As I travel again in India and Thailand, I am reminded of how large a part of spiritual practice is devotional. Common themes include making offerings at shrines and chanting in the midst of gatherings of like-minded people (often led by a sub-group or individual). In Buddhism, such acts are called ‘puja’: formal reverence as directed towards an image of an Awakened One or a great teacher. In this exalted atmosphere, formulaic expressions of aspiration and commitment and wishes for good fortune or forgiveness gain an appropriate channel.
Ritual: how do you relate to this? Excepting that Islam and Judaism (and some forms of Protestant Christianity) don’t use images, and instead centre their devotional focus on script and icon, this kind of presentation runs across all religious activities. In fact ritual is one of the clearest indications that an activity is ‘religious’, because of what that term implies. Unpicked, ‘religion’ means ‘bound, connected’, and refers to the understanding and practices that link the ordinary mortal world that humans experience through their senses to something beyond that sphere, something timeless and undying.
Religion presents some big challenges: it’s a faith experience, and that implies that our thinking mind isn’t the highest kind of intelligence. Religion operates around a different hierarchy: there is a sacred that is greater than, but includes, our daily concerns, thoughts and feelings, and also renders them subject to assessment. Moreover, although truth or blessings are to be experienced by the individual, the practice of aligning oneself to them entails self-relinquishment, or the surrender of personal selfhood to something greater. This hierarchy of the sacred gets mirrored on the mundane human plane by the elevation of a select sub-group of priests, adepts or ministers to a position of spiritual authority or plenitude. The devotee can receive blessings from them, or via them, and in turn relinquishes personal pleasure, opinions or aims in favour of the sacred or the group. It’s a hierarchy of heart that goes radically wrong if it is interpreted too literally.
The benefit of such actions is that they give living structure to the world of experience, the life-world or cosmos. They vitalise and refresh a cosmos that includes other creatures, rivers, mountains, harvests, death, family and the supernatural world – everything. They are heart-based, and the nature of good heart is to embrace and include. In this way, the interconnectedness extends to include family bonding, loyalties and obligations and hierarchies that place the elders (often, but not exclusively, the males) at the top of one’s social group; an arrangement which is presided over by the local headsman, the priests and the chief or king. The correct performance of the ritual, and fulfilment of the social obligations that this world-view prescribes is dharma (to use the Indian term).
Although no one can claim to see, let alone understand, the origins or the entirety of the cosmos, all humans have a responsible part to play: through performing ritual correctly, they transfer living vitality to the cosmos as a whole. Consequently they are part of it and help to keep it in order through the purity of their actions; and their individuality returns to it either on the break-up of the body at death, or in the mystical experience of the adept. So proper observance of dharma binds the human to the immortal, and keeps the cosmos unified and in balance. And the special ‘language’ of dharma, the medium by which humans address and align to the cosmos as a whole – is ritual.
So, there are plenty of challenges and even choking points in that view for the secular, egalitarian Westerner – whose understanding of dharma generally supports inquiry rather than faith, ‘this-world’ aims and results rather than those that include an after-death scenario. Consequently the concerns of a contemporary dharma practitioner are well-reasoned and may include personal clarity, social equality, and other just causes. However, if one inquires deeply into these different views of spiritual practice, they amount to the same thing: to support the cosmos that the practitioner experiences himself or herself as living within with commitment, self-sacrifice and vigour. It’s just that the cosmos has changed. Or has it?
In the West, the old world-view, along with much of its social structure and religious practice, was (apparently) swept away from the fifteenth century onwards. The Renaissance and Galileo shifted the centre of the cosmos to the human and manifest plane; the Reformation and its consequent Puritanism attacked the power and ritual of the divinely-ordained Church; mechanist science and rational philosophy (Newton and Descartes) made rationality the supreme agent of creation; Hobbes and Paine and Rousseau argued persuasively against hierarchical government and promoted what came to be called the social contract and liberalism … and the Romantics, in search of a new vision of the sacred, abandoned the Church and society in favour of individual and intuitive communion with Nature. But rather than abandon hierarchy, this world-view shifted its constituents to grant supremacy to the individual human and the rational mind. Apparently. We acquired the right to operate within a world that was no longer a unified cosmos, but a measurable object that we were to some degree separate from. We could investigate it, comprehend its workings, figure out how we could benefit from it, and use it as we saw fit, with no responsibility to any Supreme Being.
This sounds like a relief – and it was in some respects: humans became more self-reliant and were free from the caprices of an inscrutable Other (or at least the God or gods as mediated through fallible priests). For some members and aspects of the cosmos, well-being increased. The qualifying factor was that if you were human, (preferably white and European) then your share of the pie increased. In other words hierarchy remained: non-humans and ‘primitive’ humans were and are exploited, domesticated – or died out. The notion of a superior ‘race’, and of human ‘progress’ replaced ritually ordained sub-groups and the aim to maintain a cosmic order that included the dead, the supernatural and the soul. Life in a materially definable world was now definitely where it was at; and that created a new hierarchy: in economic terms alone we now have a massive inequality of wealth and privilege whereby eight people have access to the same amount of wealth as the poorest fifty per cent of the global population. The inscrutable Others of global corporations and financial institutions now govern the society, with the aim to convert as much of the cosmos (including sand, minerals, water, trees, animals and humans –with their intelligence, votes and beliefs) into money as possible – even if it destroys the planet. So equality, the individual and reason are definitely not the supreme; instead a religious hierarchy has been replaced by a secular material one. Since the material aspect of the cosmos now trumps the immaterial, whether there even is an immaterial, unoriginated, unborn is a matter of opinion, one that is denied by many. And without that sacred unnameable, the focus and value of our actions gets determined the measurements of the measurable world – and those who determine what everything is worth.
As we can see, despite a shift in terms of female participation in society, a decrease in infant mortality and the installation of better sewage systems, there are a few flaws in the brave new world. The basis of the average life-world, the mind, is restless and unbalanced. And so we attempt to improve or adjust it through education, analysis, therapy, or meditation. The final step is to suppress it with chemicals, dumb it down with media and propaganda, or silence its public manifestation by means of law and order. This is because humans remain as prone to ignorance, aggression, selfishness, and mental dysfunction as ever; in fact leaders of nations clearly manifest such traits. And now the fear of exclusion from the tribe, or of God, or of a hellish after-life no longer prevail. Meanwhile ritual still goes on to solemnise events in the public domain: the inauguration of a president (a quasi-coronation); the opening of a new bridge or the launching of a ship (over which a public figure presides to give a speech and a cut ribbon); while instead of an immaterial deity to be consulted and appeased, we have money and its soothsayers to determine our significance and role in the great order of things. In the individual domain we celebrate birthdays, dress up and go to weddings and funerals, and structure our identity around work and recreational pursuits (thereby rendering homage to the ancient gods of wealth and pleasure).
So although the forms and expressions change, ritual remains part of the way we structure our reality. The question is: what is the cosmos that these rituals enmesh us in? Put more simply: what is meaningful to you, and how much of the rest of creation forms part of your sphere of conscience and concern? What counts in your world – and what doesn’t? Valid devotional practices are a way of bringing that sphere of meaning and connection into the heart, and addressing it in symbolic and embodied ways. You don’t just think it; you praise and salute it. I read of an American Vietnam veteran who would turn up at the Veterans’ Memorial in D.C. with a six-pack of beer, sit in front of the memorial and salute his dead comrades with a hit of beer and a cigarette. Personally I incline towards honouring Awakening, but I can also relate to a puja that honours courage, self-sacrifice and loyalty. Those qualities too are timeless, undying and transpersonal.
Ritual carries on, because it connects the individual to meaning. It’s not just about whether one lights incense or makes offerings to Kwan Yin. If you set a knife and fork on either side of a plate when you ‘lay the table’; if you decide that Sunday is your ‘day off’; if you wear a suit and tie when you go to work, or evening dress for formal occasions; if you adorn your body with tattoos or your lips with red paste; if you cross your fingers when you hope for success, have a meal every day at the same prescribed time – you are performing rituals. And you do so because they are ‘proper’ and going against them is personally disorienting, socially inappropriate, unhealthy or just ‘bad luck.’ Although our rituals may be as irrational as throwing a coin into a pool and making a wish, yet the need to create structure through systems and customs overrides all reason. We feel lost without our formal reference points. They give us a sense of what our personal cosmos is bounded by and how we might meet others and share in it. It’s a need, one that only disappears when a greater and more enduring sense of reality is revealed: namely, in Buddhist terms, the Deathless.
So how do I get that one? Well, the door to the Deathless opens as one recognizes that one’s personally centred world-view is something to be investigated rather than followed. And ritual forms such an intrinsic part of our world-view ‘attachment to rites and rituals’ (silavattaparamasa) comes up for investigation. Perhaps what I’ve written has made it clear that ‘rituals’ aren’t simply the worship of a deity. Instead it is a matter of systems and customs; and what is required for Awakening is an inquiry into them. In other words, to question any behaviour that imposes an automatic structure on our living reality. Then we can recognize that if nationality, political or religious belief, social conventions, or meditation systems result in making us feel that we are right, true, solid and better, we’ve fallen asleep in systems and customs. That feeling of self as firmly bounded, convinced and set apart from others is the wake-up call. And the path to the Deathless requires that we relinquish that feeling and view – because the solid self is an illusion.
Accordingly waking up entails experiencing the relativity of our personal experience for what it is, and not being ashamed or fascinated by it. As Ajahn Sumedho advises: ‘Don’t take your life personally.’ That sounds disorienting, and it is: but what replaces the solid isolated self is respect for the sensitivity and clarity with respect to the boundless heart – that we all can have access to. This sense, this awakening to citta, can widen one’s cosmos and give it balance: my feelings, my rights, my time, and my opinions have to be felt through the heart, but they don’t have to be such an exclusive concern.
‘As to that matter called “the peace within,” how is it proclaimed by the wise?’
‘Not by view, nor by learning, nor by knowledge, (Māgandiya,” said the Blessed One),
nor do I speak of purity through good behavior and observances;
but neither without view, without learning, without knowledge,
without good behavior, without observances – not in that way.
But having relinquished these, not grasping any of them,
peaceful, not dependent, one should not hanker for existence.’
‘One who thinks himself equal, superior, or inferior
might engage in disputes because of this.
Not shaking among these three discriminations,
he does not think “equal, superior.”’
(From Suttanipāta 839-842; trans Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2017)
We have to operate through systems and customs, but using them to convey the good the honest and the loving is our responsibility to the cosmos as a whole. And to understand this and celebrate it: that’s right ritual, that’s religious practice, that’s how we highlight actions that involve us in a reality that can be shared. That’s how we return from our isolated world to good heart. Then, when a heart of moral integrity, goodwill and compassion, can offer us the reference point that we seek, the inquiry is: how much can you include in that heart? How wide can your cosmos be? Puja and recollection is the occasion for adjusting your life-world … and so begin.