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.
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.