Shop Digital Version Subscribe to the Print Edition

How to Pray at Buddhist Temples

Grab some incense and use this guide for Buddhist temple etiquette


The path to communicating with the Buddhist powers is a slippery slope. To ensure that your prayers reach the highest ears, you must pay attention to rituals and avoid being rude when visiting Buddhist temples.


Three sticks of incense.

Two candles (wax or electric).

In the Temple Courtyard


First, light your three incense sticks. Every stick must be lit, but make sure the flames go out. This can be achieved by elegantly waiving your incense rapidly through the air. If you’re a beginner, you’ll most likely flail your incense around desperately for a few minutes before giving up out of sheer embarrassment and putting out the fire altogether.

Once your incense is safely burning, hold the sticks between your palms and against your forehead, face the temple and start praying. Be warned; it is very important that you hold the incense high up against your head, and not at chest height or lower. It is very disrespectful toward Buddha to hold your incense low. Bow three times in the direction of the temple, then turn to your right and repeat this pattern until you have bowed in all four directions. When you’ve finished, throw your incense in the heavily smoking, bronze bathtub on legs located somewhere in the courtyard


The rack with candleholders can usually be found outside the temple itself, or somewhere in the courtyard. Stand in front of the candle rack, light your two candles and – as with the incense – hold them against your forehead. Repeat your prayer and bow three times. Thereafter, place your candles in the rack and continue to the next item on the itinerary, entering the temple itself.

Inside the Temple

Temples can contain statues of many different kinds of Buddhas, lesser deities and guardians. Sometimes it can be difficult to know who’s who, but to make sure to not upset anyone, try to pay a bit of attention to all of them.

Entering: When entering the temple, make sure to step in with your right foot first. This is polite toward the higher being who resides in the temple.

Kneeling: It is not strictly necessary that you actually kneel in front of the statues as standing up is also acceptable, but kneeling is generally more effective to get your prayers heard. If there are several statues in the temple, begin with Buddha. Hold your palms pressed together against your forehead and repeat your prayer. Make three small bows. To make a deep impression, forget about the small bows, and instead, place your palms and your forehead against the ground three times as part of a deep bowing motion. Move on to the next deity.

Exiting: When you have prayed and paid respect to Buddha and the other deities and guardians, exit the temple with the left foot first.


For those of us who aren’t locals, there’s no need to panic- Buddha is a polyglot, well-versed in English as well as every other existing language. You do not need to pray in Chinese; Buddha can understand you in your own language.

Guidelines for Women

Clothes: As happy and harmonious as Buddha can be, he’s still a bit conservative at times. Don’t visit the temple scantily clad, leave your short skirt at home for the occasion (but by all means, don’t forget to put something else on).

Menstruation: For some reason, praying while having your period is futile. If it’s that time of the month, then don’t bother visiting a temple, as your prayers will fall on deaf ears.

Courtesy of That’s Zhejiang


Temple Fairs. Are they any good? We investigate. 

Follow us

Subscribe to out newsletter