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Barbara O'Brien

Rituals, East and West

By December 28, 2010

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In some circles of western Buddhism, rituals are controversial.  Some "secularists" consider rituals to be vestiges of ancient superstition that should be scraped from Buddhism like barnacles from a boat.

Westerners who practice within a tradition are accused of slavish copying of Asian Buddhism. We should think for ourselves, we are told, and we know this because the Buddha said so in the Kalama Sutta. (/Snark)

I've run into many westerners who believe that "original" Zen had no priests or rituals. That's doubtful, considering that Zen was founded in a monastery and remained mostly monastic ever after, or at least until westerners got hold of it. But at Wild Fox Zen, Dosho Port explains that much of this antipathy to rituals comes, once again, from western cultural bias.

In the West, we think of ritual as stylized, symbolic behavior that has no rational purpose.  A ritual might reflect magical thinking, such as performing a dance to bring rain. Many westerners view religious rituals as useless left-overs from pre-scientific culture. Some among us are quite hostile to the idea of taking part in a ritual.

Along these lines, westerners tend to sort the "forms" of Buddhism into two bins marked "practice" and "ritual." For example, meditation is a practice; making a food offering to the Hungry Ghosts is a ritual.

But Dosho says that the distinction between practice and ritual is an invention of western language. In Sino-Japanese language there is no such distinction, and it wouldn't occur to people of Chinese or Japanese culture to sort meditation and food offerings into two different categories of phenomena the way we in the West do.

Dosho says,

I'm increasingly of the persuasion that it is really important to know Zen with body, mind and heart in order to adapt to the global culture. ... there are some differences in what Zen has to offer which we miss when we simply overlay our cultural conditioning on Zen teaching and practice and realization.

The forms, by which I mean all the rituals and practices, are very good for helping us "get out of our heads" and stop relying entirely in intellect for our understanding. And when we do that we start to see the countless ways our understanding of everything is conditioned by culture and language.

My first Zen teacher explained that rituals and ceremonies are for making visible what is invisible. He used the example of a marriage ceremony, which is a way of making publicly visible the love and commitment two people already have made. A Hungry Ghost offering ceremony is a way of acknowledging the craving that keeps beings in samsara. By engaging in a physical practice as well as something we are doing with our thoughts, we take the truth of craving and the cessation of craving out of the realm of ideas or beliefs and into a place of deeper, whole-body-and-mind awareness.  Hungry Ghosts 'R' us.

Another part of practice is what I call "bumping up against the box."  We all live in a box, and the walls of the box are who we think we are and what we think our lives should be. Generally when something "pushes our buttons" -- makes us angry or resentful, fearful or belligerent -- we've just hit a wall of the box.

I would say to anyone interested in Buddhist practice who is uncomfortable with rituals to explore that discomfort and understand where it is coming from. Whatever is causing the barrier is almost certain to be a block to realization as well. Getting past the discomfort may not make you a rituals aficionado, but at least some blockage will be loosened up.

December 28, 2010 at 10:59 pm
(1) Keerthi Wijayatunga says:

Buddhism whether western or eastern cannot have rituals. Rituals are practiced with belief. There is no place for belief in Buddhism (Buddha Darma).

May be one can bow a teacher as a (Asian) salutation. But, rituals are based on sheer belief of outside power.

The Buddha’s method was to put the follower on the same path (Noble Eightfold Path, NEP) he traveled so that the follower attains the same status and realize what the teacher has.

So long as one does not have the same NEP The Buddha traveled there is doubt and belief. Therefore, one must first investigate the path whether it is the same NEP The Buddha taught. Otherwise no follower would know for sure whether The Buddha was a Buddha!!!!

Today, Buddhists worship the “Bo” tree saying it helped The Buddha in attaining enlightenment. But a Buddha is defined as one who attain enlightenment without the help of anybody/anything outside! If so, Buddha is not a Buddha if the Bo tree was helpful. If The Buddha was a Buddha then the Bo tree did nothing and it should not be worshiped.

The Buddha has strongly declared he is not human (not god, Brahma, or Mara etc). He further said he can be seen only by “seeing” (realizing) his Dharma. But people have made statues of The Buddha depicting him as a human being and worship the statues.

Buddhists also worship relics (said to be) of The Buddha. Perform various rituals spending large sums of money. The Buddha was the one who explained the body as Dukka and inauspicious. They are not willing to put those relics to a DNA test at least to determine whether they are of human!

The Buddha’s method was to prove the follower that there is no outside force capable of helping once’s emancipation.

Stay friezed for 15 minutes in any position you wish. Do all possible worships and rituals and see if any can stop pains from coming from the body.

December 28, 2010 at 11:52 pm
(2) Isshin says:

Thank you for this post. I fully agree with you – especially your statement “Whatever is causing the barrier is almost certain to be a block to realization as well.”

Even though we no longer believe that rituals will bring rain to end a drought, for example, to my mind, the true “magic” of our Zen “rituals” has been their effect on our “whole-body-mind” practice, once we let go of our aversions and simply give ourselves totally to the practice.

A look at the ancient zen monastic regulations quickly puts major question marks to the myths that claim that “original” Zen did not have priests or rituals…

One such book, The Baizhang Zen Monastic Regulations – Dongyang Dehui’s revision, written around 1335 in China, can be downloaded in pdf form at http://www.numatacenter.com/digital/dBET_T2025_Baizhang_2006.pdf. According to this translation, the original Zen monastic regulations were written by Zen Master Baizhang Huaihai (720-814) and I believe translations of this are available at Amazon (and others…). And these Chinese monastic regulations were based on the Indian Vinaya tradition.

It is especially interesting to put one of these books side-by-side with the recently published translation of the “Standard Observances of the Soto Zen School” and discover how much of our present rituals continue faithful to the old Chinese practices.


December 29, 2010 at 12:12 am
(3) Wayne says:

Few people would live in a house with no aesthetic qualities and what a drab space our practice would be without liturgy.

Ritual and ceremony are the colors on the walls of the zendo, that brings the dharma to life.

December 29, 2010 at 5:52 am
(4) Hein says:

On a recent Zen retreat (Kwam Um) I have attended the teacher stated in respect to the “form” one have to differentiate between a living form and a dead form. If I understand it correctly it means if your doing something because somebody said so or “that is just how we do it”, then one is doing a dead form. A form with no reason behind it should be discarded. But a living form is one that (for lack of a better explanation from my side) similar to what Barbara explained above.
Important from a practice perspective is that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”.
Doing sitting or walking meditation or eating in accordance with the form it is still the form that keeps me there and keep me – a beginner – going.
Doing prostrations and other “rituals” are no different….i think.

December 29, 2010 at 11:32 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — I would say that before you discard a “dead” form that you make a sincere effort to give life to it. Most of the time the “deadness” is not the fault of the form.

December 29, 2010 at 7:18 am
(6) Engyo says:

With respect, I beg to differ with the comment that says belief has no place in Buddhism. I won’t argue that it has no place in that particular poster’s concept of what Buddhism is, but I decline to share his/her definition.

Belief and faith are important parts of certain Buddhist traditions, and I had to release my attachment to “no such thing” a long time ago.

Namaste, Engyo

December 29, 2010 at 8:46 am
(7) Lee says:

I shared the thought that ritual was just superstitious baggage until i began to truly bow. For me both ceremonies and whatever ‘form’ (bowing, circumambulating, etc etc)is just another way to let go … to practice… it matters little what form or what chant for me it all rests with intent and actually allowing myself to ‘fully’ engage in the form… as for the western scientific lens we sometimes use to view ritual and ceremony … we may find that such activity in fact does effect the universe … how powerful is thought; how powerful is prayer …what is this we are in the midst of … in my practice i often am amazed and truly wonder where some thought comes from … we should look closely at why we are opposed to ceremony and ritual …?

December 29, 2010 at 10:38 am
(8) Konchog Yeshe says:

Rite On! I’ve learned so much more from chanting prayers, prostrating when I was younger, doing mudras, making offerings and so forth, than merely sitting or learning words could ever convey. I agree with the Japanese Sangha that there is no real seperation between “meditation” alone, and the rest of the Buddhist wisdom practice traditions. A young toddler might throw a computer on the ground to see it break, not exactly appreciating the value of the internet. Perhaps this is what westerners sometimes want to do with “rituals”, not recognizing their true value.

December 29, 2010 at 4:27 pm
(9) Todd Alexander says:

I think the Western ‘distaste’ for ritual comes, in part, from our separation of religion from ‘regular’ life. Add to that the general distaste for religious thinking and the attraction of Buddism as an atheist religion and you end up with a lot of motivation to rationalize your Buddhist activity into some justifiable form. We tend to call ritual that which isn’t of immeadiate or obvious value, in part I think, to point out that we’re not going off the deep end or being irrational. I was a bit dubious myself of things like altars, chanting, or offerings. I had to ask myself, though, how can I hold onto that doubt and still maintain that I trust in the Dharma. I don’t practice much outwardly, being the only Buddhist in my family. As such, even small rituals like offering incense and a prayer to my small home altar take on even more significance, and I’m thankful for them. Such activities, for me, point to a connection to the greater Sangha as well as defining the irrationality I herant in trust as part of life rather than separate from it. The Dharma that I trust stresses oneness, and so what initially may appear a separating element that must be segregated become a unifying element to be thankful for.

December 29, 2010 at 5:40 pm
(10) Lee says:

I feel every act is meaningful….if i swat the dog in anger … or i offer a stick of incense in a ritualized (repeated form) bowing and gashhoing it is meaningful. If I offer merit it doesn’t matter if there is some magic energy that emits from that intent and goes out into the universe to be of some benefit somewhere… it only matters that when I offer that incense I truly bow … which to me means letting go of me and bowing with the entire universe … rituals like bowing to dead animals one comes across … just consistently brings me back to the matter at hand ‘training’ … such ritual i offer is of great benefit to all, even when done half heartedly..

December 29, 2010 at 8:39 pm
(11) Mila says:

It’s my experience that rituals can be wonderful contexts for exploring the relationship between form and emptiness; between skillful means and wisdom.

Can I engage with the actions of a ritual in a way that leads me deeper and deeper into the present moment? Can the refinement of the physical/mental/verbal actions of a ritual “end” at the realization – or at least a glimpse – of emptiness? (In the way that our refinement of a conceptual view leads ultimately to the capacity to rest in the space beyond all views.) Or does it end in simply another version (perhaps a very refined one :) ) of egoic solidification?

Can I be relaxed and open enough in my performing of a ritual to allow it to be continuously in-formed by the non-repeatability, the radical uniqueness of the moment? — noticing that it’s never really the “same” (i.e. identical) to the last time I performed it; though also never completely different?

December 30, 2010 at 3:36 am
(12) Hein says:

Barbara said:
‘Hein — I would say that before you discard a “dead” form that you make a sincere effort to give life to it. Most of the time the “deadness” is not the fault of the form.’

An example of “dead form” in my view would be to mechanically and mindlessly run the beads from the mala through your fingers whereas a “living form” would be to mindfully recite a mantra. It is naturally correct that one should self give life to the form even though you do not necessarily fully understand the form. In this sense belief or faith also play a role i.e. you have faith in your teacher, the teaching including the form that you practice with the sangha. And this faith is not “blind faith”, but faith in a living form that has the potential to transform your life.

December 30, 2010 at 11:34 am
(13) kalzang says:

I remember a saying: “in through the form, out through the form”. It came from a former martial arts teacher of mine, and the context was technique.
The idea is this: you observe the teacher doing a certain throwing technique, let’s say. You observe, you analyse, you study, you imitate, you learn to ‘grasp’ the technique. Then, after about a million repetitions and endless technical discussions about position, hand movement, balance, speed etc., you come to a point where you internalise the technique. It becomes an intuitive part of your (in this case martial arts) practice. And then you can let go of the technique itself. Where your hands or feet are during the technique becomes irrelevant: it’s the core of the technique that matters and is effective.

In dharma practice, the same thing may be said to apply. In through the ritual (the form, the technique, the mechanism), out through the ritual. At some point, the emptiness of the ritual becomes manifest, and the ritual loses its function as a signpost for emptiness, at least for you, at that particular phase in your practice. It’s the old ‘drop the boat once you’ve crossed the stream’ thing, isn’t it?

That said, my goodness how difficult it can be at times to keep your rituals fresh! To keep especially daily rituals true and open and meaningful, without letting the mechanism of the thing take over. I feel slowing down helps me best. I take my time for a prayer, a mudra, a visualisation.


December 30, 2010 at 12:59 pm
(14) Alan says:

Interesting language being used here. There is talk about “bias”, “secularism” and other loaded terms. Perhaps that is an accurate statement of fact in some circumstances, but not all.

Now, I’m not much for rituals. This does not come because of bias or a desire for a more secular Buddhism but my own personal experience with how society and many religions use ritual as a form of coercion and judgment. In other words, you must follow this ritual correctly otherwise you will not go to “X” (or “achieve N”) and you are not a good “Y”. You can fill in the variables with whatever human institution you wish. There are a lot of them.

Many of us in the west come to Buddhism from coercive religious backgrounds and really don’t have a lot of patience for religious ritual. We may have also never really fit in and have had secular rituals used to humiliate and harm us. So, a dislike for ritual isn’t always a “bias” (a irrational dislike of something) but can be the result of our own individual experience (and karma).

That said, there are folks who don’t have this background and love the rituals of religion.

I think that it is important for us who are not into ritual to understand that others are not in the same place or on the exact same path. This is not a statement of inferiority or superiority. Ritual can serve a positive purpose and even the most anti-ritual practitioner has rituals (they just have not been imposed or formalized).

My practice is to recognize that my dislike for formal ritual (and I’m feeling it as I write this comment) is not “me”, “mine” or a “self”. It is a habit that has arisen because of past experience and the reaction to that past experience. This past cause and effect has stored itself in this brain as memory and arises in the present as a result of sense contact and perception. That is all it is.

With metta, Alan

December 30, 2010 at 4:07 pm
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Alan — there’s a saying that after a cat has jumped up onto a hot stove, he won’t ever jump onto a hot stove again. But he won’t jump up onto a cold stove, either. And the moral is that just because a perspective comes from experience doesn’t mean it isn’t a biased perspective.

However, you seem to be missing the larger point here, which is is that “ritual” is something we westerners are creating in our heads and projecting onto some parts of Buddhism that isn’t actually there. Just so, separating “practice” and “ritual” into two piles is entirely artificial and arbitrary. In a sense, there is no such thing as a “formal ritual” except in your own thoughts and perspective.

Getting back to what is “bias,” and what isn’t — your discomfort of what might be called “ritual” may have been conditioned by a coercive religious tradition, but to me “conditioning” and “bias” are pretty much the same thing.

And might I add that I grew up in the Bible Belt in the 1950s, which left me with a boatload of conditioning. If I could let it drop, then anyone can let it drop.

Regarding the word “secularists,” notice I put it into quotation marks. It’s what a movement within western Buddhism calls itself; it’s not my term for them. I have nothing against secularism and in fact advocate for secularism in some contexts.

January 3, 2011 at 10:40 am
(16) Yeshe says:

I think ritual is only “empty ritual” when done in hypocrisy, such as the unnamed, watered down, pointless religion of my childhood. Of course, Buddhist ritual is “emptiness and form ritual”!

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