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Buddhism Without Rituals?

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During a six-year period of intense involvement with a Buddhist organization in Canada, I was one of the contributing editors of a little Buddhist quarterly magazine called Spring Wind. Editorial and writing duties put me in contact with dozens of teachers, both Asian and North American, representing various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, Rinzai and Soto Zen, Korean Chogye Zen, Vietnamese Zen, and different schools of Theravada.

In talking with quite a few teachers and practitioners over the years, I have noticed repeatedly that one practical problem that a lot of Buddhists experience in North America is learning how to relate to Buddhist ritual and to the authoritarian structure of the teacher-disciple relationship as it has evolved in many Asian societies. Some teachers adopt an attitude (in my opinion a rather regrettable one) that resistance to ritual is nothing more than a sign of egotistic individualism and must therefore be overcome.

Other teachers take the position that the rejection of ritual is very deeply rooted in many people and that the resistance to authoritarianism is actually the result of a fair amount of careful reflection and critical thinking that has been going on for several centuries. I encountered a Thai monk once, who became a monk in the same year that I became a human being and so had a fair amount of monastic seniority, who said he felt the dharma had been all but smothered in Asia by folk rituals and superstitions (his word, not mine). He said he thought the Dharma might thrive in North America precisely because the people here tend not to be so pious and so attached to external forms--wishful thinking on his part, perhaps. He runs a temple for Thais. He has meditation workshops for Westerners.

What has most surprised me, I think, is that some of the teachers who have adapted their methods to the North American mentality and have minimized ritual or eliminated it altogether have been so harshly criticized by others. Whatever happened to the old saying that the dharma takes the shape of whatever vessel it is poured into? Isn't the Protestant and the post-Christian culture that some call secular humanism also a worthy vessel into which to pour the golden nectar?

I don't know how widespread the spirit of intolerance over the issue of ritual and authority is. Perhaps foolishness is something that happens only in Canada.

Richard P. Hayes


More On Rituals: A Clarification


Thanks to the kind reader who has asked me to clarify my observation about rituals. Of course you are right in pointing out that rituals have many functions, and therefore it is not much good to make blanket statements about ritual as such. Let me try to clarify what I mean.

I take it that every ritual is an upāya and therefore has a purpose of some kind. After all, the word “upāya” simply means a method of reaching a goal, and so speaking of upāya outside the context of trying to achieve a specified goal makes no real sense. Since it is the goal that is important, rather than the method used to reach it, I also take it that for any goal there are probably many different routines or rituals that could be used to reach it. In looking at ritual as a method of reaching a goal, therefore, it makes sense to me to ask several questions, two of the most important being: 1) does the ritual actually help a given person reach the goal, 2) does the ritual have any undesired “side-effects” for the person who uses it?

Given that framework, I have found that several Buddhist rituals are actually quite counterproductive for certain people. A few specific examples that come to mind are:

The Zen ritual of hitting people with sticks during meditation. Many males don't seem to mind this ritual too much, perhaps because it appeals to their need to feel tough. Feeling tough is important for many males in our warrior culture. But almost every woman I have talked to about this ritual admits hating it. In a society in which an alarmingly high percentage of women have been physically abused by men, this particular Zen ritual strikes me (if you'll pardon the expression) as most counterproductive. I must confess I don't even know what the hell the goal is for which this ritual is an upāya. I once asked my Zen master, and he said “It helps relax your back muscles when you're sitting for long periods.” I said “Next time you want to relax someone's back muscles, try giving them a nice massage.” After he realized that for once in my life I wasn't just clowning around, he brought the topic up at a business meeting. Our group had a long and serious discussion of the issue, as a result of which he gave up using the stick altogether. I have heard that a number of other Zen groups have also given up this ritual in recent years.

Extensive chanting in foreign languages. According to the Vinaya, the Buddha actually forbade chanting, because when things are chanted then people begin to pay too much attention to the beauty of the voice and they get distracted from the meaning of what is being said. Now clearly if the top priority is given to understanding what is being said, it is not very useful to chant in languages that one does not understand.

Adopting Asian rituals to replace perfectly acceptable North American ones. One time I was introduced to a fellow North American caucasian Zen Buddhist, and I extended my right hand to shake hands with him. He said “That's an oddball thing for a Zen person to do! Why don't you bow?” Realizing how gauche I had been, I felt like performing the well-known North American ritual of punching him in the nose. But I sublimated it by performing another ritual involving the mudra of raising the middle finger. (Rituals can help make us gentle and kind.)


Any number of rituals that are supposed to neutralize bad karma and generate merit that one then gives away for the benefit of all sentient beings. I think giving away merit is a beautiful idea and one for which a fairly simple ritual should suffice. But I have been in settings in which the generation of merit was taken to an extreme. Chanting some piece of gibberish like the Great Compassion Dhāraṇī for several hours, for example, seems counterproductive for most people in our society, in which the vast majority of people cannot relate at all to the system of beliefs underlying the use of mantras and dhāraṇīs. Similarly, I think the performance of really large numbers of prostrations may do very little for most people besides wrecking their knees. (I am not talking about three ritual prostrations in honour of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; I am talking about the common East Asian practice of doing tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of them.)

Please don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to ritual per se. As many people have pointed out, rituals are what make us civilized (although I can't quite figure out whether this is an argument for or against rituals). I am simply saying that there are some specific rituals that do not do for many North Americans what they were originally designed to do many centuries ago for Asians.

The least productive attitude I have seen is that expressed by one of my former teachers. We had a meeting of all his lay dharma teachers, of which I used to be one, and the question of reciting dhāraṇīs came up. I pointed out that a lot of people in our group really could not relate to this practice very well, because they considered it too superstitious and magical. The teacher said “North Americans need to rediscover their sense of magic.” I have a hard time agreeing with this statement, which I must say I find almost racist; the way he said it suggested that he was implying that there is something deficient about a culture that does not share his Asian sense of mystery. It was like saying “Be enlightened within my cultural context, or forget it, Charlie!” The Christian churches, after many centuries of lamentable ethnocentrism, are finally learning to let their Asian and African converts continue to be who they are. Asian Buddhist missionaries in the West, I fear, are lagging behind in this respect.

My own view is that when we are dumping one billion dollars worth of bombs and missiles every day on a third world country, finding a sense of magic may not be as important for us as finding a sense of basic humanity.

Your questions, by the way, did not offend me in the slightest, even inadvertantly. One of my greatest shortcomings, I'm afraid, is that even when people are deliberately trying to offend me, I am too stupid to notice it. I trust no one will be offended by any of my answers.

Richard P. Hayes


Mantras, Magic, Merde


My previous comments on ritual have given at least one reader the impression that I hate magic. I don't hate it. I just think it's a manifestation of a diseased way of thinking. Let me explain why by reacting to the comment of one reader that “this old hatred for the magical is a bad thing. I think it leads to dumping bombs on Arabs and dumping pollution in oceans too.”

It is not the hatred of magic that leads to war and environmental devastation. What leads to those things is an interesting combination of greed and stupidity. In modern times we use sophisticated technology to produce a million products that nobody really needs and that nobody would even want if it weren't for a billion-dollar industry called advertising that is dedicated exclusively to making people desire useless things. We also use sophisticated technology to destroy people from other countries who aspire either to impede our excessive style of living or to share in it. Whereas we moderns carelessly use technology to serve our greed for comforts and pleasures and mindless fun, in other times and places people employed magic towards those same ends. What underlies both the use of magic and the use of technology is a basic dissatisfaction with things as they are, and an almost obsessive need to manipulate the world to serve our own wants and desires. Thus both are manifestations of an underlying malaise. The dharma is one of the attempts to cure that malaise.

A critical attitude towards magic and ritual is not only the heritage of Northern Africa (St. Augustine) and Europe. It is also the heritage of at least one strain of Buddhism. In the Sutta Nipata, for example, the Buddha was asked twice why people had devised rituals. In one instance he replied that people devise rituals because they are afraid of death. In the other he replied that greedy priests had invented rituals for the purposes of making money from the wealthy (actually he said the priests had invented rituals “for gaining cows and women”; in the Buddha's day cows were the standard of wealth and women were considered a source of pleasure). Rituals, in other words, were regarded by the Buddha as either a form of avoiding facing reality (such as death) or as a method of generating income. The Buddha's comments on the source of rituals do not suggest strong approval of them.

The only point I was trying to make about some traditional Buddhist rituals such as dhāraṇī recitation is that they are not very well suited to the beliefs of many people in our society. And I don't think the solution to this problem is to change the way people think about magic. I agree that our society must cultivate radically new attitudes towards a lot of things, but magic isn't necessarily one of them.

I completely agree that for people who are inclined to believe in magic, dhāraṇīs have proven to be a very effective remedy for their ills. A few years ago a woman came to do a retreat at a temple I was staying at. She was really in a state of anxiety, because she was filled with resentment towards her demanding husband, and she felt Buddhists are not supposed to feel resentment, and so she felt guilty about her resentment. She asked me if the Zen master knew of any mantras that would help cure her bad feelings. I told her to go ask the master for herself. The next day I saw her again, and her face was all covered with smiles. She said the master had taught her a wonderful mantra, and it really worked. I asked her what it was. She repeated it for me: “Hana tul set net tasot.” I was completely delighted. The mantra that the Zen master had taught her was how to count from one to five in Korean! If the woman had known that, of course, the magic would have been spoiled. I regard this as true skill on the master's part; he matched the mentality with a good homeopathic cure.

But to teach someone who does not believe in magic a dhāraṇī is reminiscent of the old story of the guy who was vacationing in the country and came down with a severe toothache. He went to see an old country doctor. The doctor pulled a hammer out of his black bag and broke the patient's leg. “What the hell did you do that for!” screamed the patient. The doctor said, “I don't know anything about teeth. But I do know how to set a broken leg.”

Richard P. Hayes


Dhāraṇīs


My remarks about dhāraṇī recitation seems to have precipitated some comments, some of which have strayed off the point I was originally trying to make. One reader suggests I have undertaken to replace religion with science. Hell, I can barely plan my day, let alone think of undertaking a project so grand as replacing religion with science. All I have said is that there are people who cannot relate to the magical explanations that are traditionally given for the value of dhāraṇī recitation. For those people who do not believe in magic, dhāraṇī recitation is bad medicine. I make no stronger claim than that.

The kind of magic I am talking about here is not the sense of awe or wonderment that some people talk about; one can feel that kind of magic whenever one sees a Chickadee or a squirrel. The kind of magic I am saying people have a hard time believing in is what one reader has called instrumental magic. And it abounds in Mahayana Buddhist literature. It is quite common in Mahayana sutras to have a whole section, usually at the end of the work, in which several dhāraṇīs are given; sometimes whole pages of dhāraṇīs are to be found. The dhāraṇīs are gibberish, even in Sanskrit. No meaning can be wrung out of them at all. They are presented in the texts as magical formulas that are to be recited to protect the text from evil spirits, and to protect the reciter from calamities and misfortunes. This passage from Lankavatara Sutra is representative:

If any misfortune should befall, let him recite the magical phrases for one hundred and eight times, and the evil ones will, wailing and crying, turn away and go in another direction. Without much work one could find hundreds of pages of quotations just like that in Mahayana texts. Indeed, the Mahayana canon is filled with hundreds of sutras that contain nothing but dhāraṇīs that are to be recited in order to gain the birth of sons and to avoid floods, volcanic eruptions and nocturnal emissions.

I have heard both teachers and their disciples make the claim that reciting dhāraṇīs, chanting sutras, doing prostrations and so forth can have such effects as stopping wars and diminishing environmental pollution. People have said such things to me as if they believe them. I knew a woman who was incessantly chanting dhāraṇīs to earn merit so she could be reborn in a male body in her next life, because her Tibetan teacher had told her that a woman's body is evil and disgusting. This sounds like instrumental magic to me. It also sounds like a kind of misogyny that our culture is presently trying very hard to overcome. Why undo our cultural accomplishments in order to carry out the advice of a fully enlightened but nevertheless bigoted guru?

If someone says that chanting for hours during times of distress makes them personally feel at peace, that is fine. But it is quite a different to say that chanting is somehow going to send waves of merit out that will cause Saddam and Bush to melt all their weapons down and go out licking the wounds of orphans.

Doing whatever has to be done to give oneself the courage to face another day on this dreary wheel is understandable to everyone; if people find solace in dhāraṇīs, then dhāraṇīs are good medicine for them. But it is not good medicine for everyone. And it has been my experience, perhaps not representative of experiences that others have had, that there are quite a few Buddhist teachers who are not particularly aware of what a tremendous problem it is for some people to be asked to do practices that they regard as superstitious and in which they see no positive value.

I hate to see people turned away from the dharma altogether just because a careless or ignorant teacher has given the impression that some practice or another is obligatory for gaining enlightenment or even for winning some “lesser” goal such as being at peace or (perish the thought) becoming a mere arahant. Sadly, I have seen people turned away from the very idea of doing meditation because they were given the wrong kind of practice and were made to believe that the regimen of practices given to them was, to use one reader's phrase, “the only game in town.” (People who use that expression sometime speak as if they have forgotten that there are lots of other towns.)

Richard P. Hayes



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