July 31, 2014

Zen Ritual

In her bestselling spiritual memoir "Eat, Pray, Love", Elizabeth Gilbert tells a delightful story of a great Hindu teacher who led his followers in daily meditation in his ashram. The only problem was that the teacher "had a . . . cat", an annoying creature, who used to walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone during meditation.

An article in our essay series: Making Connections: Discourses on the relationship between Zen, Buddhism, and culture
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In her bestselling spiritual memoir "Eat, Pray, Love", Elizabeth Gilbert tells a delightful story of a great Hindu teacher who led his followers in daily meditation in his ashram. The only problem was that the teacher "had a . . . cat", an annoying creature, who used to walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone during meditation. The solution that the teacher came up with was to tie the cat to a pole outside during meditation times to allow everyone to sit undisturbed by the feline intruder. This became a habit and, over the years that followed, into a ritual. Without the the cat tied to the pole in front, no one could sit. Inevitably, once the cat died the ashram was thrown into a serious spiritual crisis!.

Every religion has its rituals, some emerging from everyday life, like the cat tied to the pole. Others seem, from today's perspective, to be the result of conscious design (the Roman Catholic Eucharist or our own ubiquitous Incense Burning). Even such things as the design of our robes and the sequence of our Koan study can be objects of intense spiritual meaning and attention. To those of us who are lighting the incense or meditating on a particular koan or doing our 100,000th prostration or repeating a well-worn and often repeated mantra, these rituals can be of tremendous importance. We accept that they are, for us, a step on the path to enlightenment. Without them, we feel spiritually adrift, floating aimlessly in the sea of nothingness.

Many of us have our favorites: daily chanting of the Heart Sutra, of Hakuin's Song of Zazen; lighting incense at an altar in our home, in a temple, or in a monastery; group walking meditation between sitting sessions; Oryoki during meals; striking the wooden fish during chants; the sound of the bowl being struck at the beginning and end of zazen. Many zen practitioners have very personal rituals that we repeat whenever we sit on a cushion to meditate. Do all of these have real meaning? The obvious answer is that of course they do, or there would be no reason to act them out. Without this personal meaning, doing these things -- even shared and performed simultaneously with many others -- would be no more than an exercise in absurdity.

In fact, many of the Zen masters of our long history have recorded the impromptu encounters of master and student, gathered these stories and insisted that students study them for their depth of meaning and insight. In the repeating of these koans and in the frequent revisiting of them, we have ritualized the spontaneous; another Zen paradox!

So what's the catch? These rituals are important, but they have no intrinsic or inherent meaning. They inherently have no more meaning than if we were to spontaneously shout in joy or in agony when we first walk into a temple. They are meaningful only because we attribute meaning to them. Like so many other things we experience, the true meaning of these actions and of the repeating of sutras, poems and songs is within our "Buddha Mind". They have no absolute meaning. And for Zen practitioners, the search for meaning in our rituals is complicated by the equally compelling search for meaning in our everyday activities. How can we say that chanting sutras is more meaningful than chopping carrots for a shared meal, than sweeping a courtyard after a windstorm, with shoveling snow on a cold winter morning, or with tending the sick and dying when there is no one else to do the task? If we are conscientious in our practice of mindfulness they are, in fact, the same. When we decide each and every one of our actions is, in turn, both spiritually significant (we might even say, "holy") and mundane, we are able to live in the moment. For a Zen practitioner, meaningful ritual becomes undistinguishable from the mundane activities of everyday life and, at the same time, the commonplace actions of human existence become as sanctified as ritual.

Its all in our mind.

Comments (3)
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  • Sai Kumar Reddy

    Dear Fa Dong Shakya,
    Your essay is very interesting but left me a little confused. Is it possible to follow a spiritual path without any outward physical practices like prostrations, puja, Zazen? Can we continue leading our normal life like going to work, eat, watch TV, Surf the internet and hope that we are progressing spiritually? If the spiritual practices have no inherent meaning, then what is it that has inherent meaning?

  • clergy

    Great questions! Thanks! I think you’ve got it, at least most of the way. Let me take up each, but in a different order than how you asked.

    The key word is inherent. Our spiritual practices have no inherent meaning, but they are certainly meaningful to the practitioner. If not, they are no more than empty gestures. Pujas, prostrations, etc., are meaningful because we understand their significance. If we perform those same rituals when visiting Eskimos in northern Canada, they would, correctly, think they were very weird; they have no meaning for them, of course. They only have meaning for Buddhist practitioners. That’s the essence of lack of inherent (or intrinsic) meaning.

    Yes, we can go through life going to work, eating, watching TV, surfing the internet. The issue isn’t so much what we do, but how we do it. First of all, we should be mindful of what we are doing. We should avoid those activities that are harmful to ourselves; to others; to society; in fact, to all sentient beings. Some of the things we can spend our time doing appear to me to have very negative karmic results. I avoid them. The part of your question that is most interesting, though, is whether we can go through life hoping for spiritual progress. From where I sit, hope is a good thing but it isn’t sufficient. If all we have is hope for spiritual progress, it will never happen. Practice is required!

    Two last comments: Zazen, while maybe including (for many of us) some ritualistic aspects, isn’t strictly speaking a ritual. It is something we do, hopefully, because it is a useful process in understanding our “Buddha Mind”. Sitting zazen is just a technique, albeit a pretty good one, to realization but there are many others.

    Lastly, you ask if spiritual practices have no inherent meaning, what is it that does? Truly, this is a wonderful question. It is also one that I cannot answer with words -- nor can anyone else. It is for each of us to uncover. The answer is “closer than your life’s vein.”

  • Sai Kumar Reddy

    Dear Rev Fa Dong Shakya,
    Thank you for your response. It certainly clarifies some things for me. Especially about being mindful of our actions rather than doing them on automatic pilot and also the need for practice instead of just hope. Would you then say that rituals are part of the compulsory practice that one must do so that they can develop mindfulness? your statement that Zazen is not a ritual but an activity that will help us understand our Buddha mind is quite important to me, because it seems to be that in Zen practice it is the most important activity of all at least for beginners.