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May 22, 2011


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yes, the bowing is a ritual but that doesn't necessarily mean that the zazen itself is a ritual ... just that the behaviour patterns that come before and after have been ritualised.

The Zennist wrote, “The last excerpt is rather interesting. If there is one term Western Zennists use almost ad nauseam it is “practice”—yet, strictly speaking, there is no such notion in Zen. I have to laugh when I think about this. Western Zennists would be terribly uncomfortable saying, “Well, I have to get back to my ritual.” They much prefer saying, “I have to get back to my practice.” This brings me back to my comment at the beginning of this blog that rituals may fail to evoke the necessary realization of the Buddha Mind. At least in my own experience rituals, including zazen, prove inadequate when it comes to gnosis (jñâna).”

It’s my observation that for Western Buddhists of all the major traditions the term “practice” has varying meanings depending on context. Sometimes the term is used to mean meditation or “meditation practice”, sometimes to mean rituals (or the “ritual of meditation” if you wish), and sometimes to mean applying the Dharma to one’s life or living the Dharma in one’s every day, ordinary life.

And if zazen is “inadequate when it comes to gnosis (jñâna),” what in the Zennist experiece is adequate?


p.s: There is nothing wrong with rituals. Rituals, like all dharmas, are empty, but though dharmas are empty, they function and rituals have their function.

I was going to write out this whole thing about what is wrong with rituals from the Buddha's perspective, but I finally thought of Thomas Merton and I decided to share about that. If you have read his journals, they are very interesting, a pretty compelling read even for a non-catholic like myself. Merton was a priest in the Catholic tradition, which is obviously very ritualistic. His journals gave me an impression of a growing awareness on his part of the problem with ritualism, and it seems to me like his continual gravitation toward the contemplative life and eventually towards eastern mysticism had something to do with this. His preference definitely seemed to run to "silent contemplation" which is perhaps akin to the samatha-vipassana of Buddhism. Yet, of course, there was a tension that remained because of his faith and the pressure for orthodoxy in his religion. Many of his writings give the impression to the reader of the mass being often for him an empty experience, like everyday he was thirsty and he kept making this clay pitcher (the form of the mass) hoping that God would fill it with water (the holy spirit) for him and the participants to drink. He had to continually reassert to himself that this effort was self-effective and that the mystery of the mass was real.

So ritual is like that, like repeatedly making a clay pitcher in hopes that it will be filled with water rather than just seeking the water itself.

Ritual is empty because essentially ritual is just a formation, a configuration, skhandha, a rupa.

“At least in my own experience rituals, including zazen, prove inadequate when it comes to gnosis (jñâna).”

While you may not benefit from rituals, zazen is not “just a ritual”. Zazen is, as you noted, seated meditation, and was ‘practiced’ by the Buddha, led to his awakening, and was taught by the Buddha as part of the Noble Eightfold Path. Do you have a better suggestion?


It is a ritual; why else do I bow to the cushion every time?

Tell me, though, what is wrong with ritual? It has a negative connotation in your post, yet you don't explicitly explain what is not desirable about rituals.

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