August 19, 2010


“So you are here as chaplaincy student?”


“And you are also Buddhist practitioner?”


“For how long?”

“Hmm, eight years.”

“Oh. So you do meditation?”

“Yes. Shamatha.”

“Ah. And you do every day?”

“No, not usually. I am very bad about it.”

“Oh. Why?”

“I’m just not very motivated to actually sit.”

“Oh. Do you chant?”


“Do you recite mantra?”


“Do you recite sutra?”


“Do you do prostration?”


“Do you worship the Buddha?”

“Well, I wouldn’t use the word ‘worship,’ but revere, yes.”

“Oh. So you have a Buddha statue?”


“What do you do?”

“Well, I read a lot, but otherwise my practice is not structured.”

“Ah, not structured. I see. What do you read? History or sutra or …”

“Lots of things. I started with Thich Naht Hanh and I’ve read some of Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron. I’m in the middle of How the Swans Came to the Lake, a history on how Buddhism came to America.”

“Ah, How the Swans Came to the Lake is very good. Dr. Lancaster knows a lot about this.”

Just then Dr. Lancaster cleared his throat in preparation to begin the lecture and I was saved from the Venerable’s continued interrogation as she and I both found our seats. I wondered if in her eyes I am not a very good Buddhist. I have no rituals. Partly this is because I myself am somewhat biased against ritual, not because I don’t believe it beneficial or useful, but simply because I don’t believe it very useful to me. The other part is that, being unaffiliated, I’ve never learned the ‘proper’ way to conduct rituals, such as chanting or prostration, or the history or meaning behind them. (And Buddha forbid I do anything without knowing the why of it.) Anything I might do would be entirely arbitrary. So I do nothing.

I did not mention that writing is a large part of my practice. That would be a longer conversation that we had time for and not one I am certain I could participate in very well. As I’ve mentioned before, there is no historical or theological basis (that I’ve found) for writing as practice, except perhaps among the Zen poets, but that is of an entirely different format.

The questions remind me I have yet to unpack my Buddha. He shall go on a shelf in the corner within my bedroom that serves as a sort of entry, above the map chest and beside where I shall hang my hats. It is a fairly utilitarian corner, but the one I shall always see immediately upon entering the room, and indeed, the house. First I need to be able to afford to buy a shelf. That is likely all the ritual I shall have, though I may try yet again to take up daily meditation (and probably fail at least half a dozen more times).

The rituals the Venerable questioned me about do not seem to me to be particularly Buddhist things. They are simply things Buddhists happen to do. They are also things Christians and Muslims and Hindus happen to do. This is perhaps part of the reason I have eschewed them. I do not perceive it as helpful for me to define myself as a Buddhist by whether or not I engage in this or that ritual. Rather, I should say I am a Buddhist because I have witnessed the Four Noble Truths. I try to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, hold the Five Precepts, cultivate the Six Perfections, and understand the Three Hallmarks of Existence. I am Buddhist because I suffer and want to end suffering, for myself and all sentient beings.

However, ritual is something I will have to come to terms with. Many people find ritual very soothing and helpful. The military is full of ritual. Daily culture is full of ritual. Religion is full of ritual and for very good reason. What I perceive as a cultural contrivance of occasional functional value, others perceive as vitally important for a directed, balanced, and harmonious life. Nor are they mistaken. We all have different needs, different ways of ordering our minds and lives, different ways of marking significance or seeking comfort. It will be my duty as a chaplain to provide for these needs of others, and that includes knowing and being able to conduct the appropriate rituals in the appropriate circumstances.

Where my worry lies is in that I may be perceived (or may actually be) hypocritical for helping others in rituals of spiritual significance while I myself have so very few. If and when I participate in religious ritual at all, it is for public consumption. I participate in group meditation, group chanting, group ceremonies. Behind closed doors, I just remind myself to be good and count that sufficient. Of course, behind closed doors I also walk around in my underwear. We do many things for the benefit of others when we are with others and many things for the benefit of only ourselves when we are not.

I am comfortable with no rituals. I am uncomfortable with rituals that feel contrived, static, and arbitrary when conducted only for my own sake. I believe I should be comfortable within my own practice. However, I am equally comfortable carrying out ritual for the sake of others. If it is of benefit to them and makes them feel better, how could I be uncomfortable with that?

Personally, I do not feel that rituals have any mystical significance in and of themselves. I believe their sole benefit is to the person engaged then and there with the ritual. If it helps them cultivate patience, for example, that could be of benefit later to others they will encounter in their day to day lives. That is interdependence. Rituals benefit the participants, not the souls of the dead or untold masses of suffering beings. However, if the participants believe otherwise, I am perfectly content with that. After all, the rituals could benefit the souls of the dead and untold masses of suffering beings. It is possible. My opinion as to its likelihood is merely that, an opinion. What is obvious is that the participants who benefit in turn benefit others. That makes ritual a worthy enough endeavor for me.

Though I hold no religious rituals for myself, I still value them.


Crystal said...

Wow. That summed up my feelings on ritual and belief/practice to perfection.

Teacher Jim said...

Ditto. Wonderful blog entry. I couldn't agree more.

Like Buddha said, when using a raft to cross the river, you don't carry it afterward. You leave it behind. I believe rituals are needed by many people, but like everything else, it's just a tool to get you to the next place on the path.

Looks as if these next couple of years are going to be very, very interesting. Can't wait. [smile]