Theravada Places of Worship
In Theravadin Buddhism, worship is a difficult word. Theravadins believe that gods are of this world and therefore are equally in need of salvation like everybody else. They also believe that Gotama / Gautama Buddha, when he achieved parinibbana / nirvana, became inaccessible to us. Thus, while the word puja is usually translated as ‘worship’, and some of the practices encapsulated by puja may look like worship, it should be interpreted as showing respect to a great man, the Buddha. Most puja practices take place in a temple. Modern temples tend to be very bright and colourful. There will be a shrine room, with a main Buddha image and many other statues or paintings showing events from the Buddha’s life and his previous lives, other Buddha’s or past arahats / arhats. The image of the Buddha is often very large so everyone, even small children, will be aware of his importance.
People make offerings before the Buddha image. These are usually foods, flowers, candles, and incense. On Holy or poya days food is usually offered twice a day and is accompanied by drumming.
As already mentioned, while these offerings may look like worship, they should be seen as signs of respects and should not be viewed as gifts to a supernatural being in the hope of supernatural reward. The gifts themselves help to remind the giver of the Buddha’s teaching: flowers wilt and candles and incense go out reminding one that everything is impermanent. The offerings also help to bring about a peaceful mind and generate merit. Furthermore, actions become ritualized and this can act as a form of meditation for the practitioner.
Buddhist temples are traditionally part of monasteries, viharas. This means that they have a very important place in the community. Not only are they huge sources of merit for the laity since they facilitate offerings to the Buddha and donations of food to the monks, they are also viewed as the home of the Buddha’s Dhamma / Dharma. The Sangha, one of the Three Jewels, or Refuges, is very important to Buddhism. Monks and nuns are viewed as people who are further down the path to Nibbana / Nirvana than other lay members and so are valuable in giving Dhamma / Dharma talks, teaching, producing books etc. Extensive libraries are usually held in viharas as well.