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Ritual as part of a spiritual practice: Tibetan Buddhism

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.

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  • Roberto Carlos December 28, 2011, 1:27 pm

    Your views on rituals are quite interesting to me. Personally, I have taken part in religious rituals for all my life. When I became a theosophist, I got very much confused when I heard someone speaking badly of ritual practices, e.g. as stated in The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett. But along time after a few years of study I started to neutralize my confusion and to see the real value of rituals. I thank you for sharing your views on that. By the way, Happy New Year!

  • Joe Bill December 29, 2011, 2:18 am

    I think that insides are as real as outsides and at some point, they merge and there is no difference. Now, is that to say you can flap your arms and fly? No, likely not outside, but having limitations outside doesn’t make outside any “realer” than having no limitations inside.

    Real then becomes what you decide is real at least in your own perception.

  • Ra.Z-el (Raziel) - Oceanic Temple December 29, 2011, 12:31 pm

    I believe that ritual is a two sided coin. As you eluded to, its beneficial side is that it integrates our ideals into our daily existence and improves our emotional life. If it is practiced throughout our day, it cleanses and purifies our mind and feeling-state and it balances and harmonizes our chakra system and associated ‘energy bodies.’ Tibetan Buddhist ritual is beautiful. It leads us into a higher vibrational state, while simultaneously reminding us of the Buddha and his sublime teachings. All of this is beneficial, as we need something to offset the lower vibrational, chaotic energies that we encounter in our modern environment. The only downside to ritual (other than what you suggested when you mentioned that ritual, in some sectors of society, is born of an authoritarian control structure) is that, in excess, or if performed compulsively, ritual, even Buddhist ritual, can become an obstacle to full metaphysical transcendence. I suspect that the Buddha himself did not engage in too much ritual, as he knew that the Great Truth is beyond form (and even beyond symbols and archetypes), and thus beyond ritual.

    As for devotion, it is essential, as it keeps us single-hearted in a world that is duplicitous. But, it is better to be devoted to Truth itself. Gandhi had said, “Truth is my God.” However, since the Buddha was a vehicle for some of the most sublime truths, I believe that devotion to the Buddha is a very reliable pathway to walk in life.

    Regarding the friend with the chewed up Tarot deck, I would wonder if her dog’s seemingly disruptive behavior was a message from ‘Coyote – the Trickster’ who seeks, in a mischievious manner, to teach us important lessons. Was this a sign from the Universe (or the innermost Self) to not be too attached even to the Tarot? Might the event be a message that it is time to transcend the archetypes and symbols embedded within the Tarot system itself? All systems must eventually be transcended. And regarding how to dispose of the Tarot, one might wish to consider the notion that any superstition regarding supposed incorrect Tarot disposal might just be a figment of the mind. As they say, “The mind makes the Matrix real.” Perhaps, there is no way to correctly or incorrectly dispose of the Tarot (or to dispose of any-thing), as form, in relation to Ultimate Truth, is insubstantial. But, of course, as long as someone carries (within his or her energy field) a mixture of fear and reverence regarding the Tarot, then that individual must respond to the fear by disposing of the Tarot with reverence. Thus, your idea to burn it and do a prayer was well conceived. Of course, this is all just my opinion, and the “me” that has an opinion is also insubstantial and must be transcended.

    • Katinka - Spirituality January 4, 2012, 8:18 am

      Once the idea that it’s irreverent to just throw stuff out enters one’s head, it BECOMES irreverent to just throw them out. Rituals are in that sense quite self-supporting, psychologically speaking. They create their own motivation… In Tibetan Buddhist circles it’s not uncommon to see people ‘collect’ rituals. This can later become a burden, especially to lay people who have the ordinary stuff to worry about as well.

      Personally I feel that, just as you suggest, if something like a tarot deck is important to someone emotionally, it makes sense for them to get rid of it in a way that helps them move on. Burning is nicely symbolical of course.

  • Alex Patapenka December 29, 2011, 3:48 pm

    Katinka, I find this post extremely interesting. I find it difficult to explain to some of my friends that incororporating rituals into one’s spiritual life is a matter of choice YET they do play an important role because they ARE real. You said it right that it is an emotional fear that theyight not work, making it a lot easier for most people to just “employ” faith. I love your blogs dear sister :)))

  • Briddick January 2, 2012, 4:53 pm

    Used to think rituals were as ridiculous as anything else until I started using ritual for soccer games. It quiets the mind. And I believe that the “inside” is as only real as we let it be. The map is not the territory!

  • Heffer Cee January 4, 2012, 5:35 pm

    I loved this post!! I use rituals all the time to keep myself in order and on schedule. Also keeps me light, happy and feeling good! You should check out my blog because I enjoyed yours so much that I think you would enjoy mine as well! http://www.thebusinessgypsy.com
    Hope to hear from you!
    <3 Peace Love Harmony <3

  • Tam January 6, 2012, 3:37 pm

    To me, there’s the outside, the inside and the …underneath….I guess. A have also practiced Buddhism and ritual made me aware that there is something beyond the surface, be it internal or external. Through ritual practice we can move beyond the new, the interesting and stimulating and see ourselves, without distraction… in our lumpy and tarnished beauty.

    Nicely written.

  • Elizabeth Rose January 10, 2012, 11:08 pm

    Katinka,
    What a fascinating post! Thank you for the discussion.
    To me, rituals are training wheels that aid in getting you into a theta, gamma, or meditative state. They’re very helpful initially. However, eventually, the training wheels will come off and we’ll be in a meditative instantly through intention, or in a permanent meditative state through extensive practice or habit.
    My favourite Tibetan Buddhist Lama of the Kyagu Lineage has followed the rituals all his life and has successfully arrived at a permanent meditative state. We know this because he is wise, but we can also see his aura, which is a solid oval around his head and shoulders which reflects his highly organized thought. Most humans have a misty aura of random thoughts and emotions. The goal is a permanent meditative state, highly controlled thought, and a constant state of love and compassion. However rituals such as binaural beats, breath work, yoga, or mantras, are all tools to keep your mind busy so that your channel to the divine opens and your consciousness can ascend. Whatever technique or ritual works, go with it, until it stops working for you.
    Namaste,
    Elizabeth Rose, http://www.diamondlantern.com

  • Evan Griffith January 15, 2012, 9:31 am

    Katinka!

    Perfect post. In college I had a free range, free form, free thought mentor who suddenly went back to the church of his youth . . . for the ritual of it. Now, decades later, I truly get it. At the time I was as appalled as I was curious. Here was a path forger relinquishing the need to forge new territory, and finding relevance in tradition.

    Ritual can help us connect quickly, deeply. Ritual of our choosing — is their anything more sublime?

    Thank you!

  • Andras M. Nagy January 16, 2012, 1:54 am

    Good article. I would add only that the Tibetan version of Buddhism has incorporated Bon shamanism, the belief system that predated Buddhism and this is what gives the special characteristics of the Mahayana Buddhism. Lots of the rituals of Tibet comes from the Bon shamanism.

    • Katinka - Spirituality January 16, 2012, 8:29 am

      Sure – similarly Zen is influenced by Taoism etc, including in its rituals.

  • Courtney January 16, 2012, 12:07 pm

    I think that your last paragraph is what religion is *suppose* to be. Rituals are meaningful and the very specific ones can be extremely moving; however, I also think that what each of us feels is important in our spirituality- is in fact our exact spirituality/religion which makes the idea that an oppressive 1 size fits all religious idea quite interesting.

  • Zach February 5, 2012, 5:13 pm

    I do Guru Pooja every morning which is a thanksgiving ceremony, or offering, for all the great Masters, Yogis, Mystics who have come before us and left behind such wonderful tools for us to make use of. It starts from 5:30am followed by my yoga practice. I find that this ritual is very powerful, starting my morning with a sense of gratitude and devotion. I feel that it sets me in the right direction for the following day, creating a pleasant atmosphere for me to carry with me throughout the day, so long as I don’t get caught up in my nonsense!!! ;)