Recently on the 25th of April we celebrated Offering to the Spiritual Guide, as we always do twice monthly on the 10th and the 25th. I like pujas and find them inspiring, but I never stopped to think much more about then. What exactly is a puja? I think I know. But what do I know? Like a suitcase, I decide to unpack a puja.
In the glossary of all Geshla’s books a puja is defined as: ‘A ceremony in which offerings and other acts of devotion are performed in front of holy beings.’
There is so much in this simple sentence, I am slightly overwhelmed. It is so crammed full of ideas, actions, and opportunities, we’ll have to pay overweight luggage charges. (Sorry, I promise not to overdo any more metaphors but I couldn’t resist.)
What, for example is a ceremony? Offerings? Acts of devotion? Performance? Holy beings?
A ceremony is a formal act of observance. And there is something formal about a puja. It is performed in the same proscribed way each time. This feels very important to me. A connection to our lineage, to the puja that are performed all over the world, in the past and hopefully in the future in the same way, using the same words, and the same actions. I could be plonked down in a Kadampa puja in New York or New Delhi or Newfoundland and join into something I recognise.
The there’s offerings. An offering is anything that delights the enlightened beings. In ‘Modern Buddhism,’ Geshla tells us that our main offering is our practice of compassion, this is also known as a sublime offering. While in some pujas there are offerings of food and drink, offerings can also mean this gift which is our pure action and intention towards others. A puja is an opportunity to show gratitude to the Buddhas by these offerings.
There are many opportunities to engage in acts of devotion during a puja too, in the form of prostrations and chanted prayer. Devotion is worship, it means giving oneself up to the mind of worship. This is such a rare opportunity. A time set aside for cultivating this special mind instead of the mind of … well … shopping.
Performance is an interesting concept. In means an action, an exhibition. There is the whiff of the dramatic about it. And this too is appropriate. The puja is rich with drama and spectacle. Something quite outside our daily experience. There is also the opportunity in the puja to perform as members of the sangha can take part in the ritual: the Guru Plate; the Bala Madana: the Spirit Bowl; the reading and dedications are all opportunities to immerse yourself physically and mentally in the performance of the puja.
Finally, there is the idea of performance ‘in front of holy beings.’ This provides us with the opportunity to invite holy beings to be present at a puja, and then to believe that they are really there among us.
I seem to have used the word ‘opportunity’ a lot and this is significant. Mostly, for me, the puja is an opportunity to show my faith and gratitude to the Buddhas and all the holy beings. It is also an opportunity to receive Buddha’s blessings and protection.
And a puja is also like a beautiful narrative, a story, a dream, with a beginning, middle and end. It is paced. It moves forward in an arc. The language is lovely, rich, evocative, inspiring too. But, hey, I’m a language person. Sometimes after a puja and I hope this doesn’t sound too big headed, I feel like a Lineage Guru; like I, along with others, am protecting the practice and carrying it into the future.