Saturday, January 02, 2010

Ritual as starting-point

As I’ve been writing these pieces I realize I am referring quite a bit to rituals: pujas, sadhanas, prayers, mantra recitations, prostrations, offerings, practices to nurture the dharma protectors, etc. There are also many moral rules one follows, especially staying where I am, which strives to maintain a semi-monastic environment.

I know many Westerners, including at one time myself, get the creeps when it comes to what they perceive to be religious rituals, in fact, many people say it is or was the rituals that drove them away from religious practice in the first place.

So like to talk a little bit about these rules and rituals.

In my mind, moral rules and rituals are meaningful when they are practiced in the right spirit, that is to say, after complete understanding and with clear awareness. If we celebrate a ritual merely as a matter of routine, or because it is prescribed by tradition or convention, then it is not only useless, but a hindrance. If a ritual is carried out consciously, conscientiously, and with a complete understanding of its meaning, then it becomes an act of meditation – a meditation that is born within, transferred without and turned into action.

So, when we offer incense or flowers to the Buddha, a normal ritual of offering, we should not imagine that we are doing the Buddha a service, but rather that we are doing something good for ourselves and our fellow sentient beings. It is an expression of striving for enlightenment for ourselves and for the whole world. It expresses our gratitude and readiness to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha to awaken the still sleeping qualities of enlightenment within ourselves.

Buddhas are everywhere, from the ancient temples of India to the garden ornament department in every Walmart in central Florida. Get past the iconic commercialism, let your judgments pass on, and realize the incredible opportunity this presents.

For some, the representations of Buddha may be crass commercialism at work, but those who really understand what they’re seeing look upon a Buddha image as something that reminds them of the Buddha within themselves, as an expression of that great ideal that the historical Buddha realized in his life, and that they, too, can realize in theirs. (In this regard, how wonderful that there representations of Buddhas everywhere!)

So, we’re not doing the Buddha or Bodhisattvas favors by honoring them -- I don't believe they need our favors :-) -- but we are strengthening our own determination to bring the Dharma to realization.

When we look at a statue or thangka of Buddha, even if we know nothing about Buddhism, we see a representation of a perfectly spiritual human being, a human being who never lost the firm ground of reality, because he accepted and ennobled his bodily existence without clinging to it, without depending on it, and thus lived in peace with himself and the world.

What inner bliss and happiness are mirrored in his face, what equanimity and calm appears in every limb of his body, what profound silence and harmony!

Here there are no more wishes, there us no desire, no restlessness, no insecurity, no chasing after material things, no dependence on anything at all. Here is the highest bliss: in a word – completeness, perfection.


Prostrations are commonly used to express our veneration to these aspects of ourselves that the Buddha represents. We can raise our joined hands to our foreheads, to honor the highest realization, to call to mind that we too can realize it by stimulating and activating these higher, more subtle centers of consciousness to a higher awakening.

In prostration, we touch our foreheads to the ground, an exercise in humility, something that comes with great difficulty to Westerners. It feels uncomfortable and hurts our pride, our vanity, our ego and our false sense of dignity. But in reality, this touching of the ground with our foreheads is not only an act of (healthy) humility, but also a symbol that the highest consciousness has to descent into the depth of material existence and that the earth is the basis, the womb of all development and spiritual realization.

This representative descending into material existence is meaningful.

As long as we consider matter and spirit as irreconcilable opposites, we split the world into two halves and lose the ground under out feet. If mind cannot find expression in material form, or in some action or achievement in life, it remains a mere thought or a vague emotion that remains hidden, never finding expression in words, deeds or works or art.

If Michelangelo, or Falkner, or Frost, or Mozart had never given expression to their feelings in sculptures, music, paintings, writings or poems, the world would never have received the gift of their creations.

This is true of us “ordinary” humans as well; those who do not give form to their feelings and thoughts by expressing them in some shape or other have lived, I believe, in vain, whereas those who have expressed their feelings and thoughts in works and deeds have both enriched their own experiences and contributed to the well-being and development of all.

So, to bring this back to where it started (thanks for staying with it), ritual is one form -- a starting point, if you will -- in which, regardless of our religious beliefs or practices we can learn and then perfect the expression of our deepest and feelings.

But the rituals and rules we engage in must be the expression of clear thought, or genuine feeling. Otherwise they become just the empty repetition of conventional forms, a significant obstacle on the path.

Stopping the finger now, thanks for reading.