How Do Monks Bestow Blessings?
I am currently editing the Bodhirājakumāra Sutta, a discourse by the Buddha to Prince Bodhi when the Blessed One was dwelling at Suṃsumāragiri in the Bhagga country. Prince Bodhi had just had a new palace constructed and invited the Buddha for a meal to bless the new dwelling. Since he wished to have children, he spread the floor with white cloths, believing that if holy monks stepped on them, that he would be blessed with children. When the Buddha arrived at the palace — The Red Lotus Palace — he stood still, refusing to tread on the cloths to enter the building. The Venerable Ānanda instructed the prince to have the cloths removed, and the Buddha then entered the palace, ate the meal, and discoursed to Prince Bodhi after the meal about the way to happiness.
The Commentary to the discourse explains that the Buddha — knowing through his powers of mind-reading the reason for Prince Bodhi spreading the white cloths — used his psychic powers to look into the past lives of Prince Bodhi and his wife, and foresaw that due to their past kamma, they were destined to remain childless, so he refused to step on the cloths, thinking of the benefit of future generations. In a previous life, they had been shipwrecked together on an island of birds. They survived by eating the fledgling birds. As a result of that kamma, they were destined to remain childless as husband and wife when reborn in the time of Gotama Buddha.
Prince Bodhi’s belief was groundless. Having children does not depend on monks stepping on white cloths, or any other kind of blessing allegedly bestowed by monks. It depends on medical factors, and on past kamma. If the past negative kamma is strong, no amount of medical treatment can overcome its effects.
When devout Buddhists are going for a driving test, a job interview, or an examination, they typically approach the monks, and ask them to recite protection discourses like the Maṅgala Sutta, to obtain blessings. In the Sri Lankan tradition the monks usually tie a Holy Thread (pirit nul), around the wrists of the devotees. I have never come across any evidence for this tradition in the Buddhist texts — it is perhaps a custom assimilated from Hinduism. Whatever, whether the monks tie a holy thread or not, blessings do not depend on that. It is a very lucrative custom if each devotee offers just £5, so it has survived for centuries and thrives in most Buddhist temples, but it is a superstitious belief. Please read the linked exposition of the Maṅgala Sutta, where the Buddha explains to a deity about thirty-eight types of wholesome kamma that give blessings and future happiness. Not to associate with fools, but to associate with the wise … opportune discussion of the Dhamma, and so forth.
Devotees may make the wholesome kamma of reverence while listening to the recitation, even if they do not know the meaning, or know it but do not reflect on it well during the recitation, but if they think that blessings will come merely by reciting sacred verses without putting them into practice, that is superstition, or clinging to rites and rituals.
Another example from the Vinaya texts. It was customary for monks of other sects to bless people with the words: “May you live long.” Some monks were scrupulous, thinking: “Long life does not depend on such blessings; long life depends on an individual’s own kamma,” so they did not bless the devotees offering food or paying respect. Some people complained about the monks remaining silent, and the Buddha allowed them to speak what was just a conventional farewell.
In the UK, we often say Goodbye. The meaning is, “May God be with you.” People just say it without thinking about the meaning at all. Many may not even know the real meaning. Even Buddhists say it, though they do not believe in God. We should say, instead, “Farewell,” or something similar. Even if we say, “See you,” we do not know if we will see the person again, but there’s no harm in such social niceties.
The Blessings of the Dhamma
Future benefits derive from present wholesome kamma; present benefits derive from past wholesome kamma. It is only natural that if you do good things you will get good results. The results of good kamma may not come at once, but when they do, the results will inevitably be blessings and beneficial. The blessings of the teachings of the Buddha come only to those who practise it; they do not come to those who do not practise good deeds.
When people pay homage to monks, or offer them almsfood, we may recite a short verse from the Dhammapada:
Abhivādanasīlissa, niccaṃ vuḍḍhāpacāyino.
Cattāro dhammā vaḍḍhanti, āyu vaṇṇo sukhaṃ balaṃ. (Dhp v 109)
The meaning is:
“For one who constantly honours and respects the elders,
four blessings increase — long-life, beauty, bliss, and strength.”
These blessings derive from humility, reverence, and loving-kindness. They are natural results of wholesome kamma. Whether the monk recites the verse or not, the blessings will follow from the intention behind the deeds, which is wholesome kamma. If one pays respect to elders out of fear or superstition, the results will be different. The respect should be genuine.
An Exposition of the Maṅgala Sutta • The Buddha’s Discourse on Blessings