Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines have some similarities, but actually the two religions are very different in belief and in etiquette. Before you pray at one of these establishments, make sure you know the difference.
1. First bow at the main temple gate
Both Shinto and Buddhism have peacefully coexisted in Japan since ancient times. The etiquette for praying in Shinto, a Japanese religion that uses folk customs and belief in nature as the basis of their beliefs, and Buddhism, a religion transmitted to Japan from India, are actually quite different. Please learn these differences by reading this article before you go!
First, when you reach the sanmon (main temple gate) of a Buddhist temple, bow. The sanmon is similar to a torii gate at a shrine in that it is the boundary between the earthly world and consecrated ground. Pass through the temple gate, but before you cross the threshold (it's usually marked on the ground) into the temple grounds, you give a bow of respect towards the Buddha to inform him that you will be going in to pray. If you're wearing a hat, you should take it off. Walk on the sides of the road leading to the temple, as the center is the path only for Buddha to walk on.
*Photo is for illustration purposes
2. Cleanse your mouth and hands at the temizuya
At temples, you pray at the hondou, the main temple building, in which the honzon, the principal object or image of worship, sits. Usually the honzon is an image or statue of a Buddha or bodhisattva. But before you pray, you first stop at the temizuya, a place where you can cleanse yourself with water. You wash your hands and rinse your mouth there. The process is the same as a shrine, and is as follows.
1. Use the ladle with your right hand to scoop water and rinse your left hand.
2. Switch the ladle from your left hand to the right, and rinse your right hand.
3. Switch the ladle back to your right hand. Pour water from the ladle into your left hand, and use that water to rinse your mouth silently.
(Do not put your mouth on the ladle. Also, rinse your mouth without drinking the water; spit it out onto the ground while hiding your mouth with your free hand.)
4. Still holding the ladle in your right hand, rinse your left hand again.
5. Stand the ladle up so the remaining water washes down the handle before returning it to its place.
You're supposed to be able to do this using one cup of water, so make sure to fill the ladle up before you start. Also, cleanse yourself not over the water in the basin, but outside of it so the water washes onto the ground. Depending on the temple there may not be a temizuya, so in that case you can continue onto the temple as is.
*Photo is for illustration purposes
3. Ring the bell
Next, if there's a bell, then you ring the bell before you pray. It functions as a greeting to Buddha. When you reach the bell, you should do it quietly, but avoid ringing it in the early morning or late evening. Ringing the bell after you pray is called "modori kane," and you should avoid doing that as it is bad luck.
Also, depending on the temple, ringing the bell is forbidden, so please double-check before you do anything.
4. Offer incense or candles
Near the main temple there may be candle stands and incense burners available. If so, before you pray, please light a candle or incense stick there. The offering of candles is to shine a light on the darkness of the world and create the correct path towards Buddha, while incense cleanses oneself while also inviting Buddha to make himself welcome. While the number of candles or incense that should be lit changes depending on the sect, if it isn't specified, then just 1 is fine. If you use the fire of previously lit candles or incense to light your own, it's said that you'll take their sins onto yourself, so don't do it. When you light the candle or incense only use a temple fire or lantern or your own lighter. In order to leave space for those visiting after you, place your candle in the far back or the incense in the center. Please be aware that there are temples that don't allow the practice of lighting candles or incense for fear of fires.
5. Make a monetary offering, ring the temple gong, press your hands together and bow once
Once you reach the main temple, it's finally time to pray.
First, after you bow once, please quietly make a monetary offering into the box. If you have the money prepared beforehand then it'll go very smoothly. At shrines the offering is a sign of gratitude towards the deities, but at temples the money is an offering to Buddha since one of the teachings is to discard all attachment to money. Because of that, don't worry about how much or how little you offer.
After that, if there is a waniguchi (temple gong), ring it gently. Similar to the bell outside the temple, it is another greeting to Buddha. If there isn't one, you can just pray.
The proper posture is to have your eyes closed and your hands quietly pressed together palm-to-palm in front of your chest. At shrines you're supposed to make a clapping sound, but at temples please make sure you don't make a sound when you pray. Bow once more when you're done, and then leave with your hands still pressed together. Depending on the temple, people might be asked to chant a Nichiren prayer. Using a juzu (a type of rosary) would help if you are planning to chant.
*Photo is for illustration purposes
*The photo is an example of a waniguchi
6. Other things to know
Since temple grounds are sacred areas, it would be best to avoid showing lots of skin or wearing sandals. There are general rules such as don't touch the buildings or statues, don't enter areas like gardens that are off-limits, put your phone on silent, don't yell, don't run, refrain from eating or drinking, don't litter, take your shoes off in areas requiring it, etc. There are many temples where photography is off-limits, so please double-check with the temple before you start taking photos. Also, in some temples they have not just the main temple, but also buildings housing treasures or other sights that you can enjoy, so if you have the chance to see important artifacts relating to Japanese Buddhism, please do so.
When you leave the temple, after you pass through the gate, turn around to face the main temple and bow. Please make sure to stay focused until the very end.
Please learn these rules well and make the most of your trips to temples!
Temples are definitely recommended places to see beautiful sights such as architecture and gardens, as well as places to experience ancient Japanese culture. Please enjoy these temples while knowing the proper etiquette and behaviors!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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