Over the past year I’ve gained some experience at (Gelugpa Tibetan) Buddhist ritual. As a born agnostic from a protestant background rituals don’t sit very well with me. In fact, before hand I was planning to select the Buddhist lineage in part on the amount of ritual it involved.
Funnily enough I ended up with one of the lineages of Buddhism that has exported it’s rituals wholesale to the West, along with it’s texts and meditation practices. That is: prayers, prostrations, ritual offerings, etc. play a huge part in the practice of FPMT members and retreats. We should not make too much of this: members are free to ‘take home’ none or a lot of ritual trappings.
The upside is that studying texts is as much a part of their practice as ritual is, and meditation also plays a huge part. Since I am suited to studying and am trying to incorporate meditation into my life, I guess it’s 2 out of 3 for me.
My realistic side tells me I can’t expect the world to just supply me with a tradition that suits me precisely.
That said, I have started realizing that ritual really does have a part to play in spiritual practice, even my own.
From the perspective of the anthropology of religion ritual is an essential part of all religion. The Protestant Sunday Service is as much a ritual as the Catholic devotion to Mary. Personal meditation practices are rituals as much as saying “hail mary’s”. In fact, soccer matches and presidential elections also have ritualistic (even religious) aspects to them, if you look at them from a anthropological perspective.
What ritual does, in our individual spiritual practice, is integrate our ideals into our emotional lives. I find I like singing (Buddhist) prayers to go along with my morning meditation. It lifts me up. Don’t get me wrong: visualizing Buddha (my primary practice is based on that) is a joyful experience in itself, most of the time, but there is something peaceful about voicing one’s devotion in chant.
There, I said it: devotion. I’ve wanted to write about devotion for months now. I still don’t feel quite qualified to do so, but it’s one of those things that Western culture (especially Dutch culture) is most suspicious about. Yet devotion works.
Devotion works- that’s a very utilitarian way of looking at the sacred of course, but it does express my experience of devotion very well.
The thing is: devotion is taking an emotional risk. Devotion to a spouse means that they’re capable of hurting you, but the other side of the coin is that love is impossible without devotion.
In my daily meditation practice I visualize (and try to feel) devotion to the Buddha. Buddha is pretty safe: since he’s there through my visualization, he won’t be hurting me, he can’t run away like a man can, he’s merely there as an extension of my ideals – though of course I hope he’s also a reflection of the universal Buddha Nature as well as ‘my’ Buddha nature.
The thing is: as far as the experience goes it’s not really relevant whether he’s ‘really’ there. As Dumbledore says to Harry Potter in ‘The Deathly Hallows': “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”
But the question then becomes: how do we define real?
I think in our culture at this juncture we’re collectively trying to find rituals that fit your changed social and spiritual realities.
Someone mailed me this week with the question of how to dispose of a pack of tarot cards that that the dog had chewed on. I told her that in Tibetan Buddhism Dharma texts are disposed of by burning them and saying prayers over them. I advised her to translate that into burning the tarot cards and saying whatever prayer or chant she thought applicable.
Rituals don’t have to be an expression of an oppressive authoritarian religious structure, they can be taken on in our personal lives to express respect, devotion, moving on and whatever occasion we feel needs ritual to mark it.