Ritual in Buddhism

The Purpose of Rituals in Buddhism

the way of the heart
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If you are to practice Buddhism with formal sincerity rather than just as an intellectual exercise, you will soon confront the fact that there are many, many different rituals is Buddhism. This fact can cause some people to recoil, as it can feel alien and cult-like. To westerners conditioned to prize individuality and uniqueness, the practice observed in a Buddhist temple can seem a little scary and mindless.

 

However, this is exactly the point. Buddhism is all about realizing the ephemeral nature of ego. As Dogen said, 'To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.' In surrendering to Buddhist ritual, you quiet yourself, abandon you individuality and preconceptions, and let the myriad things experience themselves. It can be very powerful.

What Rituals Mean

It's often said that you have to practice Buddhism to understand Buddhism. Through the experience of Buddhist practice you come to appreciate why it is the way it is, including the rituals. The power of the rituals manifests when you engage in them fully and give yourself to them completely, with your entire heart and mind. When you are fully mindful of a ritual, the "I" and "other" disappear and the heart-mind opens.

But if you hold back, choosing what you like and rejecting what you don't like about the ritual, there's no power.

The role of ego is to discriminate, analyze and categorize, and the goal of ritual practice is to abandon that aloneness and surrender to something profound. 

The many schools and sects and traditions of Buddhism have diverse rituals, and there are also diverse explanations for those rituals. You might be told that repeating a certain chant or offering flowers and incense gains you merit, for example.

All these explanations can be useful metaphors, but the true meaning of the ritual will unfold as you practice it. Whatever explanation you may be given for a particular ritual, however, the ultimate purpose of all Buddhist rituals is the realization of enlightenment.

This is Not Magic

There's no magic power in lighting a candle or bowing to an altar or prostrating yourself by touching your forehead to the floor. If you perform a ritual, no force outside yourself will come to your aid and give you enlightenment. Indeed, enlightenment is not a quality that can be possessed, so no one can give it to you anyway In Buddhism, enlightenment (bodhi) is awakening from one's delusions, especially the delusions of the ego and of a separate self. For more on the realization of enlightenment, see "The Four Noble Truths" and "What Is the Self?"

So if rituals do not magically produce enlightenment, what are they good for? Rituals in Buddhism are a upaya, which is Sanskrit for "skillful means." Rituals are performed because they are helpful for those who participate. They are a tool to be used in the overall attempt to rid yourself of delusion and move toward enlightenment. 

Of course, if you are new to Buddhism you may feel awkward and self-conscious as you try to mimic what others around you are doing.

Feeling awkward and self-conscious means you are bumping into your delusional ideas about yourself. Embarrassment is a form of defensiveness about some kind of artificial self image. Acknowledging those feelings and getting beyond them is vital spiritual practice.

We all come into practice with issues and buttons and tender spots that hurt when something pushes them. Usually, we go through our lives wrapped in ego armor to protect the tender spots. But the ego armor causes its own pain, because it cuts us off from ourselves and everyone else. Much Buddhist practice, including ritual, is about peeling off the armor. Usually this is a gradual and gentle process that you do at your own pace, but you will be challenged to step out of your comfort zone at times.

Allow Yourself to Be Touched

Zen teacher James Ishmael Ford, Roshi, acknowledges that people are often disappointed when they come to Zen centers.

"After reading all those popular books on Zen, people visiting an actual Zen center, or sangha, are often confused or even shocked by what they find," he said. Instead of, you know, cool Zen stuff, visitors find rituals, bowing, chanting, and lots of silent meditation.

We come to Buddhism looking for remedies for our pain and fear, but we bring with us our many issues and suspicions. We find ourselves in a place that is foreign and uncomfortable, and we wrap ourselves tighter in our armor. "For most of us as we come into this room, things are encountered with some distance. We place ourselves, frequently, just beyond where we might be touched," the Roshi said.

"We must allow ourselves the possibility of being touched. This is, after all, about life and death, about our most intimate questions. So, we need just a little openness to the possibilities of being moved, to turn in new directions. . .  I would ask a minimum suspension of disbelief, allowing the possibility there are methods to the madness."

Empty Your Cup

Suspending disbelief doesn't mean adopting a new, alien belief. That fact alone is reassuring to many people who perhaps worry that they are being "converted" in some fashion. Buddhism doesn't ask us either to believe or disbelieve; just to be open. Rituals can be transformative if you are open to them. And you never know, going forward, which particular ritual or chant or other practice might open the bodhi door. Something that you find pointless and annoying at first might be of infinite value to you someday.

Long ago, a professor visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The master served tea. When the visitor's cup was full, the master kept pouring. Tea spilled out of the cup and over the table.

"The cup is full!" said the professor. "No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," said the master, "You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

The Heart of Buddhism

The power in Buddhism is found in giving yourself to it.

Certainly there is more to Buddhism than ritual. But rituals are both training and teaching. They are your life practice, intensified. Learning to be open and completely present in ritual is learning to to be open and completely present in your life. And that's where you find the heart of Buddhism.