Those making their first visit to the Seattle Buddhist Temple may be surprised at how many outward similarities there are to churches in other traditions. We leave our shoes on, sit in pews, sing hymns (“gathas”), and listen to sermons (“dharma talks”). However, those new to the temple are likely to have questions about practices that are different.
Entering the Temple
When entering the main temple or Memorial Hall building and again when entering the main hall (the Hondo), Memorial Hall chapel, or the Nokotsu-do (columbarium), please bow first and try to enter with your left foot. Bowing is a gesture of humility that represents the feeling of trust when greeting people and represents the feeling of “taking refuge in” or “entrusting” when entering the temple.
Entering with the left foot is symbolic of revealing one’s limitations, faults, and fears. Because of this, entering with the left foot complements the gesture of bowing: entering with our left foot reveals the degree to which we have entrusted ourselves to the Truth the Amida Buddha reveals to us in his/her infinite Wisdom and Compassion.
Exiting the Temple
When exiting the temple or any of the areas where a Buddha image is placed, one should bow—symbolic of “taking refuge in”—and exit with the right foot. Exiting with the right foot is symbolic of having received the Truth taught by the Buddhas and the desire to take this Truth with us wherever we may go.
By entering and exiting with the left and right foot respectively, we are helping to remind ourselves of the Buddhist concept of “jiri-rita” or benefit the self, benefit others.
Gassho means to put the hands together. Both hands are placed palm to palm, with the fingers and thumbs aligned. The o-nenju encircles the hands and is held lightly under the thumbs. Both elbows should be close to the body and the hands should be at mid-chest level. When bowing during gassho, the arms should be held steady against the body, while the torso is bent forward from the hips and then back to an upright position.
The O-Nenju (O-Juzu)
The o-nenju encircles the hands during gassho, symbolizing our Oneness with Amida Buddha. The o-nenju should be treated with utmost respect at all times. At home it should be kept in a special place, such as in a drawer near the family Butsudan (home altar). At other times, the o-nenju should be carried in the purse or coat pocket so that it will always be available. During the service, when not in use, the o-nenju should be held in the left hand.
O-Shoko (Burning of Incense)
Originally incense was burned as a symbolic gesture of “cleansing,” or preparation, before approaching a person or object of reverence. The burning symbolizes the extinction of impure thoughts and the transiency of all existence. The fragrance of the incense is another form of “cleansing,” as it drives away unfavorable odors.
O-shoko is performed in the following manner:
- Walk toward the incense burner. Stop two or three steps before the table; bow lightly.
- Step up to the incense burner. With your right hand, take a tiny pinch of the ground incense and drop it into the incense burner, over the burning sticks or charcoal. (This need be done once only, and it is not necessary to first bring the incense to your forehead).
- With hands in gassho, bow in homage to Amida Buddha
- Take two or three steps back, bow lightly, and return to your seat.
Etiquette is a practice we participate in to refine the self but also to allow for a more harmonious society.
*Text is taken from Daily Service, a booklet published by Buddhist Churches of America (third printing, November 1997).