Thread: The purpose of rituals

  1. #1

    The purpose of rituals

    This is an article by journalist and Zen practitioner Barbara O'Brien:

    Ritual in Buddhism

    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 in 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.

    Continues at the link:

    Any thoughts ?

  2. #2
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    Mar 2017
    Great article. You certainly miss out on an important dimension of practice if you miss out on some formal, collective practice. You miss out on the emotional impact that taking part in such things brings.

  3. #3
    I think its always worth remembering that attachment to rites and rituals is considered to be one of the 10 fetters.

    The late Bhikkhu Buddhadasa made the following comments in the section "Grasping and Clinging" in "Handbook for Mankind":

    3.Attachment to rites and rituals (Silabbatupadana). This refers to clinging to meaningless traditional practices that have been thoughtlessly handed down, practices which people choose to regard as sacred and not to be changed under any circumstances.

    In Thailand there is no less of this sort of thing than in other places. There are beliefs involving amulets, magical artifacts and all manner of secret procedures. There exist, for instance, the beliefs that on rising from sleep one must pronounce a mystical formula over water and then wash one's face in it, that before relieving nature one must turn and face this and that point of the compass, and that before one partakes of food or goes to sleep there have to be other rituals. There are beliefs in spirits and celestial beings, in sacred trees and all manner of magical objects.

    This sort of thing is completely irrational. People just don't think rationally; they simply cling to the established pattern. They have always done it that way and they just refuse to change. Many people professing to be Buddhists cling to these beliefs as well and so have it both ways; and this even includes some who call themselves bhikkhus, disciples of the Buddha.

  4. #4
    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
    London UK
    I found the article to be a worthwhile read, as it made me re-assess my view of ritual.

    The essential claim of the article is that "...[rituals] are a tool to be used in the overall attempt to rid yourself of delusion...". In other words, a raft to help cross the river.

    I think it's all too easy for any of us to think we have no further use for ritual, because we have passed beyond that stage of need. Certainly, an attachment to ritual is rightly described as one of the fetters, and that attachment has to be discarded along with the others.

    The article doesn't go that far. It seems to suggest that you can't be a Buddhist without always following the rituals. It doesn't seem to recognise a distinction between helpful ritual and unhelpful superstitious practice.

    The final paragraph, headed "The Heart of Buddhism" appears to me to be a baseless conclusion.
    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.
    I really fail to see how the author can claim that rituals "are your life practice, intensified". I'll give the article 5/10.

  5. #5
    Forums Member Polar Bear's Avatar
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    Sep 2017
    I think rituals can be useful, but others not so much. Use of and belief in the power of amulets for example goes against the doctrine of kamma (and is useless superstition from a secular perspective), but bowing to a buddha statue can be a way of showing gratitude. As a westerner raised to be christian and therefore very anti-idolatry, and also thinking of bowing as being somewhat humiliating, when I went to a monastery for the first time, bowing felt weird, but I did it to be respectful, even when no one else was in the sala to see me. Clinging to non-ritualism is also clinging to a kind of practice. Anyway, following rituals or precepts and practices is only a fetter if you think they are efficacious in and of themselves, but not if you simply use them as a means to cultivate the wholesome and abandon the unwholesome.

    Silabatta Sutta:

    Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “Ananda, every precept & practice, every life, every holy life that is followed as of essential worth: is every one of them fruitful?”

    “Lord, that is not [to be answered] with a categorical answer.”

    “In that case, Ananda, give an analytical answer.”

    “When—by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth—one’s unskillful mental qualities increase while one’s skillful mental qualities decline: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitless. But when—by following a life of precept & practice, a life, a holy life that is followed as of essential worth—one’s unskillful mental qualities decline while one’s skillful mental qualities increase: that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth is fruitful.”

    That is what Ven. Ananda said, and the Teacher approved. Then Ven. Ananda, [realizing,] “The Teacher approves of me,” got up from his seat and, having bowed down to the Blessed One and circumambulating him, left.

    Then not long after Ven. Ananda had left, the Blessed One said to the monks, “Monks, Ananda is still in training, but it would not be easy to find his equal in discernment.”
    Last edited by Polar Bear; 19 Feb 18 at 06:10.

  6. #6
    Forums Member Olderon's Avatar
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    Concord, New Hampshire, U.S.A.
    Ritual is of value when certain behaviors are repetitive. Example: When we experience bowel or bladder tension, the body knows exactly what it must do to rid itself of bodily waste products. How to do it is not at question. How comes naturally. We have been following this ritual since we were born, and perhaps even before that.

    Where to rid ourselves of bodily waste is frequently at issue. After birth, and as we age to adulthood, our parents "train" us in such customs and rituals. Groups and cultures to which we belong do likewise.

    As members of such groups and generations discover improvements to existing ritualized processes we adopt them, perhaps as the result of social pressure and subsequently incorporate them into our rituals, thereby preserving them for the benefit of our posterity.

    Continuing our biological waste example: When we lived in forests, personal hygiene with regard to this biological waste removal ritual was facilitated by simply reaching out to the nearest convenient tree or bush and plucking leaves for this purpose. As a consequence over time we learned from our experiences, especially from mistakes, which plant leaves exuded topical poisons or irritants, using them without incident, or avoiding them so as to protect ourselves from rashes, burns, other affectations, or worse. As a result, our rituals brought us to choose certain regions or areas around our homes to practice this bodily waste removal ritual.

    Other considerations, which might affect this location choosing ritual could be unpleasant odors, or we learned to choose locations which facilitated prevention of contamination of potable water sources, which otherwise could have resulted in water bourn illnesses leading to even death. As we learned more appropriate taboos arose.

    So, in such situations, we can see how rituals can be very beneficial to ourselves, our families, our societies and even entire cultures.

    However, when a ritual contains behavioral processes, which are useless, or even harmful and/or the benefits become lost to our memory, then we need to examine their original purposes. From a personal example, our meditation group routinely followed the ritual to burn incense next to a statue of Buddha which sat on an altar. The vapors and smoke emitted in our small chapel caused many of us to experience respiratory irritation to the point of coughing and later requiring an exit to gain respiratory relief. Later, when I researched the reason for incense being used in such groups in the past, I found that incense was used to prevent flying and biting insects from irritating participants in the group. As meditation was conducted routinely outside in forest areas at the time this incense burning ritual made and was beneficial, whereas, in the context of an enclosed room, it did not.

    When I explained the reason for incense to the meditation group leader he eliminated its use in the chapel. Later, when he left, the group decided to introduce its use again. For that reason, my wife and I decided to leave the group as we could not take the eye and throat irritation due to our personal physical sensitivities to the vapors and smoke emitted.
    Last edited by Olderon; 19 Feb 18 at 18:58.

  7. #7
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    Sep 2018
    I think that rituals are counter intuitive to having a spiritual practice. However, rituals and dogma are inherent in nearly all religions. So it depends on whether someone seeks a religious life or a spiritual life. We have more than a few rituals at my local Zen center. I think they need to go, but I don't run the center, someone else does. In my life outside the center, which compromises perhaps 9o% of my time, I have been very studious in eliminating all rituals, and feel it has helped me to stay more in the present moment and be more "there" for others as well as myself. That's my experience anyway.

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