and should be held without interruption each day. It should be habitual, like our other daily routines: brushing teeth, washing up, eating breakfast, cleaning the house, etc. The purpose is to harmonize our body and our mind, to nurture our body and cultivate moral character, as well as to vigilantly and diligently improve ourselves. Buddhist practice at home is not about formalities; rather, it is about being persistent in helping ourselves to attain peace, health, and happiness. Besides the values of self-cultivation and introspection, such practices will bless us with the support and protection of the buddhas, the bodhisattvas, and the heavenly Dharma protectors.
The exact contents of the services can be flexible, as long as it is the same every day. The contents can be determined by the time available and one’s preferences; however, one should always offer water and incense, as well as prostrate before the Buddha. For sessions conducted alone, it is not necessary to use Dharma instruments, such as the so-called “wooden fish” (muyu) or the bell, nor is it necessary to chant. But if it won’t bother others, one can use a small muyu at home.
For the morning service, after making offerings and prostrating three times, we should chant the Great Compassion Dharani (Skt. Mahakaruna Dharani) three to seven times, recite the Heart Sutra once, recite the phrase “Mahaprajnaparamita” (Great Transcendent Wisdom) three times, then chant the name of either Amitabha Buddha or Guanyin Pusa forty-eight or 108 times. This should be followed by reciting Samantabhadra’s Ten Great Vows or the Four Great Vows, and lastly, the Three Refuges. Then, chant the Transfer of Merit: “May we all eradicate the three hindrances and vexations; may we all attain wisdom and enlightenment; may we all be free from calamities and obstacles; and may we all tread the bodhisattva path lifetime after lifetime.” Prostrate three times to conclude the morning service.
The evening service should be conducted in the late afternoon or after dinner with the same offering and prostration, followed by chanting the Amitabha Sutra or the Verses of Repentance once. We can recite the Great Compassion Dharani seven times, or we can recite the Heart Sutra once and the Mantra for Rebirth in the Pure Land three times, and then chant the name of Amitabha Buddha or Guanyin Pusa forty-eight or 108 times. We then continue by reciting the Four Great Vows, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Admonition, and the Transfer of Merit: “May the merit from this practice be extended to all sentient beings, for their liberation from the suffering of the three realms and to bring forth bodhi-mind in all.” And then prostrate three times to conclude the evening service.
Practitioners are different in pace. Moreover, some chant well while others don’t know how to chant. Therefore, unless the condition allows the use of Dharma instruments together with chanting, it would be enough to just recite sutras or mantras without instruments. The number of times we recite a sutra or a mantra can also be adjusted according to the pace of our recitation and the time available.
If there is enough time, we can consider extending the session to fortyfive minutes or one hour. Before the morning service and after the evening service, we can also meditate for twenty-five to thirty minutes. It is best to learn meditation from a proper teacher whose methods are safe. At the least, we should sit in an upright posture, relax the body and mind, silently recite the Buddha’s or a bodhisattva’s name with a pace which is neither too fast nor too slow, and do so single-mindedly
If not used to sitting meditation, one can prostrate to the Buddha or bodhisattvas a fixed number of times, or for a fixed duration. Meditating, prostrating or reciting without intention or praying for something is the best and safest way to practice; otherwise, it would be easy to generate illusory images, sceneries, and hallucinations, which may induce obstacles in one’s mind and body. True Buddhist practice is not conditioned on achieving anything, though it does have its purpose; the practice itself is the purpose.
If one wants to extend the time period of daily services, but has no intention to meditate or increase the number of kinds of practice, then in the morning after the usual offerings and routine practices, one can recite the Shurangama Mantra and the Ten Small Mantras. After the evening service, add recitation of “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva’s Universal Gate” chapter from the Lotus Sutra or the Great Compassion Dharani for twenty-one or forty-eight times.
At home, when not otherwise occupied, you can choose a certain time of day to pay homage to the sutras, first by making offerings and then prostrating upon reading each word. As you prostrate, recite the two-sentence prostration verse associated to the sutra. For example: when making prostration to the Lotus Sutra, recite “Homage to the Lotus Sutra of Wondrous Dharma; homage to the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the Lotus Sutra assemblies.”
If one wishes to pay homage to the Avatamsaka Sutra, then one should recite: “Homage to the Mahavaipulya-buddhavatamsaka Sutra; homage to the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the Avatamsaka assemblies.” If one pays homage to the Diamond Sutra, recite: “Homage to the Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra; homage to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas at the prajnaparamita assemblies.” For the Amitabha Sutra, recite: “Homage to the Amitabha Sutra Expounded by the Buddha; homage to the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the oceanic assemblies of the lotus pond.”
For the “Universal Gate” chapter, there are two ways to pay homage: first, since it is a chapter in the Lotus Sutra, the homage can be conducted as for the Lotus Sutra. In the second way, one can recite, “Homage to Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva’s Universal Gate Chapter; homage to the great merciful and compassionate Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva who delivers sentient beings from sufferings and hardships.” Accordingly, paying homage to the Kshitigarbha Sutra and the Medicine Buddha Sutra can be conducted similarly.
While paying homage to sutras, one usually uses a large-print edition of the sutra and a strip of yellow paper or sandalwood stick as marker. Following each word, move the marker along. When you finish a passage or section where you want to stop, either write down the finished word and section number, or place the strip of paper at the word or section just finished as a marker for the next session. However, after each service, the sutra book must be closed; it should not be left open or lying loosely around. After completing paying homage to a sutra, one may again pay homage to the same sutra in future sessions. One can also pledge to pay homage to tens, hundreds, or thousands of sutras, or to just focus on the same sutra one’s whole life. The key is to pay homage as many times as possible.
Before liturgy practice, or before vowing to perform daily liturgy practice, or to pay homage to sutras, it is all right to express a purpose, perhaps to gain certain benefits in this or future life, or for achieving certain merits. After a session, one may also make vows and wishes, but during the service, one should have absolute concentration, without holding any wishes and desires. The best attitude is to hope for all sentient beings to depart from suffering and to find joy and contentment, not to pray for one’s own benefits. This would be the bodhisattva way. Practicing without seeking anything for ourselves is the ultimate merit.