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Puja: A Perfect Offering to The Buddha

Puja or 'the act of showing reverence' is a key part of Buddhist practice.  It's often done as a sign of respect for the Buddha and his teachings, and is part of the reason you see Buddha statues and altars in most practice centers. 

Tibetan Buddhists have very elaborate forms for their Pujas.  The ceremonies can take up to a half-hour or more and include the offering of flowers, fresh water, and fruit. In contrast, Zen groups tend to be a bit more low-key; restricting the ceremony to the lighting of incense, chanting, and several prostrations before starting meditation.

That being said, taking part in the more devotional parts of Buddhist practice was difficult when I first started training.  Dropping to my knees and prostrating before a statue felt like idol worship.  And placing food on an altar that would never be eaten felt silly.  But I accepted that it was part of the package, and muddled through without complaining.

However, something started to change during my second year of training.  More specifically, I started to change. It was like each time my forehead touched the ground during a prostration my ego softened just a little bit.  Each time I lit incense and placed it on the altar, my heart became a little more humble.  In short, I started to realize that the world didn't revolve around me.

I was holding on to a lot of hurt feelings and old grudges back then. I felt like the world owed me something, and I was angry because I hadn't been able to collect.  But puja showed me the error of my thinking.  The world didn't owe me anything.  Quite the opposite, I was the one with a debt to pay.

I was walking around with tremendous gifts, and I didn't realize it.  I had my life, I had my family and friends, all of my material needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) were being met.  And to top it all off I had the dharma; a pathway to awakening.  The world had given me so much, the least I could do was bow in gratitude.

More than that, the devotional practices helped me understand the inherent worthiness of all living beings.  I was practicing with the Kwan Um School of Zen at the time, and we were taught that the Buddha on the altar was representative of the Buddha nature that lives in all sentient beings.  So when we paid homage to him we paid homage to everyone.

Sadly, I no longer live near a Kwan Um Zen Center, however, that lesson has stayed with me over the years.  Recently, I started to realize that I don't need to be inside a temple in order to practice puja.  Because if Buddha resides within everyone, then everyone is worthy of devotion.  And I can manifest that in a number of ways.

Instead of placing water on an altar, I can refill the coffee pot at work. Instead of chanting a sutra on the cushion, I can call a friend, and make sure they're well.  I can do these things because Buddha is more than the statue that sits atop my altar.

He's the homeless man who panhandles near my work. He's the coworker who doesn't know how to make coffee, and the motorists who drive past me on the road.  Buddha is every person I meet, and each time I make an offering to them, I make an offering to Buddha.

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Puja: A Perfect Offering to The Buddha


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