Ep. 034: Tourist or Pilgrim? How to Behave in a Temple

I realize that some of you will never have the opportunity (or inclination) to visit a temple--in China or anywhere else.

Even so, I believe that this episode will be of some use. It will reveal something of the ambiance of temples; give some insight into the philosophy that underlies temple life; and in some ways serve as a substitute for a real visit. So without further ado, let's take a look at some of the "rules of etiquette" for outsiders visiting a Chinese Buddhist temple, in this episode of


It's true that in some ways a temple visitor is often a tourist, checking off one more site on a list of "must sees." And if you visit a major temple on a sunny Sunday, you may not see or hear anything to dissuade you from this impression.

But like great cathedrals, ancient synagogues, and grand mosques, temples are holy places--despite the occasional carnival atmosphere. If the temple does not bring serenity to you, bring serenity to the temple. This is a place of spiritual practice, the cultivation of wisdom, and the generation of merit. Treat it as such--even if others around you do not.

Temples can get quite crowded on holidays--especially around the hall doors where people offer incense.

It might help to pause before entering, and consider the vows of the Bodhisattva:

  • Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
    Consider ways to show compassion to all.

  • Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
    Consider ways to avoid putting yourself first.

  • The Buddha's teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.
    Consider ways to gain greater access to Buddhist wisdom.

  • The Buddha Way is endless; I vow to follow it.
    Consider ways to benefit from Buddhist attitudes and practices.

The Bodhisattva Vows are printed vertically on the columns of Hsi Lai Temple in Southern California—a reminder to all who enter (and who can read them!)

Despite the length of this episode, the rules are really few. For the most part, they can be summed up in the words mindfulness and, perhaps, restraint. To visit a temple is to get a glimpse into a lifestyle where less is truly more: the monk or nun lives "without," and yet lives abundantly. By adjusting our attitudes before entering, by shedding our habits and putting on mindfulness, we, too, can partake of the riches of quietude.

These notes are meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive. Yet it is always good to remember that, except in the rare case of a clear violation of a serious rule (such as eating meat, drinking alcohol, entering forbidden areas, taking unauthorized photos, etc.), you are not likely to be scolded for committing a faux pas in the temple; the worst that will usually happen is that you will reduce the quality of the experience for yourself or for others. Conversely, the closer you can abide by the spirit of the suggestions here, the more pleasant and meaningful your visit will be.


Monks and nuns are generally covered from neck to foot (with hands showing) when in public. (This is my good friend the Venerable Deru.)

Think about it: A monk has chosen a celibate and simple lifestyle, away from the distractions of sexual considerations and worldly ways. Is it fair, then, for a woman to wear revealing clothing into his "home," or for any visitor to wear gaudy or extravagant clothes?

Thus, there are two things to think about when considering what to wear to the temple:

  • What would be respectful and appropriate in any place of worship?

  • What would be least distracting to monastics and other temple visitors?

Guidelines, then, for both men and women, would include: No bare midriffs, tank tops, short skirts, shorts, sandals or open-toed shoes, etc. Some very strict temples even ask visitors to cover their arms and legs completely before entering--that is, wear pants (or long skirts for women) and long-sleeved shirts.

Consider also the simplicity of the temple aesthetic. Excessive jewelry, strong colognes or perfumes, ostentatiously expensive clothing and other displays of wealth, status, or prestige may also be deemed inappropriate.

Food and Drinks

It is generally not a good idea to bring any food or drinks into the temple grounds. If you do bring something in (by prior arrangement with the monastics or temple staff), follow these guidelines:

  • Do not bring any meat, fish, seafood, or other non-vegetarian foods onto temple grounds

  • Most temples also frown on garlic, onions, leeks, and similar foods

  • Do not bring alcohol (or illegal drugs, of course) onto temple grounds

  • Eat only in appropriate areas; never bring food or drinks into the halls

If invited to dine in the monastic dining hall, be observant of the behavior around you, and try to follow along. In many cases, a guest master or other official will give pointers before you enter. If they do, follow them.

Sign over the “Five Contemplations (or Views) Hall” at Jingye Temple in the mountains south of Xi’an

The "proper" attitude toward the consumption of food is reflected in something called the "Five Contemplations." In fact, the monastic dining hall in many temples is called the "Hall of Five Contemplations." The cultivation of these views is actually not a bad idea wherever you eat; here is one version of the list:

  1. Consider with gratitude the amount of work involved in bringing this food to you.
    [Think of the farmer, the trucker, the market staff, the cook, the servers, etc. Not to mention the soil, sun, and rain!]

  2. Consider whether you have conducted yourself in a way that makes you worthy of receiving this food.
    [This is especially important if the meal has been provided for you free of charge.]

  3. Consider whether you have the right frame of mind for receiving this food.
    [Are you judging the food, or preferring one dish over another? In other words, is desire--especially for something different--getting in the way?]

  4. Consider this food to be medicine for the body, and not an indulgence for your senses.
    [Eat to live rather than live to eat.]

  5. Consider this food as a means to accomplishing a meaningful existence.
    [Sustaining a life "not worth living" would be a waste of good food!]


Most temples welcome photography for personal use. However, sensitivity should be shown in choice of subject.

Always obtain permission before:

  • photographing inside halls

  • photographing ceremonies

  • photographing identifiable individuals, whether worshipers or monastics

Furthermore, if restrictions are stated in temple literature or posted on signs, whether in particular areas or for the entire temple, abide by such restrictions.

I generally frown on people sitting on statues for a "cute" picture, but I made an exception in this case…

Finally, I have seen visitors put their arms around a statue, sit on its feet, or otherwise disregard its sanctity in order to make a "cute" picture. Please show respect when photographing any statue or painting.

Private Areas

Naturally, do not enter restricted areas. However, be sensitive to areas that may be unposted yet still private. Living areas, work areas (such as offices), and areas behind railings within halls are usually off-limits. Be careful in assuming it's OK to enter an area just because you saw someone else go in: they may be temple staff or volunteers--or just people behaving badly.

Interaction with Monastics

As far as monks and nuns are concerned, the entire temple is both their home and their place of worship as well as work; you are a visitor, and should show them the same deference as you would to anyone in his or her home or workplace.

Furthermore, Buddhists pay equal homage to "The Triple Gem," namely the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (his followers). As the living representatives of the Sangha, monastics are due the same reverence one would show to the Buddha himself.

The first temple of my official pilgrimage was big and famous--and the monks largely ignored me. At the second, Jingci Temple in Hangzhou, things were quieter, and the monks were extremely friendly. When I first arrived--sweating--an older monk turned his electric fan on me and insisted that I sit in his chair in the front hall. After I climbed the stairs to the next level, these two offered me fruit (certainly donated by devotees). I was to find that this was a pattern: the bigger the temple, the busier the monks. Those dwelling at smaller temples are more down-to-earth.

If a monastic makes eye contact with you, greet him or her with a smile, a slight bow, and a simple word of greeting. Avoid loud and showy displays. If you are comfortable with such gestures, join your palms in front of your heart and bow either slightly or profoundly. If not, a nod of the head will do. An appropriate greeting in most Chinese temples are the words *Amituo Fo*, the name of the Amitabha Buddha.

Never touch a monastic of the opposite gender, even to shake hands; in fact, it's best to avoid physical contact even with a monastic of the same gender--no taking of the arm, back-slapping, head-patting, etc.

Most monks and nuns are friendly and appreciate polite conversation. However, as a rule they avoid frivolous talk (unless they know you quite well). And remember that few monastics in China can speak English, so if you expect to speak with them, you either must know Chinese, or have a translator along.


Rules on shoes differ between temples. In some temples, you must remove your shoes before entering a hall. (Plan ahead! Wear good socks!). Watch others to determine the correct behavior. If shoes are allowed in the halls, generally they must be closed-toed: sandals and other open shoes are not usually appropriate.

As a rule, hats should be removed when entering the halls.


The bottoms of your feet are the lowest parts of your body. Therefore, when you're seated, it is considered disrespectful to stretch your legs out in such a way that the soles of your feet are facing a Buddha or Bodhisattva, or a monk or nun.

Bowing and Prostrations

It is not required that you bow or prostrate to anybody or anything at the temple (unless you take part in some of the formal ceremonies). In fact, an insincere bow is worse than no bow at all. But if you come to recognize the significance of these actions, they can become quite natural and comfortable.

The bow is a universal gesture of respect. In Buddhism, we often bow three times, with the palms joined in front of the heart.

Why three times? Some say that one bow is dedicated to each of "The Three Gems" mentioned above: Once for the Buddha, once for the Dharma (the body of teachings he left us), and once for the Sangha (the body of his followers). Another suggestion is that with each bow we renounce one of the Three Poisons: Hatred (or Anger), Desire (or Greed), and Ignorance (or Delusion).

The joining of the palms is also highly symbolic. It represents the elimination of opposites: There is no You and I, it says; no This World and That; no Samsara and Nirvana; but all is One.

These young Tibetan monks at Shifang Tang on Wutai Mountain were having a competition to see who could prostrate the most times in a fixed period. These were full prostrations, not the nine-point ones I describe below.

If you have become comfortable with the bow, you may be ready for full "nine-point" prostration. I am not kidding when I say: practice this at home! In a proper prostration, all of these points will touch the floor (or the kneeling pad): your toes and knees; your elbows and the backs of your hands; and your forehead.

Can you picture it? You go down on your knees; then bend at the waist, placing the length of your forearm from elbow to wrist, palms up, on the floor; lastly touching your forehead down as well. Then, reversing the process, rise up to your feet; and repeat two more times.

If you are using one of the commonly-available kneeling pads, in fact the wrists/hands and forehead are likely to be in mid-air, with knees and elbows only on the pad, and toes on the floor, but the effect is the same.

A couple of notes: If you bow (not prostrate) with incense in your hands, it is common to raise the sticks up so that their base is held with both hands near your forehead; some people point the sticks upward, and some point them outward, away from the head, before bowing. *Never* prostrate while holding incense.

And finally, to whom do you bow or prostrate? I generally reverence the Mi'le Fo (Laughing Buddha) in the Four Kings Hall, and Shajiamouni, the historical Buddha (usually the center figure in the Main Hall) at a minimum. One can reverence any of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, kings and generals, Arhats, or historical figures (especially patriarchs); many people choose to pay especially close attention to the gate guardians (Heng and Ha, or sometimes two other generals or kings) as a means of focusing the mind before entering the temple.

Incense and Other Offerings

"Dana" (Sanskrit: "giving") is the first of the Six Perfections associated with the Bodhisattva Path, the way to Enlightenment. In the "spiritual economy" of the Mahayana, one of the goals is to accumulate merit, or good karma, and to distribute this to all sentient beings. We can generate such merit by making heartfelt offerings at a temple.

Some Chinese Buddhist writings refer to "The Ten Offerings." One list of these includes incense, flowers, lamps (or candles), soaps, fruits, other foodstuffs, tea, treasure (money), beads, and clothing (robes). Other lists substitute such items as necklaces, jeweled parasols, banners and canopies, music, and joined palms for some of the ten listed here.

Incense drifts aloft from a censer at Dailuo Ding on Wutai Mountain.

Whatever the list may be, any offering should be made with studied intention, or mindfulness. Certainly five offerings are quite commonly found. These are:

Incense: In many of the world's traditions, incense represents prayer. As the smoke rises to heaven, so do our thoughts and prayers "ascend."

Every temple has incense available for offering, sometimes for free, and sometimes for a small price. (Even the free incense costs the temple money, so it is a good idea to make a small contribution when picking it up.)

The physical postures and gestures used in offering incense differ from temple to temple and even person to person; you can watch the "locals" to see what to do. However, intention is more important than posture: offering with a sincere heart is the most important thing, and there is no "wrong" way to do it. There are, of course, safety issues: do not wave lit incense around thoughtlessly, and in fact it's a good idea to keep a sharp eye out for others carrying lit sticks.

After "presentation" in front of the statues, incense is usually placed in a large urn positioned especially for this purpose in front of the hall; simply stick the unlit end of the incense stick into the sand in the urn.

Incidentally, it's becoming more and more common to see temples encouraging people not to light incense, largely for environmental reasons. You'll see signs that say things like, "It's better to have a pure heart than to have a lit stick of incense," something like that.

Candles: As a light dispels the darkness, so wisdom dispels ignorance. Candles are often available at the temple; they are lit and placed in a special cabinet (often with glass walls) in the temple courtyard.

Note: At busier temples, do not be surprised or offended if a caretaker removes your incense or candles before they have burned all the way down, in order to make room for the offerings of those who come behind you. Your purpose has been fulfilled; and *nothing is permanent!*

"Treasure" (cash): Most temples will have at least one cash box located somewhere conspicuous, often in the Main Hall near where visitors prostrate in front of the main altar. It is often painted red, or is made of shiny silver metal; but it may be any color. The surest mark is the slot in the top. How much you offer is entirely up to you.

Fruit: Many devotees bring fruit and other foods to place on a special altar near the front of the temple. After they have been offered, these are usually taken to the temple kitchen to be used in feeding the monastics and the temple's visitors. For this reason, please be sure that anything you offer is in edible condition. Naturally, do not offer meat, fish, or seafood; or vegetables such as onions, garlic, and leeks, which are forbidden in the monastics' diet. (Larger donations, such as large sacks of rice, may be taken directly to the kitchen, bypassing the altar; the associated merit still accrues!)

I find it delightful that such items are more than symbolic, and put to immediate use. Many's the luscious piece of fruit offered to me by a monastic at the perfect moment--almost certainly the result of a previous temple visitor's generosity!

Flowers: Flowers are another "universal" offered in many traditions. In addition to their obvious beauty and associations with life, they also remind us of the key Buddhist concept of impermanence, withering away in a short time. For this reason, it is not necessary to present them in water; simply wrapping the wet stems in paper, plastic, or foil, and laying them on the altar, is sufficient.

This altar at Dailuo Ding on Wutai Mountain is rife with flowers (mostly fake), fruit (mostly real), and other offerings.


In addition to these physical offerings, there are many less tangible things to offer: encouragement and support to others, friendship, and a willingness to promote the temple's activities are some of these. Whatever the offering, it should be made with an attitude of gratefulness.


If you have read this far, you may be feeling that there are a million and one things to remember, and it may all seem overwhelming.

The key to it all, however, is the important Buddhist concept of mindfulness. In this case, it means paying attention to your surroundings and to the people nearby; fitting in with the atmosphere of the place; and not disrupting the smooth flow of the activities around you.

There follows a list of minuscule details that may seem rather finicky, but they serve as examples of the kinds of actions that show respect and thoughtfulness for the temple and the people in it.

DO step over thresholds, never on them; this is especially true of the raised wooden thresholds in the doorways of halls.

DON'T step over another person, who may be prostrated in prayer.

DO put others' interests before your own.

DON'T be in such a hurry that you rush or crowd others.

DO show respect for cultural relics, historic artifacts, and natural features around the temple.

DON'T smoke, spit, litter, waste water, or do other things harmful to the temple's environment.

DO enter and leave the temple taking each step mindfully, focusing the mind on your purpose for being there.

DON'T disturb the flow of traffic through doorways, on stairs, etc.

DO make every effort to maintain the serene atmosphere of the temple.

DON'T make excessive noise in or near the temple's precincts, including loud talking, honking horns in the parking area, etc.

DO turn off cell phones, or leave them outside the temple (in a car or at home).

DON'T bring the cares of the world into this sacred space.

DO encourage children to develop the same attitude of respect, and learn to cultivate calmness.

DON'T allow them to run, shout, or engage in horseplay.

You see? There really is a distinction!

Summing it all up: Remember what attracted you to this place, and why you are here, and behave accordingly. There are plenty of places to have "fun"; temples are a place to find peace.

I hope you've found this helpful, at least in understanding what temples are like. And now, until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Two terrific temples in the most populous city in Central China: Wonderful Wuhan!