Question: Is it alright, as Buddhists, beyond the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, to pay respects to various gods and deities?
Answer: If we think of asking gods for assistance before we think of the Triple Gem, it is probably a sign that we have not really taken refuge in the Triple Gem; but only in the worldly unenlightened gods instead. Though Buddhists do not take refuge in any of the unenlightened gods, we respect them in general, especially the ones who have taken refuge in the Triple Gem and uphold the true Dharma by their personal practice.
According to the Sutra of Golden Light, many gods gave rise to the Bodhicitta aspiration for Buddhahood in the presence of the Buddha, and vowed to study, practise and protect the Buddha’s teachings and those who practise them. They also promised to be present among humans, to assist in rewarding the good and correcting the evil. In perspective, Buddhas are teachers of humans and gods, amongst other beings.
This is how the Buddhist practice of making offerings to gods (devas and brahmas) to express respect originated. For the Chinese community, one of the occasions when this is customarily done, is on the ninth day of the first lunar month during the new year season. Sutras and repentance texts are also chanted on this day. Food offerings are made to the Triple Gem, while inviting these gods too, some of whom would be part of the Arya (Noble) Sangha, such as the deva king Sakra, who is at least a stream-winner (who was present in the Buddha’s teaching assemblies such as that of the Amitabha Sutra). Merits are dedicated to all beings, including the gods too.