Baisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha


This story looks into the everyday ritual acts that are important to many Buddhists.

Rituals are significant in all Buddhist schools and teaching traditions. 

Ritual acts include reciting or copying texts, making charitable donations, or owning up to past misdeeds. Buddhists may also go on pilgrimages, do physical exercises, or practise various forms of meditation. The veneration of deities that guide and protect is another important part of Buddhist ritual practice. 

Here you can explore a range of activities that are part of everyday life for many Buddhists. 

Jizo Bosatsu, Bodhisattva in the Guise of a Monk

Rituals are performed not just by monks and nuns but also by pious laypeople.

Rituals address different purposes in the life of a Buddhist. They may help a person deal with the practical concerns of daily living, or support their progress on the path to awakening.

A leader wishing to protect his people and country; a woman hoping to become pregnant; a monk, nun, or layperson striving to attain supreme knowledge. All of these believers will turn to ritual for support.

Altar in the Deungmyeongnakgasa Temple, Gangneung, South Korea

Buddhists practice their rituals in a range of sacred spaces.

Some ritual acts are performed publicly in large assemblies; others are conducted privately by individuals at home.

That is why there are huge Buddhist temple complexes with great halls and monumental statues, but also small private altars, some so tiny they fit into a trouser pocket.

Buddhist Pocket-sized Prayer Altar

The Altar

Many Buddhists have a private altar at home which they regularly use for rituals. It can be made of either simple materials such as wood, or more expensive items, such as gold and precious stones, depending on the financial means of its owner.

Some altars are specifically made for travelling: they can be fastened with straps to a saddle or to a piece of luggage. Some of them are so small, they fit into a bag or even a pocket.

Jambhala, the God of Wealth

What items does one find on a Buddhist altar, and how is the altar used?

Tibetan Buddhists, for example, usually place a statue or picture on their altars in an elevated position. This image may be of the Buddha, a bodhisattva, or a personal religious teacher.

Offerings in the form of flowers, candles, or incense are then placed at the statue’s feet, often accompanied by the recitation of mantras, that is, sacred sounds.

The Bodhisattva of Compassion as the Bringer of Sons

Some altars display images of the Medicine Buddha. He is invoked by those hoping for health and a long life.

Women wishing to become pregnant may make offerings to Guanyin in the hope that he will grant them children.

And people seeking economic prosperity may pray to Jambhala, the god of wealth.

Sacrificial offerings for the Buddha in Thailand

Accumulating Merit

By placing offerings in the form of flowers, candles, or incense on an altar, a Buddhist is said to accumulate "merit".

Making an offering to the Buddha is described as a wholesome act. It is the opposite of unethical behaviour, such as stealing or harming another being.

The more wholesome acts a person performs, the more merit he or she accumulates. Buddhists hope that this merit will have a positive effect on their a future life.

Young monks receiving donations, Si Phan Don, Laos

Another way to earn merit is to donate food or money to Buddhist monks or nuns.

Donations from members of the public not only sustain them in terms of food; they also contribute to the maintenance of temples and monasteries.

Mahabodhi temple, Bodhgaya, India



A significant ritual act for many Buddhists is to go on a pilgrimage.

There are four major pilgrimage sites, each one associated with the Buddha’s life story: Lumbini, in present-day Nepal, is the Buddha’s birthplace; Bodhgaya, in northern India, is the site of his awakening; Sarnath, near Benares, is where he proclaimed his teaching for the first time; and Kushinagara, is where he died and is said to have entered parinirvana.

Many other important pilgrimage sites are located across Asia.

Mahabodhi temple, Bodhgaya, India

At the site, the pilgrims lay down the offerings they have brought with them, recite long texts, or listen to recitations by monks. They often circumambulate a sacred structure three times clockwise. Here they also take time for meditation.

A sacred site is not only a place where the Buddha once was present; it can also be a temple or a stupa.

Great Stupa at Sanchi


Stupas are burial mounds in which, according to legend, the Buddha’s bones and ashes were buried. These remains were said to be distributed across 84,000 stupas throughout Asia.

Over the centuries, stupas became important places of worship. They are considered to be reliquary shrines – that is, they contain either the remains of the Buddha himself or those of an important teacher, as well as sacred texts and objects.

One also finds miniature stupas; they symbolize the Buddha’s teachings.

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

Circumambulating Sacred Sites

Pilgrims circumambulate a sacred site three times in reverence of the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma (teachings), and the sangha (community).

When someone wishes to become part of the Buddhist community, they are seeking refuge in these Three Jewels.

During the initiation ceremony, the person chants the following formula three times: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the sangha.”

Pancha Raksha Manuscript


Pilgrims and visitors at a sacred site will often listen to recitations by monks.

These recitations serve as exercises in concentration and meditation.

They are also a way of transmitting the sacred texts, allowing them to exert a positive impact on the audience.

Buddhist Monk
Monastic Rules for Monks

For centuries, Buddhist texts were passed down by word of mouth. Although it may sound astonishing today, this method usually preserved the wording very accurately.

The texts were commonly composed in rhythmic verses and featured numerous repetitions so that they could be memorized more easily.

To this day, memorizing, reciting, and singing texts make up part of the daily routine of Buddhist monks and nuns.

The Three Buddhas Dipankara, Shakyamuni, and Maitreya

Pilgrimage Memento

When pilgrims return home from their journey, they often bring with them a memento.

Such keepsakes often take the form of a plaquette made of simple materials such as clay or terracotta. These plaquettes are found throughout South and South East Asia – from India and the Himalayas all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia.

For many centuries, Clay plaquettes were shaped in a mould and then either fired or left to dry in the sun. Some were even gilded or painted with multiple colours.

Plaque Showing the Buddha Teaching

The motifs on the plaque are usually quite similar, showing the Buddha either alone or in the company of his followers.

Many bear an inscription with the common "Ye-dhamma" formula, which is often described as a kind of profession of faith.

Plaquettes were produced in large quantities. They were worn as amulets to protect against evil spirits or served as votive and sacrificial offerings. Commonly, they were also buried in the foundations of newly built temples.

The Master once asked his pupil: Why do you practise meditation?

The pupil replied: Because I wish to attain Buddhahood.

Upon this, the Master picked up a brick and began polishing it.

When the pupil asked him what he was doing, the Master answered: I am making a mirror.

But how can you make a mirror by polishing a brick? the pupil asked.

The Master countered: And how do you plan to attain Buddhahood by practising meditation?