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A Buddhist Temple; A Place of Purification


By Ven. S. M. Sujano,

‘Good temples grow steadily with people’s support,

In turn, temples help people improve their manners,

With people and temples helping each other,

they become civilised,

working against each other, brings disaster for both.’

- Somdej Phra Buddhajarn


Vihara’, a Buddhist terminology for temple, originally meant "a secluded place in which to walk", and referred to "dwellings" or "refuges" used by wandering monks during the rainy season. It is also the place where spiritual and moral values are preserved, where people can always feel free and able to take a fresh spiritual breath. Temple according to the Buddhist perspective, therefore, is the beacons of learning and scholarship as well as the place for the preservation of the cultural and intellectual achievements of different people and various communities with non-hostilities and afflictions. It is not only a place of religious activities but also place of social and spiritual development.

A Nakulapita, a genuine disciple of the Buddha who was disappointed at his inability to visit the temple due to his old age, that he had been practicing. One occasion, he visited the Buddha - in paying due respect said;

‘My lord, I am getting old and not capable to walk alone anymore. Thus, I will not be able to visit you as frequently as usual at the temple. Hence, would you please deliver a suitable discourse for me?’


It is in fact a customary for Buddhists to visit the temple and to pay respect, as well as to seek guidance from the monks. Therefore, in Buddhist countries they try not to fail to visit the temple at least once a week. In particular to Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, people would not wish to fail to visit the temple in order to make an offering to a monk once in a month. The most common days are full moon day, Asthami day (day 8 before and after full moon) and day 15 after full moon. On these days, people would visit temple to present their offerings, practice chanting and meditation with the hope of achieving happiness and fulfilment in their wishes.

In the discourses of the 38 highest blessing (Mangala sutta) the Buddha further says that amongst the highest blessings are visiting holy places such as monasteries and having an opportunity to discuss on teachings with venerable monks. Accordingly, it has been customary to Buddhists from the beginning to visit temples to pay respect to the Buddha and seek guidance for better life. Similarly, associating with a wise one is also one of the highest blessings which support one to live wisely. According to Buddhism, a wise one indicates three kinds of person. The first one is the Buddha - the compassionate one, enlightened by his own effort and capable to guide and teach all the sentient beings – who gave a message of peace, harmony and overcame all sufferings. The second wise-one is called the Pacceka Buddha – awakened independently or enlightened on-their-own for own-self. Lastly, Savaka, the disciple of the enlightened beings, is following the noble path as a person who is living an example. The article discusses a basic aspect of Buddhist temple, its important and purpose. It also includes some life example of the disciples of the enlightened beings those who had benefited from visiting Buddhist temples.


The Background of the temple


A Temple is a place of worship, where spiritual activities, such as prayer and sacrificial rites, are performed devotionally. It is also known as the consecrated or sacred abode that can be considered as a place of centralisation and spiritual unification for a living being. In this respect, a Buddhist centre ‘vihara’ (Thai:wat) could be signifies or identify as a temple. Nevertheless, a vihara is a Buddhist term for a Buddhist centre, which literally means ‘a dwelling place’. It is particularly used to signify a dwelling place for the understanding of monastic life. This could be under a tree, cave or even in a building. The first viharas in Buddhist history, therefore, were simply huts and caves, where monks reside during the rainy season due to weather difficulties and unable to travel to spread the message of the awakened one. Later on, the establishment of permanent dwelling places for the monks at the request of lay devotees, it became a place of religious practice and a place of spiritual development through performing meritorious activities known as a Vihara. Commentaries further state that any place, where bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas and upasikas continually reside, where pious people are bent on the performance of the ten meritorious deeds, and the place where the dhamma exists as a living principle can be called a vihara or place of blessings (Narada, The Buddha and His Teaching, 1977; p. 674). Therefore, a temple, according to Buddhism, is designed to motivate both inner and outer peace.

In particular to Buddhism, temple is divided into:

1. āvāsā: a temporary house for monastic practitioners called a vihara. Generally more than one monk stayed in each house with each monk in his own cell, called a parivena.

2. ārāma: a more permanent and more comfortable arrangement than the avasa. This property was generally donated and maintained by the generosity of people. This is also suggested by the name – Arama means both pleasant and peaceful park. It generally consisted of residences within orchards or parks.

A temple, according to Buddhist philosophy, therefore, is not only a place of worship, and place of performing rites and rituals. It is also a centre for learning and practice, especially, to learn and listen to the teachings of the Buddha and to seek guidance for a better life from Buddhist monks. There are a number of examples in Buddhist scriptures that people who understood and attained enlightenment after listening to a sermon in a temple and were freed from the never ending cycle of (re)birth and death. Similarly, there are also many examples of parents sending their children to a temple to train them to be good members of the family and of the temple. Nevertheless, there may be many other reasons for each individual to visit a temple. Some are seeking a peaceful environment, to perform devotional acts and meritorious deeds. Many are visiting the temple for spiritual guidance, for a better life and to cultivate good deeds; thereby accumulating merits for their benefit in the present, future and ultimate happiness at the end. The purpose of visiting a temple, however, for each individual is invisible and depends on their situation and circumstances the way how do look like. Let’s draw from some examples presented in Buddhist scripture.

Affirmative effect of Temple


Anathpindika, a well-known businessman achieved saintly hood sotapanna (Stream-winner) after hearing the teachings from the Buddha in his first visit to the dwelling place called Sitavana. Anathpindika, after his attainment, invited the Buddha along with his monks to observe the rainy season at Savatthi, where he bought the park belonging to Prince Jeta at a price determined by covering the whole site with gold coins and established the famous Jetavana Monastery at the great cost. The monastery where the Buddha spent nineteen rainy seasons and the major part of his life was the place where he delivered many of his sermons. Later, Anathpindika, a businessman became the chief supporter of the Buddha and regarded him as the foremost alms-giver (dayaka) in Buddha’s dispensation. Anathapindika breathed his last after hearing a profound discourse from venerable Sariputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha (MN III, 262) and, because of his meritorious deeds, was immediately reborn in Tusita heaven. The story further records that at very night Deva Anathpindika, illuminating the whole Jeta Grove, came up to the Buddha, saluted Him and expressed his pleasure on seeing the Buddha and his disciples residing in the monastery of his support and said:

‘Goodwill and wisdom, mind by method trained,

The highest conduct on good morals based,

This maketh mortals pure, not rank nor wealth.’

(Kindred Saying, Part i, p. 80/ Narada, 1977; p. 174)

Anathpindika, the scripture records, while he was on the earth, used to visit the Buddha daily for the sermons. He, however, was unable to persuade his son to join the temple. As the son of wealthy family, it is speculates that wealth spoiled him. Anathpindika was not happy with his son’s bad manners and behaviour. He was unsuccessfully trying many different ways to teach him social manners. Finally, he actually paid his son to visit the temple and listen to teachings of the Buddha. However, his son’s intention of visiting temple was to get paid once he got back home, so, he didn’t pay any attention to the sermon. The story tells that Anathapindika, his father paid him to go to temple and listen sermons for three times. All his friends, as a result, started to make jokes and tease him, saying ‘he goes to temple only to get paid’. He was bitterly shy. So, on his last visit he conscientiously paid attention to the sermon and was able to realise the teaching and attained Sotapanna, the first level of Noble hood stage. Now, this result was more joyous then expected. He had become not only a good boy, but a noble being.

Similarly, there are many other stories relating to the quest for peace of mind in the temple Patacara Theri, one of the poorest and saddest ladies, had lost her nearer and dearer. Her husband died due to a snake bite. Her newly born child was taken away by an eagle and another one year boy by a flood, her other family members also lost their lives to the same flood. She lost every thing and became completely unconscious. Unconsciously, she was wandering around and became estranged from society. One day, fortunately, she happened to visit a temple where the Buddha was preaching. Having seen the Buddha at the temple, she was able to open her inner eyes and widen her understanding of life.

Kisagotami Theri, another sad lady, lost her dearest son and was distraught with grief. She was wandering with the corpse in her hands begging for medicine to bring her son back to life. Fortunately, she was guided by one of the well wishers to visit the temple and ask the Buddha for the solution. Having seen the Buddha at the temple, now, and following his instruction, instead of continuing to beg for medicine to wake her son up, she asked for renunciation from the Buddha. Finally, she realised the true meaning of life.

Venerable Sariputta, the Buddha’s personal right hand disciple, for instance, was in search of the true teachings – having heard only half a stanza from the Arahant Assaji, one of the first five disciples of the Buddha;


Of things that proceed from a cause,

Their cause the Tathagata has told

and also their cessation:

thus teaches the Great Ascetic.

Venerable Sariputta along with his friend Moggallana visited the Buddha at the temple and attained Sainthood, etc. Similarly, there are many other examples which demonstrate daily suffering which can be related to the modern day. It can be argued that the modern world, despite having progressed materially and technologically, has not always advanced in practice, and many complicated problems have been left behind for us to solve. Thus, Buddhists in particular are using temples in different ways for different purposes for the enlistment of (spiritual support) their daily life, under the guidance of a Buddhist monks, especially for mental development known as meditation, a technique which can assist in managing stress and emotions, in order to cope with the rapid development of the modern world.

Unconstructive activities at temple


Nevertheless, temples have also been used for wrong purposes, not only in the past, even in the present day. Despite it is being a place of worship and purification of the mind, no one knows the intention of each visitor, accusation and blame, have plagued inside Buddhist dispensation from the time of the Buddha. The Buddha himself had to face different accusations and blames at different times, i.e. Sundari and Cincamanavika accused the Buddha of adultery in the midst of an audience at the temple. The commentary Mahajayamangla Gatha (The discourse on victory of Lord Buddha) says that Cincamanavika had been used by the opponents of the Buddha to defame him. She went out of Savatti each evening, and slept at heretic quarters near Jetavana temple. When she returned in the early morning, she told people that she had spent the night with the Buddha. After eight or nine months, she then pretended to be pregnant. Then, standing in the middle of an assembly while the Buddha was preaching, she accused the Buddha of making her pregnant and demanded that he should take responsibility.


In the same way wherever the Buddha visited, Suppabuddha and some followers of other faiths were protested and accusations. Similarly, Magandhiya, a beautiful lady was hired by bandits to unsuccessfully accuse the Buddha and his followers everywhere in order to defame, humiliate and stop them preaching. Similar stories have happened and have been happening throughout the history of Buddhism. In recent years, Thailand has faced similar problems, which may have caused people to hesitate in visiting temples and seeking counsel or association with monks etc.

Buddhist monks in the west


In the course of 2600 years of Buddhist history, Buddhist monasteries and monks play an important part in the transmission of literacy and culture, physical and mental development and providing counsel and guidance regardless of race, colour, country and caste. Additionally they hold an important place in promoting charitable causes, building libraries, hospitals, schools, and universities. In the west, nevertheless, although Buddhism is widely flourishing and considerably accepted in the society, understands differently their presence.

Buddhist monk, on the other hand, is not a priest, as mostly misunderstood, and do not intermediate between divine and human world, even to the Buddha. Their main task is to cultivate himself along the path, moral cultivation, contemplation and wisdom development, lay down by the Buddha. Although, it is expected them to be in monkhood for life, nevertheless, they can leave with no blame or sin. He lives entirely independently, on people’s generous support, whatever simple requisites he might need. The idea of supporting a Buddhist monk at the temple and providing all necessities, somehow, often seems causes uncomfortable and trouble in the west. According to general understanding in the west, an able man should work and should not expect others to meet their needs.


Those supports by lay people, in fact, provided without any obligation but as an expression of their faith in the Buddhist teachings. Venerable monks provide any services with free of change. They will not also charge for any teachings, classes, sermons, counseling or any guidance. Buddhist monks, in fact, are prohibit to ask or request from people, unless his relatives or one who makes a resolution (pavarana). The monks are traditionally allowed to own eight items (eight requisites), which include; three robes, an alms bowl, a belt, a razor, a water-strainer and sewing needle.

In fact, people give or help to the Buddhist temple and support Buddhist monks with loving-kindness, in gratitude of their valuable work to the society and wishing monks to live holy life and support communities in different aspects of social life with ethical values and principle. Buddhist monasteries and monks, similarly, once they have travelled to the west and stationed at the temple, play an important part - apart from uniting people and transmission of literacy and culture, physical and mental development – are providing counsel and guidance regardless of race, colour, country and caste in the subject of cross cultural conflicts to assisting immigration, domestic violence and family misunderstanding. Further, they hold an important place in promoting charitable causes, national and international levels as well as visit schools and universities to promote ethical and cohesion through the basic principles of loving-kindness and mental development.  They also visit hospitals, attend funerals and perform other religious activities such as marriages, blessing families and house-warming ceremonies.




Thus, although, the vihara originally meant "a secluded place in which to walk", and referred to "dwellings" or "refuges" used by wandering monks during the rainy season. It is also the place where spiritual and moral values are preserved, where people can always feel free and able to take a fresh spiritual breath. Human life is full of misery and the temple can provide techniques for the path of liberation called spiritual development. It provides a standard line that would help you to find the foundation for the elimination of your problems in life. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a well-known Thai Buddhist monk says ‘mind your business not others’. The Buddha says, ‘Intention that defines any actions as good or bad. Furthermore, the Buddha says, people are classified as good or bad in accordance with their action not because of their birth. Hence, it is our duty to learn more about moral and social values from the temple and to develop that which would help with the elimination of suffering and misery. This can be achieved through mental development and wisdom.

Therefore, we as Buddhists and supporters should feel mutually responsible to not only support and protect a temple and its activities but also to promote and propagate the teachings of the enlightened one which would help and benefit our entire society. In addition, the Buddha’s teaching teaches that mutual respect and good treatment of each other are of paramount importance in creating happy union. Thus, the temple is the place where one learns to control the senses, to gain clear understanding and comprehension of problems which would lead to the purification of our lives. Let me bring a noble verse and invite you to come and participate in taking a vow to free all beings;

With a wish to free all beings

I shall always go for refuge to the enlightened one

I shall always go for refuge to the noble teachings of the enlightened one

And I shall always go for refuge to the sangha community

Until I reach full enlightenment

And all beings achieve ultimate happiness of fully enlightenment.

Sadhu                Sadhu                Sadhu


Further reading:

Narada. The Buddha and his teachings, 1977, CBBEF, EN096

Gary Gach. The complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism, Alpha 2004. USA

The Dhammapada

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