Not surprisingly, Buddhist temples, centers, services, and rituals vary widely, depending on the tradition, location, community, and whether the place is run by monastics or laypeople.
But what they nearly all have in common is an open-door policy that welcomes people of all faith traditions and backgrounds to visit and take part.
If you would like to attend a Buddhist service, the best thing to do is visit the website, then call ahead, or go with a friend or acquaintance who attends the temple or center. Many places offer weekend meditation sessions or services to accommodate working people, but plenty of temples hold services every day and sometimes even multiple times a day. And most offer introductory sessions where beginners can learn the protocols of the tradition and basic practice instructions.
Often a service will begin with chanting or prayers followed by a period of meditation. You can join in chants and prayers if you care to; you will most likely be given a book or text to follow along. For those not accustomed to sitting in meditation on a cushion on the floor or who have physical constraints, chairs are almost always provided. After meditation, a teacher may offer a dharma talk, a sort of sermon that addresses some aspect of the Buddha’s teaching.
A few guidelines apply to nearly all settings:
- Dress modestly, with clothing that covers your shoulders, midriff, and legs, and remove your shoes before entering the main meditation hall or shrine room.
- Use a soft voice if you need to speak.
- Avoid pointing the soles of your feet at the Buddha image on the altar, or at the monks, nuns, or teachers. To do so is considered disrespectful.
- You may put your hands together and bow upon entering the temple, but as a newcomer you are not necessarily expected to do so.
- If you are visiting a temple in a Thai or Sri Lankan tradition, gatherings and services usually involve a daily offering of food to the monks and nuns. You are not required to bring anything, but you may if you wish. A little prior research can help orient you.
- Relax and simply take it all in. Even if you decide that the temple or center is not for you, it can be a great learning experience.
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