Every Thai Buddhist worship service is a re-enactment of the encounters of the Gautama, the Self-Enlightened One, with is disciples. The paradigm for those encounters is that the Buddha enunciated Truth-Dharma so clearly, logically, relevantly and convincingly that attentive listeners would typically experience a cognitive break-through, a great “ah-ha!”, that would dispel confusion and anxiety about the nature of life. Optimally, all who listened would benefit, either by achieving the initial insight or having it reinforced. Naturally, some people in the audience might be distracted or mired so deeply in their circumstances that the great ah-ha did not happen, but if they retained only a metaphor or aphorism they still benefited.
The model for a Buddhist service is the Lord Buddha seated facing a reverent and attentive audience. That is the form of the Buddhist “divine-human encounter”. There is an implied dialogue between the Buddha and the audience that begins with the audience expressing reverence and asking for a dissertation of Dharma-Truth. Then the Buddha speaks, using a key simile or metaphor to gather up the Truth and make it memorable. Finally, the audience expresses appreciation and acknowledges that they have received a blessing.
These days, of course, a current generation of disciples fills the role that the Buddha once did. Monks are more than mere surrogates for the Buddha or de facto substitutes, however. They are also less than that. There is not supposed to be confusion on this point. The Lord Buddha called (and therefore ordained) disciples to be Dharma-carriers, as was he, but also monastics who adhere to a higher level of discipline; but as dispensers of grace they are mediators. Their authority as innovators is limited to telling stories of the Buddha speaking and interpreting what the Buddha is said to have said. In this, of course, they have a great deal of latitude because few Buddhist discourses expound on fixed texts, although a great many are recitations of discourses prepared by others. In several ways (through costume, stylized chanting, physical posture, and use of “palm leaf” style sermon texts) monks symbolize the unbroken chain back to the Lord Buddha. So when a monk is chanting stanzas or preaching a sermon he represents the Buddha without ever losing consciousness that he is just a monk. Laity in the audience recognize that monks represent the Buddha, but they “take refuge” in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as three separate aspects of how they are blessed.
In some symbolic and effective way what happens in a Buddhist worship service is a re-enactment of countless similar events 2500 years ago. Each such re-enactment subsumes the meaning of all the other re-enactments and all the original encounters. Each one has the potential to be an enlightening experience. But all of them are able to help move people from states of anxiety into greater levels of serenity, through cognitive engagement. The sustained chanting produces affective benefits, which are at least suggestive of trance states. And all services generate merit to offset accumulated negative karma, which can also be comforting.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.