Getting to the second question first -- if we assume that the Eightfold Path defines what is necessary, then the answer seems to be "no." I'm not aware that any aspect of the Path deals specifically with rituals and ceremonies. But don't be too quick to write them off.
Since the first western scholars began to take an interest in Buddhism in the 19th century, there has been an assumption that the Buddha's original, clear-headed teachings were buried under centuries of religiosity, which included rituals. This attitude is expressed in a Time magazine article about Buddhism in Tibet from 1940 --
Koun Franz, a Zen priest from Montana currently living in Japan, writes that in Japanese monasteries, priests often sub-specialize in one particular thing. For example, there's a priest who is the expert in folding transmission papers. Others master particular ceremonies, or styles of chanting, or forms of poetry. When a particular skill is needed, the go-to guy is called forth to take charge and make sure the thing is done correctly.
Some of the larger, older Zen centers in the West may be developing such a depth of skill now, but most of us are struggling with a learning curve. Even those of us familiar with zendo etiquette and the daily chanting service -- when to stand, when to bow, when to put hands in gassho or shoshu -- can feel challenged when something new is introduced.
For example, my Zen center will hold a formal fusatsu ceremony on Friday. This is a beautiful and elaborate ceremony that requires a style of chant-singing that's quite different from our usual monotone drone. We're trying to learn it by listening to recordings of other Zen centers' ceremonies. And, of course, centers in different lineage traditions go by different scores, so to speak, so the recordings don't match.
We could use a coach.
Fifty years ago yesterday, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc set fire to himself and died in Saigon. The Associated Press photograph of the burning monk was one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It was published in newspapers and magazines all over the world. Those of us old enough to remember can tell you it was hard to avoid seeing it.
The self-immolation was part of a protest against the anti-Buddhist policies of Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963. Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was determined to impose Catholicism on his people and had forbidden even such innocuous practices as flying a Buddhist flag on Buddha's birthday.
A campaign of protests against the anti-Buddhist policies began in the sprig of 1963. Public demonstrations were suppressed; more than a thousand monks and nuns were arrested, and many others simply disappeared. After Thich Quang Duc's sacrifice, foreign journalists began to cover the "Buddhist crisis" in Vietnam, and the world paid attention. Once Ngo Dinh Diem had lost the support of U.S. President John Kennedy his days were numbered; he was deposed and assassinated in November 1963. (Read more -- "Buddhism in Vietnam.")
The new book by Brad Warner is titled There Is No God and He Is Always With You: A Search for God in Odd Places. Here is my formal review of There Is No God and He Is Always With You. Consider this post the short and informal review.
This is a lovely book. I enjoyed reading it. It is engaging and funny and moving. I even agreed with most of it.
Here's a caveat -- Brad Warner and I both practice in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. So his perspective on many aspects of dharma is familiar to me. Most of the references to Dogen were familiar to me, also. It's possible that a reader with a different background might have more trouble "getting" this book. But maybe not.
Via the Rev. Danny Fisher -- Al Jazeera reports that a Buddhist monastery in Burma is sheltering Muslim refugees displaced by allegedly Buddhist mobs. The report says only a minority of monks are participating in the anti-Muslim violence in Burma.
It's occurred to me that a lot of what I've been writing about lately has to do with labels. For example, last week I asked about enlightened beings. There's a loaded label if there ever was one. I say that when we affix that label, we're creating something with our minds, and we need to be careful about that.
Also awhile back, I posted a snip of a poem --
The crucial thing: the ending of desire.
Labels stay in their own sphere and don't intrude.
The mind, unenthralled with anything, stops its struggling.
I really like the line, "labels stay in their own place and don't intrude." Relating to things and beings through a thicket of labels and names and identifiers gets in the way of direct experience. Labels have their function, but they are all just expedience. Quoting Norman Fischer again,
"In the end everything is just a designation: things have a kind of reality in their being named and conceptualized, but otherwise they actually aren't present. Not to understand that our designations are designations, that they do not refer to anything in particular, is to mistake emptiness."
Now I'm reading a new book called Walking the Way: 81 Zen Encounters With the Tao Teh Ching by Robert Rosenbaum, and I'm enjoying it very much. The 81 "encounters" are reflections on the Tao Teh Ching's verses, and some are quite lovely. Here's a bit --
"Your name is a summons, not a self. Whatever names have been bestowed on you, whatever names you have created for yourself, are only pointers, motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense and identify an object; you are a way seeking itself. Names can give the illusion of some unchanging essence "underneath" the name, so don't be deceived; the real you does not stop or start, but swirls and streams."
Of course, all names of things are motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense and identify. This reminds me of another quote I've posted before -- Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer wrote,
I just want to throw out a question here -- with the qualifier that we try not to attach to goals, is realizing enlightenment a factor in your practice? Or is that even important to you?
More on enlightenment -- when we speak of an enlightened being, just who is that being? This is not a simple question, and it's a little out of my depth, but I'm bringing it up anyway.
As a Zen student, it's a bit jarring to me when practitioners of other traditions discuss the supernatural powers of an enlightened being. Zen doesn't go there. And yes, I understand one can find sutras claiming that arhats can see anything anywhere, read minds, and possess knowledge of all past lives. I claim no personal knowledge of what arhats can and cannot do.
But especially in Mahayana, when we speak of enlightened beings, we must take care how we understand this. If the confluence of attributes we identify as "me" have no self-essence, who is the being that is enlightened? It may be that an enlightened being knows all and sees all. But if we were to be enlightened, would is this enlightened being be the same person who brushes our teeth and wears our socks?
The title of the blog post is deliberately ungrammatical. "Things-as-it-is" is a phrase made up by the late Shunryu Suzuki Roshi to describe the fundamental nature of reality. He mixed up singular and plural deliberately, to keep us from grasping one or the other. "'Many' and 'one' are different ways of describing one whole being," he said.
(From the book Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai)
"When I say to see things-as-it-is, what I mean is to practice hard with our desires -- not to get rid of desires but to take them into account. If you have a computer, you must enter all the data; this much desire, this much nourishment, this kind of color, this much weight. We must include our desires as one of the many factors in order to see things-as-it-is. We don't always reflect on our desires. Without stopping to reflect on our selfish judgment we say "He is good" or "He is bad." But someone who is bad to me is not necessarily always bad. To someone else, he may be a good person. Reflecting in this way we can see things-as-it-is. This is buddha mind. "