People who come to our Dharma centre are usually attracted to the many different departments because of their own preferences – those who like reading or writing would be attracted to the publishing house, those who like community service would volunteer at the Soup Kitchen, those who like art will paint at the Arts department and those who like to pray will attend the pujas, etc. Some people will go around all the departments and try their hand at everything, and then again some will not go anywhere near the pujas.
“I don’t like to pray,” they say, or “I don’t like the rituals in Tibetan Buddhism, I only like the philosophy of Buddhism.”
I didn’t like the rituals when I first met Tibetan Buddhism but that was because I did not understand the meaning behind the rituals then. Now that I do, I love attending pujas – especially when they are recited in Tibetan!
Last week, H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche gave a clear explanation of pujas. I would like to share some of the salient points here. Rinpoche said, “What is a puja? I’m not giving you the literal translation. A puja is an expression of your compassion for another person, another being. A puja is an expression, an action, a direct initiative to do something for someone who has an obstacle, who has a problem, who has some kind of pain, sickness or fear.”
Puja is a Sanskrit word which means 'honour, worship and devotional attention'. The literal translation of puja in the Buddhist context is to ‘clear obstacles’ but Rinpoche says that the human definition of puja is an expression of care and compassion.
By performing pujas, especially when the pujas are from a pure lineage, we can actively alleviate people’s suffering. This is something we can do for those we love or care about. We often hear people say they feel helpless when their loved one is suffering. Especially when their loved one is suffering from something incurable like cancer, AIDS or when they are diagnosed as HIV+.
As a spiritual person – and I believe this is the same in every religion – we can pray for them and because our prayers are sincere and have blessings from the Buddhas or God or whoever we have faith in, we can do more for them than just say comforting words. We may not be able to prolong their lives but as Buddhists, by making prayers for them, we can plant Dharma seeds for their future lives.
Pujas are effective because they’re based on a Buddha – an enlightened Being, and rituals that collect merit and purify negative karma and aspirational prayers that are dedicated toward that person for their future.
But what happens if we don’t know how to do pujas? As an immediate solution, we can still benefit others by sponsoring pujas for them so the pujas can be done by people who know how. Qualified monks or lay people who have been taught by qualified monks are able to perform pujas and the pujas will be effective because they are qualified and they will represent us to the Buddhas.
A better way is that we learn how to do the pujas. Rinpoche said that when we say we do not know or we do not have the power, this is false because we can learn and while we do not have the power, we can invoke the Buddhas who do have the power.
Saying, “I don’t have power, I cannot do anything, I’m normal and I don’t do anything” is just another expression of laziness and selfishness. Laziness comes from selfishness. The mother to the laziness is selfishness.
So, to sit around and say, “I cannot, I cannot,” is 100% laziness. And to accept laziness and accept selfishness and to say, “That’s how I am” is a very bad sign. Why is that a bad sign? Expect more problems, more obstacles, more suffering, expect more. Why? Buddha punishes you? No. Your own selfishness punishes you.
Therefore, when we do pujas, we should do it knowing we cannot do much but pujas are the way for us to care, love and help, even though we don’t have power. And to learn the pujas well and to learn the rituals well.
Ordinary people like us cannot directly affect people. As we cannot do it directly, we have to do it indirectly. Indirectly can be pujas, doing Dharma work, studying Dharma, doing retreats or holding our samaya (relationship with our Guru and Sangha members). Why? If we hold samaya, we gain attainments. If we do Dharma work, we gain merits to become better people. If we do pujas, we can bless another person.
Every Dharma action should be motivated by Bodhicitta (compassion) or an artificial Bodhicitta – then it becomes real. So therefore, if you are attained or qualified and have the power, you can help others directly. If you don’t, and most of us don’t, we do it indirectly. That’s the purpose of pujas.
I hope this sharing makes pujas less mysterious and daunting. Do join us at our puja sessions and experience the energy yourself!
Sharon Saw is a writer / editor at Kechara Media & Publications, which focuses on publishing the teachings of H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, a high incarnate Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A selection of Buddhist and non-Buddhist related books from Kechara Publications is now available on Fridae Shop. You can follow Sharon on Twitter. This column will appear every other Friday.