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Ritual or Mysticism

If you attend our practices you’ll definitely find ritual - but probably far less than you were expecting from Buddhist practice. The reason that there is less here than you might expect is two-fold. This first is the lineage of our Order. We are ordained in the Chan lineage with quite a lot of influence from Soto Zen. Both of these schools of Buddhism heavily emphasize seated meditation practice - called zazen - over the more ritual practices of other schools. We are also striving to build an authentic, Western Buddhism so we are very intentional in examining the traditional rituals of our lineage and continuing those that can speak to a Western mind but culling those that are too culturally bound to China or Japan. This is an ongoing process and subject to much discussion within the Order.

However, there are still rituals. Does this mean that we promote a mystical or mythical form of Buddhism? I think our name should make it clear that we don’t - we are Pragmatic Buddhism afterall. While mysticism often uses ritual - often to cloak it’s lack of actual content - that doesn’t mean that all ritual is associated with mystical beliefs. Let’s take a look at humanity’s need for ritual in everyday life.

How many of you have been to a sports venue where everyone is dressed in the same colors, chants the same chants, moves in the same way (think of the Wave and how people respond to those who don’t take part)? All of this is ritual. Rituals bond us to a group. They comfort us in stressful situations - think of closing your eyes and counting to ten - they define our day - I know I have my rituals when brewing coffee in the morning and I’ll bet you have all sorts of morning and evening rituals as well. John Daido Loori in his book “Bringing the Sacred to Life” says, “Ritual is simply an inherent part of social interaction”.

I think this is better understood in the East than in the West. In the West we are highly polarized when looking at ritual - we either cling tightly to the forms or we reject them completely. In neither case, however, do we really think about what the rituals mean and how they affect us both consciously and unconsciously. It is generally not mysticism that defines our reaction to ritual but habit. Whether they cling to it or reject it most people don’t think about the intentionality of ritual - either in their lives or in their practice. Loori again says that it’s difficult to talk about ritual because it is at its heart so experiential; but I think we have to talk about ritual’s intention if we’re going to make rational decisions about its validity in our lives.

Intentionality is the defining characteristic of authentic ritual. Let’s look at the simple act most often done by Buddhists - the gassho. This is the joining of the hands at the palms, raising them to the level of the mouth or nose and inclining the head in a slight bow. It is done multiple times during a normal group practice, but what does it mean. One thing to look at is how it’s used. Between Buddhists it’s always a sign of equal respect. You may gassho to a monk but he or she will return it equally to you. The intention of the gassho is to express respect and this is by all for all. It is very similar to the Hindu Namaste - “I bow to the divine in you” - without the theistic interpretation. I once said to my sangha that intention should always be at the base of ritual for it to be pragmatic. One of my members responded that she often used the rituals to bring the intentions to mind. Brilliant. This is not a ‘chicken or the egg’ question. It doesn’t matter whether intention informs your ritual or ritual focusses your intention. The important thing is that they both be present.

Actually, as I look at my own use of ritual I see that much of it has ritual as the formative action and intention as the result. When I offer incense in honor of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha the very act focusses my mind away from everyday concerns and toward a state of peace and compassion that enhances my practice. The biggest danger in ritual is not that it becomes integrated into your life but that it loses intention and becomes nothing more than habit - devoid of meaning. This was the problem in the Roman Catholic Church that Pope John wanted to address in Vatican II, and you can still see how much that upset people. We get much more attached to our habits than toward our intentions. This is when ritual moves away from pragmatic (or to use the Buddhist technical term ‘skillful’) and becomes cloaked in mysticism. If we lose the intention we have to come up with reasons that justify our ritual actions - ‘my team won’t win if I don’t turn my baseball cap inside out’.

If you come to our practice and don’t understand a ritual please ask me about it. If it doesn’t integrate with your intentionality, don’t do it. If there are things that you do that really speak to you and we don’t do, go ahead and incorporate them. Ritual isn’t about ‘doing things right’ it’s about having the right intentions.


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