"Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

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"Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Jikan » Mon Oct 07, 2013 4:57 pm

In another thread, Johnny Dangerous made an interesting observation:

Johnny Dangerous wrote:"Free of rights, rituals, and dogma".

Repeat as a mantra 100x daily to be free of rites and rituals. ;)

Seriously though, I see this so much in the sort of New Age "Buddhish" community, anything roughly based on Buddhism, there is so much parroted talk of not having rite and ritual that it's become well... ritual. I know Goenka is not a New Age teacher type of course.

Seriously though, peruse any forum on New Age and similar subjects, and it starts to become apparent that trying to be "free of rite and ritual" can easily turn into it's own kind of neurosis.

from: http://www.dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.ph ... 40#p159848

I've encountered this resistance to anything that seems like a ritual too in my interactions with people who are interested in practice. It's unfortunate, because it means that people who have this hangup miss an opportunity. Specifically: many practices that appear to be "empty rituals" or ad hoc concatenations of superstition or whatever are often intelligently-designed structures for carrying Buddhist teachings into action. I explain how this works in regard to one particular ritual, the basic Tendai sutra service, at the link below.

http://dctendai.blogspot.com/2013/10/an ... ce-or.html

Somehow, there seems to be such a lack of imagination in our culture--or such a rigid set of expectations about what "real" Buddhist practice is--that the idea of performing a ritual among peers is rejected outright as a form of meditation.

I bring this topic up here because I'd like to know how others have helped people (or themselves) overcome this particular limitation. How can one effectively introduce these practices in such a way as to get people who think they are interested in Buddhism but are dead set against "ritual" to consider joining in with an open mind?

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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Mon Oct 07, 2013 5:42 pm

Man that's a good question...i've thought about this one and come to the conclusion that two things (among others) are definitely at play:

Number one is obvious, a desire to have everything in one's practice square with secular notions of practicality, down-to-earthness, and avoid anything that might make take you away from yourself, or the worldview that is most comfortable..ironically enough for Buddhism.

The second is a subconscious protestant cultural thing, and concern about "idol worship" and magic, i've heard and seen people sort of gasp at the idea of even doing prostrations..I remember someone saying "what kind of Buddha would want you to bow down before them", in many cases I swear these people sound much like Christians in their critique of practices, even though they are usually atheists. For Vajrayana purposes, these people are basically self-limiting to sutra practice by this sort of mindset.

I have no idea how to respond to it really, I guess my main response is "have you ever tried these things", and if they say no, then there is really nothing more to talk about. To date, everyone I know who is Buddhist, or "Buddhish" that throws around these kinds of criticisms has either never tried them, or only given them a cursory try, with no real attempt to stay with them, or know their purpose. They started from the point of view that the practices were nonsense, and the practices never worked for them because they thought were nonsense, and they seem surprised by the results.

The one thing we have to acknowledge though, the stuff in involved in many of these practices is very alien to most westerners, so at first glance it is almost guaranteed that there is no context at all. When my family or friends has wondered at my fascination with this kind of practice, I try to explain that for me, the aesthetics are a big deal, art and aesthetics has played a part in spirituality far back as anyone can remember, and for me, that IS practice, and not just "trappings". It seems like connecting ritual practices to aesthetic value makes some sense to some of these folks. For instance, I make music, I like music, and it is naturally "meditative" for me, so mantra chanting for me is one of the powerful forms of practice. Obviously sound, speech and vision are hugely important parts of how we function, so actively using these things to transform our views is not strange...any more than it would be strange to do something like walking meditation.

Don't get me wrong, there are 84,000 doors and all that, and some people just don't like ritual, I just see alot of complaints about it as knee-jerk reaction and a particular kind of dogmatism.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Qing Tian » Mon Oct 07, 2013 8:37 pm

Totally agree JD and great post! :twothumbsup:

Funnily enough, a lot of people who are dead set against any form of rite or ritual in their pursuit of spiritual growth are obliviously happy to conform to ritual (rules and regulations) in many other aspects of their lives. Ultimately I guess that, as you have suggested, it comes down to how those rituals are perceived, both on a personal level and as a reflection of one's perceived image in the society one lives in. And certainly in Western societies there is this religious association concerning the giving up of personal spiritual authority to either an institution or a godhead - which leads an awful lot of Christians (for instance, and in my personal experience) to conclude that Buddhists are praying for intercession to Buddha in the temple much as they pray to God. Even offering an explanation of the difference does not tend to remove this suspicion.

Another strange thing about all this is the postion taken in the US on religion. State and religion are separated, and there is apparent freedom to worship how one sees fit (within the law of course). However, I cannot think of a single US president that has not declared his 'religion' as a qualifier for office. And this is apparently both accepted and expected by the populace at large. Juxtapositions abound.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby anjali » Mon Oct 07, 2013 9:42 pm

Wikipedia has this nice link on Ritual.

The question, for me, comes down to what one thinks the function of ritual is. There are any number of sociological functions for ritual, such as group cohesion or control. One aspect of ritual is that it provides a formal structure for connecting the practitioner with the sacred, where sacred in this case can be thought of as "worthy of or regarded with reverence, awe, or respect." Of course there is no direct correlation between the practice of ritual and a sense of sacredness, but ritual can provide a framework for the natural expression of reverence and respect. Unfortunately, reverence, respect and awe are attitudes that seem to be in short supply within our secular society. The profane dominates the sacred.

It's been said that devotion toward the enlightened and compassion toward the unenlightened are essential qualities for the practitioner to awaken. Until people feel some modest amount of devotion, rituals will always be considered burdensome.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby lobster » Tue Oct 08, 2013 4:54 am

I feel it is useful to introduce forms and benefits of ritual that people are familiar with.
Dating, psychodrama, weddings, going to a cinema and suspending disbelief temporarily for example. Theatre is the ritual enactment of possibilities. It is not real but points to realities . . . :smile:
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby TaTa » Tue Oct 08, 2013 5:57 am

I noticed the same thing after doing a goenka retreat. All that talk about no dogma/ritual ...etc ended up being quite dogmatic. Specially the part where almost every single day he says that mantras and deity visualization are not a suitable form of practice. It was to repetitive. And i also find some "mindfulness" students following the same path.
Most of the people when they talk about buddhism without beliefs they do not realize that their own worldviews are also beliefs and they are kind threatened bye any view that challenges them. I guess most of the people get lazy when it gets a little bit more complicated than "psychological practices", basic mindfulness and vipassana. They are not willing to study and put this rituals to the test like more basic practices and i guess that is ok, just wish they werent so judgmental without knowledge about them.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Alfredo » Thu Oct 10, 2013 12:16 am

In the West, a number of people have complained about ritualism within Christianity, and sought to reduce ritual to a minimum, for the sake of restoring what is thought to be the original emphasis. The Baha'i religion explicitly boasts that it has a minimum of ritual, as if this were obviously a good thing. Others praise rituals such as the mass, seeing in it a source of depth and stability which more modernist liturgies cannot hope to match.

It is quite true that much Tibetan Buddhist activity is quite dull--for example, a lama chanting something that not even Tibetans understand, perhaps for two or three days; or prayers and other acts of worship repeated 100,000 times, or some other ridiculous degree. Traditionally these things are thought to carry a kind of magic in their own right, quite apart from whether one understands or practices what has been said. That newcomers (or old-timers) would regard such things with frustration or bewilderment is only natural. Imagine how an outsider to Christianity might experience mass.

See Jonathan Z Smith, Drudgery Divine, and Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained (the part about the "tragedy of the theologian") for explanations of why institutionalized religions find it difficult not to be boring. Boyer sees it as a byproduct standardization / guild-like (or franchise-like) behavior, which is necessary if religions are to grow beyond a very localized shamanism.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Thu Oct 10, 2013 1:20 am

Jikan wrote:In another thread
Johnny Dangerous wrote:"Free of rights, rituals, and dogma".Repeat as a mantra 100x daily to be free of rites and rituals. ;)

That is just TOOOOOO funny! Thanks.
I will definitely remember that one.

I think all of the comments on this have been really good,
and very true.
If what we call a 'ritual' has an actual purpose to the person performing it,
then it is not meaningless at all. It becomes a tool.
But if a person feels no connection to such a ritual, has no need for such a tool,
that person can never really be convinced of its usefulness.

My experience has mostly been with Vajrayana Buddhism
which is just overflowing with ritual\and a few of them, i relate to those,
i have been given instructions by my teacher(s) regarding exactly what is going on
even though to an 'outsider' it may appear to be
nonsense for the sake of bullsh#.

At the same time, there are many vajrayana practices that have no meaning to me whatsoever,
that are things I shall never 'believe' , if you want to use that term.

But what comes to mind, for people who are interested in dharma
yet so adverse to ritual and ceremony 9that they oftyen do not understand)
is the question of whether they really believe that something called 'enlightenment"
is actually possible
or is it just a philosophical possibility,
like something theoretical
that grad students discuss over beer.
.
.
.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Konchog1 » Thu Oct 10, 2013 1:27 am

Alfredo wrote:Imagine how an outsider to Christianity might experience mass.
I remember hearing (I don't know if it's true or not) that the Aztecs didn't understand why the Spaniards were disgusted by cannibalism. After all, they imagine they're eating their god every sunday.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Thu Oct 10, 2013 1:39 am


But what comes to mind, for people who are interested in dharma
yet so adverse to ritual and ceremony 9that they oftyen do not understand)
is the question of whether they really believe that something called 'enlightenment"
is actually possible
or is it just a philosophical possibility,
like something theoretical
that grad students discuss over beer.
.
.
.


I've found alot of people i've known with this mindset view enlightenment as something like a consistent worldy happiness, something like simply being free to live your life as you choose free of your own demons. Certainly a laudable, dharma-oriented goal, but not enlightenment. It feels like kind of dumbing down what enlightenment is historically in a Buddhist context, and from that point of view, I can see why they think you don't need to do anything but sit vipasanna, and "clear out" the bad stuff, and viola, enlightenment. It's related to the historical model, but kind of..... cartoony I guess i'd say. Also one of the downsides to Buddhism being presented in a kind of sterile, "psychology and philosophy only" way.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Wayfarer » Thu Oct 10, 2013 2:35 am

Some years ago I undertook a formal Refuge Ceremony at the large Nan Tien temple south of Sydney. One of the things I noticed in the ceremony was 'non-reliance on rites and rituals'. I thought that it was a bit of a contradiction, in that this was a ritual and very much a 'rite of passage'.

However I have come to understand that ritual has its place. The key point in Buddhism is, I think, not to view it as instrumental or for the purpose of something. It has to be undertaken for its own sake. But if it is, it is an effective means of 'acting your intention'. It is something you do, not merely think or say you're going to do.

My own ritual is very minimalist, comprising three bows at beginning and end of sitting, and some very simple recitations. But I have come to realize the very act of bowing is actually quite significant. 'Western mind' does not bow to anything - ego is king. Just to bow to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is an acknowledgement of their significance and station in life and where you're at in the overall scheme.

A lot of the attitudes are shaped by our cultural heritage, which is inclined to be against anything ritualistic or religious. That is partially because of the Reformation, I guess, but it is also because of the general Western move towards secularism. But if you really do let materialism go as a mindset - if you realize that the fundamental basis of reality is not actually matter - then you have to be open to the idea that there really are other planes and dimensions of existence, just as Buddhists have always said. In which case, taking refuge is also an alignment with the Buddha throughout the various realms.

I don't know if my very basic ritual will become any more elaborate (although it could certainly do with a bit more regular commitment.) But regardless I have basically overcome that sense of resistance to any notion of religious actions.

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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby rory » Thu Oct 10, 2013 2:50 am

Good question and very good answers. As I wrote before in another thread, those who have a good birth, education, live surrounded by technology that makes their lives very easy and pleasurable, really don't want to leave Samsara. I was also brought up in a protestantized 'ritual' free culture, but I went beyond my personal likes/dislikes to leave Samsara, as my Zen/Son, Shinshu etc practices weren't working at purifying my mind. I found that various practices, deity mantras, chanting, mudras and devotional faith (really the biggest surprise) were extremely helpful. How would I have known if I had not been open to trying them?

Perhaps Jikan you should precisely challenge these people in this way; they are simply clinging to preconceptions and idea and Buddhism is about change.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Alfredo » Thu Oct 10, 2013 4:07 am

Another issue is that rituals often serve to unite a community. They can provide comfort and stability, even in times of upheaval. This doesn't always work when the ritual jumps cultures. Hence the reluctance of Westerners to hire monks to do various rituals that other countries hire them for, but the new interest in crafting Buddhist wedding ceremonies.

The social function explains moderate ritualism--church on Sunday, that sort of thing--but not the strange willingness to do three-year retreats, geshe degrees, Buddhology Ph.D's, etc. Perhaps Western Buddhists feel a need to demonstrate commitment to the Buddhist (or lineage-related) identity, by means of a conspicuous expenditure of time and energy. "Native" Buddhists would not need to go to such great lengths.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Wayfarer » Thu Oct 10, 2013 7:37 am

Well, I did a post-graduate degree in Buddhist Studies - an MA, not a PhD - at quite a bit of expense and a lot of work, because it gave me a way of interacting with the Dharma which I normally don't have. My only regret is not having some way to continue with it or put it to work. If I could keep studying formally, I would.

I was watching an online video of a Rinpoche a while ago and he was saying something about Buddhist practice being 'naturally religious'. Like, no big deal, that's just what it is. I realized a long while ago, that to learn anything from meditation, you have to, as the saying goes, 'do it religiously' - like, get up every day and sit. ( I am not a regular as clockwork, but still....)

When I did the Goenka retreat some years back, they stress 'just sit one hour morning and evening every day'. I have never managed to maintain such an exacting schedule, but I salute anyone who does, because it is a real discipline. It is hard to commit to anything for two hours a day - well, anything that isn't simply leisure. So really to maintain that level of commitment, and to observe the lay precepts, is really a sadhana, even if Goenka-ji says he's not teaching 'organized religion'.

I think actually it is a bit puzzling, this hostility to 'anything religious' that is current in Western society. Sometimes I think that it is like a kind of cultural pathology because of the amount of conflict and violence associated with religions in European history. Other times, I wonder if it simply is the resistance to higher truth.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby futerko » Thu Oct 10, 2013 9:18 am

I think many people are just as ritualistic in certain behaviours - if they have a reason or a perceived result for that behaviour.
It doesn't have to be rational, but it does need to be rationalised.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby KonchokZoepa » Thu Oct 10, 2013 9:25 am

even smoking a cigarette, taking a dump all those are rituals, we just seem to have in the west silly idea of what ritual is. something mystical and stuff
If the thought of demons
Never rises in your mind,
You need not fear the demon hosts around you.
It is most important to tame your mind within....

In so far as the Ultimate, or the true nature of being is concerned,
there are neither buddhas or demons.
He who frees himself from fear and hope, evil and virtue,
will realize the insubstantial and groundless nature of confusion.
Samsara will then appear as the mahamudra itself….

-Milarepa

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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Khechara » Thu Oct 10, 2013 9:57 am

Qing Tian wrote:And certainly in Western societies there is this religious association concerning the giving up of personal spiritual authority to either an institution or a godhead - which leads an awful lot of Christians (for instance, and in my personal experience) to conclude that Buddhists are praying for intercession to Buddha in the temple much as they pray to God. Even offering an explanation of the difference does not tend to remove this suspicion


Absolutely right, Qing Tian. This is an argument which is shared by both Christians and modern 'rational' skeptics who so love to pounce on Eastern religions without doing proper research. I am an out and out rationalist but I believe in doing thorough research into such ideas before making half-baked statements like these 'skeptics' and Christians. I have heard arguments that I may not be such a good rationalist after all, because even though I don't believe in 'God' or superstitions, I am still fairly attracted to the Tantric traditions of Buddhism and the so-called 'Hinduism'. Never has a statement been so laughable as this. This mindset reflects how a majority of materialists view Eastern spiritual traditions. I also blame erratic followers of such traditions for being too pompous about their 'mystical' belief systems, who do not bother to understand the 'science' behind their own practice. Of course there are questionable practices such as spirit possessions, or black magic charms, but such practices have prevailed in every tradition all across the globe. The ethos of the higher practices in Buddhist Tantras go beyond the mundane understanding of 'mysticism' or 'magick' in general. I have also noticed this mindset among Western 'occultists', especially those whom adhere to the renaissance era occultism of Crowley, Grant, Spare, Blavatsky and the likes. It is interesting how big this renaissance esotericism in the West is nowadays even though the culture has become strictly materialist, or in better terms - 'rationalist'.

Why has the West accepted, studied and practiced the diverse tenets of Buddhism and also 'Hinduism' (I hate this term but have no option than to use it because of it is popular acceptance) in the 20th and 21st Century despite all its technological and scientific advancements? Why these technological developments have been used so much in order to spread these traditions and get a better understanding of them (this forum itself is a great example of this)?
Rationalists, skeptics, Christians etc. should seriously introspect these questions, delve deeper into the subject matter being dealt with, and then come with an actual 'rational' understanding of what these traditions want to teach mankind instead of creating conceited and erroneous ideas arising from their limited perception.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Qing Tian » Thu Oct 10, 2013 10:14 am

Why has the West accepted, studied and practiced the diverse tenets of Buddhism and also 'Hinduism' .... in the 20th and 21st Century despite all its technological and scientific advancements?


Personally I suspect that a lot of people feel an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with life as it is and thus delve into these things as part of a desperate search for relief from dukkha. Also, another aspect is that there might be this perception that all the answers must come from outside of one's own society/culture - as one cannot find them within.

Then again, perhaps there is real recognition that some really deep and meaningful teachings exist in these ancient cultures, and that they are worth pursuing.

I guess the reason one chooses as an explanation of the above quote may come down to how pessimistic/optimistic one is!

Beyond that, I don't really have a clue. :shrug:
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby Jikan » Thu Oct 10, 2013 12:47 pm

rory wrote:Good question and very good answers. As I wrote before in another thread, those who have a good birth, education, live surrounded by technology that makes their lives very easy and pleasurable, really don't want to leave Samsara.


I think this is exactly the crux of the problem. Samsaric mind recognizes that authentic practice is a threat to its very survival, and hence pushes that away by insisting on this other thing...

Perhaps Jikan you should precisely challenge these people in this way; they are simply clinging to preconceptions and idea and Buddhism is about change.


I've attempted this in various ways, with very limited results. This surely reflects my very limited capacity & competence.

I think it also reflects the power of the point you make above. To give an illustration: our little Tendai group meets on Tuesday evenings at a large Unitarian church, in a rented basement room. An average of twelve people come for meditation practice. By contrast, on Monday nights, at least a hundred come for insight meditation (Tara Brach style), which includes an entirely different set of rituals from ours, but which are invisible as rituals to those who are regulars: sitting in pews in a church, listening to a middle-aged man with a Lady Gaga-type microphone murmur instructions, &c. Sometimes I get the feeling that "radical acceptance" is taken to mean that Buddhist practice is about making yourself more comfortable with the samsaric aspects of your life, rather than any kind of realization or transformation.
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Re: "Free of ritual" & expectations on Buddhist practice

Postby praeteritum » Thu Oct 10, 2013 1:02 pm

I was brought up a catholic. I went to a catholic school, where the pupils prayed to God, Jesus, and Mary, every day.
From a young age, I was more rational than average. I used to question things, perhaps not saying out loud, but meditating on questions and answers.
At this young age, I came to a conclusion, that if God and therefore Jesus, are full of compassion, then why do I have to pray and worship to get noticed?
Surely, if God is omniscient, I would not need to worship?

In truth, there are various understandings of worship. Some do it, to raise higher a divine being such as a God. Some do it, because they believe giving up the ego sense of power, is a sign of respect to God.
These two raising and lowering of egos, are what many people believe worship to be. It's difficult to see, how in Buddhism it can be different. That in Buddhism worship is more a sign of respect, rather than a boosting of Buddha's ego.
Worship is more (certainly in the western world.) associated with Gods, and so some may see Buddhism as blasphemous, especially so when they hear that in Buddhism you are ultimately attempting to become one with Buddha, the same, an equal.

Rituals are certainly strange when you're not used to them, or anything like them. Seeing a ritual for the first time may trigger many questions in the mind. However, people seem to often reach misunderstandings.
The rituals are to train the mind, to bring it to the right path, so "it" can be free from "it". Not everyone needs them perhaps, Pratyekabuddha?
I guess it comes down to, can you every single day, meditate? And at all times, when the flames of ego and that of desires start to burn, can you quench them?
If not, the rituals are there to help.
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