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A Buddhist Perspective on Ritual

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Buddhists use rituals to explore the key teachings of the Buddha. They can be purely devotional to uplift the heart, or they can be contemplative. They may take place in solitude or in a group, and may be conducted in either the scriptural or cultural language. The Buddha, though, made it very clear that if you attach yourself to rites and rituals, this will block you from understanding his teaching. He said the teachings are like a raft. The raft will get you from this side of the river to the other side, but once you are on the other side, there is no need to carry the raft around with you.


You have probably been to a religious service where some old geezer rattles on about something you don't understand, says turn to this page and that page, stand up, sit down, bow here, chant there, surrounded by objects that you have not got a clue what they mean, in a building either too cold or too hot, with people in funny costume or people with their best on. And maybe inside you are thinking, is it time to go home? When is the food and drink coming? I must remember to remove the fluff from the washing machine.


Rituals have a use


The aim of Buddhism is to awaken to the truth, or Dhamma. That is, to take the Buddha's teachings and apply them and realise them for yourself. A major ritual in Buddhism that is widely misunderstood is bowing – usually to a Buddha statue. There are two levels to the Buddha's teaching – one is conventional and the other is ultimate. On the conventional level, some people bow and use the Buddha images as objects of veneration. But on the ultimate level the Buddha image does nothing: it just reflects back your own self. Whatever you see in the Buddha image you see in yourself. At the time of the last historical Buddha, Gotama, some 2500 years ago, there were no images, no festivals, no celebrations other than offering food to the monks. There may have been weddings and funerals, but there were not even ordination services. Humans are social beings and they like to get together, share and participate, so festivals and images were developed later. Bowing is seen as a way of putting the self into perspective, that there is more to yourself than you think there is.


Traditional Buddhists bow three times: once to the Buddha – to be awake, once to the Dhamma – the truth and once to the Sangha – the assembly of wise people. So each time we bow we can reflect on what it means to be awake to the truth, and what sort of people have done this – how did they do it and what qualities did they have. Again you can take the Buddhist statues and investigate them in the same way, reflecting on the long ears, the way the eyes look down. In the West we have lost our connection to understanding symbology and mythology, whereas in the East symbology and mythology have overtaken the teaching so much that nobody can understand the teaching anymore and so the only thing they can do is practise an empty ritual.


Power in ritual


So just notice how much of our lives are full of rituals: toothbrushing in the morning, wearing black to a funeral, the way we go to school or work, and so on. Rituals and ceremonies, celebration can be extremely powerful events when done with the right intention and contained in the right way. Intention in Buddhism is very important; the basic formula is thought plus energy creates an action. So we can create situations that allow ourselves or other people to unfold. My process of becoming a monk, of losing my identity as a lay person, having a new name given to me, new clothes, the loss of money, the acceptance within a safe and empowering community, had a big effect on my psyche, it's like I could start again. In the monastic rules there is a lovely ceremony of asking forgiveness if you messed up. It is not based on shame but on acknowledgment that something did not go quite right or that things just do go awry sometimes.


There seems to be so much trouble in the world right now with men who have not been initiated into becoming men. [1] They are boys acting as men. There is no ritual, we are programmed for this ritual and when it is removed, we just try to find it somewhere else, for example in streets gangs, Harry Potter or The Matrix. In the first film of The Matrix trilogy twenty minutes in, there are these words:


'Wake up.'


'Have you ever had that feeling that you are not sure whether you are awake or dreaming?'


'You are looking for the answer. It's the question which drives you mad. What is the question?'


So what is your question? How are you going to answer it? The Buddhist teaching is about freeing yourself from attachments. Attachment can generally be noticed when we are suffering, either through clinging to something ('this spiritual or intellectual exercise [a ritual really] will make me a better person) or trying to get rid of something: 'All rituals are rubbish.' Buddhists do not create suffering. Suffering is a natural phenomenon resulting from living in the human realm with a human body. When we are free from attachment we can let life flow, be devotional, celebrate life, but with an understanding or knowing. The Buddha's teaching is for exploration and realisation, not for turning into statues which are frozen in time and space. All conventional reality, the conditioned world, is bound by language and what the Buddha is pointing to is beyond language. Even this article is for reflection, it is not a dogma or proclamation.



[1] See Robert Moore for more about this here – actually this also applies to women.



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