Ritualized Devotional practices verses the contemplative life
December 20, 2004
By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
(copyright 2004 all rights reserved)
To discuss ritual in Buddhism will necessitate reviewing how ritual is used in the three vehicles of Buddhism. This discussion might appear critical of ritual forms in Buddhism; however, I do not want the reader to get the impression that this author makes any value judgment regarding hierarchical distinctions between the 3 branches of Buddhism, or any other religion for that matter, because he does not. This author perceives all religions offer wonderful things, and they all have their faults as well.
Too often ritual is perceived of as something magically transformative, but it is simply performative and that is all. That performance, however, could be transformative if the individual allows it to be so. But that transformative experience is purely based on the response of the participants psyche and not based upon the mediation of nonmaterial entities or energies.
But, when one seeks a contemplative life one throws out the ritual practices and simply seeks the direct experience of gnosis from personal solitude and the cultivation of the absorption states (jhanas as they are called in Theravadan Buddhism) from the practice of awareness training, what Buddhism tends to call "mindfulness" (sati).
The purpose of ritual is to encapsulate religious dogma, as well as teach subsistence strategies, within a multi-sensory and kinesthetic instructional system.
While I understand very well that ritual has its Pavlovian and Skinnerian effect on the subconscious, it is fundamentally conceptual, because it is based upon beliefs, ideas concepts as well as formal structures, etc. In the Vedas, as well as in Buddhism these beliefs, ideas concepts and forms are seen as ego structures and are called nama-rupa. Nama is often simplified in translation into "name" and rupa is often simplified in translation into "form." Nama basically applies to anything non-tangible, such as concepts, ideas and beliefs, including religious dogma, and rupa applies to anything tangible, such as the formal structures of culture, such as the art and iconography of any given religion.
It is this adherence to beliefs and appearances (nama-rupa) that form handles upon which the identity cling. It is through not clinging to anything that the layers of the identity fall away. As the layers of the identity fall away one is brought to the subjective experience of gnosis, thus the need for a non-conceptual and informal contemplative life to arrive at gnosis.
A contemplative practice, then, works directly at removing the layers of the self by directly pursuing emptiness, which is non-conceptual in nature. This does not mean, however, that contemplative practices in the hands of a mediocre meditation teacher do not become simply a cognitive process that fortifies the ego, and thus never succeeds at bringing one to gnosis. This is evidenced by how few who meditate for decades ever arrive at the absorption states (jhanas). It is because their meditation practice has become a structure upon which their ego depends.
To forge a common contemplative practice that applies to anyone under any cultural condition one will have to remove all cultural contrivances from the religious life. Ritual is all cultural contrivance, thus if we embrace a non-conceptual contemplative life, then we remove ourselves from the comfort of ego structures.
If we are going to extract the cultural artifacts from our contemplative life then we must remove the stuff of religion. Those cultural artifacts are very often the ritual forms of that culture, thus the need to dump ritual in favor of an authentic contemplative practice that is not culturally determined and thus non-conceptual. Thus I find Sidharta Gotama’s Satipatthana practices, which are primarily the observation of the body, the senses and the mind, are really the least culturally determined practice strategy that has been articulated by any mystic, thus they could appeal to anyone from any culture.
I do believe; however, there is far too much emphasis on ritual in some branches of Buddhism, or for that matter many other religions. Sidharta Gotama did consider adherence to rites and rituals a fetter or obstacle on the path, thus the adherence to ritual within any Buddhist tradition is somewhat problematic when compared to the Discourses of the Buddha. Through observation adherence to ritual is often a gloss for avoiding the contemplative life, but I think there is an aspect of ritual in any habitual human behavior, and ritual can be an aide in one's practice. It could even be argued that anyone who has a daily meditation practice has some vestige of ritual around it, even if it is only sitting in the same place, at the same time each day, and conducting the same meditation practice.
I have heard some argue that even the practice of meditation is a ritual and should be avoided. This I believe is an error. If enlightenment is in part the cultivation of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, then we can see that at least five of the seven factors clearly come from absorption (please see below), and absorption is the consequence of the practice of meditation (MN 22.21), thus it is an error to think meditation is simply a ritual.
The Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga), sambojjhanaga DN 22.16, n.689, 33.2.3(2):
|4||Sati||awareness, mindfulness||7th fold of the N8P|
|6||Piiti||bliss or rapture||1st jhana|
I have been a contemplative in many traditions for 3 decades, I have found no method more efficacious than the simple practices of Satipatthana. If you have not read the Buddha's three discourses on meditation (Sati), I have recently rendered a few improvements in their translation and they are available at these URLs:
Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118), Mindfulness of the breath
Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN 119) “Mindfulness of the Body"
Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) "the Four Cornerstones of Mindfulness"
Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22) the "Great Discourse on the Four Cornerstones of Mindfulness"
I understand at a very deep level the use of the elements of ritual, such as tantras, mantras and prostrations, and I have great respect for their practice, far more than many Theravadans who tend to reject anything that appears to be ritual, all the while embracing their own ritual forms. In fact I committed 10 years of my life to ritual practice, and I believe I have mastered them, so I know very well how useful they are, and I understand the limits of their domain as well. They are Samadhi practices, which means they lead up to Samadhi (absorption) by establishing the necessary psycho-physiological state preparatory for absorption (jhana). Once the student is well established in absorption; however, the elements of ritual are no longer necessary, except as a kind of Pavlovian/Skinnerian stimulus or "set and setting" to re-stimulate absorption.
It is clear that Buddhism has arrived in the West, and it will remain here for a very long time. How Buddhism has manifest here in the west is essentially a solo practice, especially how it is often interpreted and embraced by western teachers. A religion, though, that is strictly the domain of the mystic and contemplative is not going to have wide appeal consequently it is not likely to answer the social problems of the west broadly unless it is transformed into a mainstream institution.
I believe the need for mainstreaming Buddhism in Tibet is why Vajrayana developed its elaborated forms. Buddhism came to Tibet and blended and merged with the earlier practices of the Bhan, and it happened at an early enough stage in Buddhism's development to have brought a great deal of Hinduism along with it, consequently Tibetan Buddhism had to develop all of the rich cultural traits that preexisted it in Tibet, and China, otherwise the Tibetans, and Chinese would not have embraced it as pervasively as they did.
There are, however, consequences in making any religion available to the masses. Ideas have to be simplified, and not everyone is a contemplative. Most people want to go to a temple once a week, and have a few holidays each year to get a break from their work, and they want to be directed by people they trust who think deeply about the religion, and those leaders have to distill the religion into small lozenges that can be taken in infrequent doses on the only day off each week that the masses have.
People want to feel good about what they are doing, and they want to believe the people they placed in authority to manage the community temple. Those caretakers must teach the people small bits of the beliefs of that religion, and come up with a strategy and rate to dole it out. The ceremonial cycle of a religion is how its beliefs and tenants are doled out to the people in chucks that they can absorb subliminally through the psychosomatic influence of ritual and iconography.
The problem with this process of compartmentalizing religion and mass marketing it with an easily recognizable label, etc., is it creates brand wars and a corrupt priest craft. This is why I personally have so much trouble with ceremonialism. I think about how a simple ceremony created for a simple people can turn into a battlefield where thousands lay dead or dying. And, when I surveyed the carnage that lay about my feet through the recollection of many past lifetimes, I don't want any part of it, so I keep quiet, and I retreat into my isolation and enjoy the ecstasy that is so exquisitely the private domain of the mystic.
When it comes to teaching the children, I believe it is of course our responsibility as parents to impart the ideas of ethical conduct to our children. We want them to be successful, self reliant and contributing members of society, and that is our job as parents. If we are going to bring more human beings into existence, then it is also our obligation to the rest of the ecosystem that we teach our children how to reside respectfully on this planet, and to share its bounty properly with all the many beings who coexist on this fragile little dust particle we call Earth.
But, we are also responsible for our own personal contemplative life, and teaching is best done when it is done by example. So, when our children cling to us and ask us not to go to meditation, we should say to them that it is important for you to take some time to yourself, it makes you a better parent, and when you come back to them you will continue to be the good parent you are.
I do believe that we should make some effort to include all of the members of our families who want to understand some level of what we are doing when we meditate and go to retreats, but truthfully they will not be able to understand very much until they engage fully in the contemplative life themselves.
The more out spoken I become, and the more I express my insights, and the deeper my contemplation goes, it seems the more it has served to alienate me from the community (sangha) of contemplatives. Like with any culture there are factions within every cultural structure, and I am very aware of them. I don't wish to impose myself as a wedge between the factions of the Three Vehicles of Buddhism, nor do I wish to be made a salve between them to bind them either. So, let's just engage in our contemplative lives and follow that life with as much integrity as we can while the masses seek the na•ve forms that ritualism offers.
May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,
Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)
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