First in a series of 2 talks on Ritual, given at the 2007 Loon Lake sesshin. There were five talks given in this sesshin.
Ritual 1 (talk 1 of 3)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Mar 05, 2008
Transcribed and edited by Mary Wilson and Barbara Byrum
Many of you are familiar with the service, but some of you maybe aren’t, so I will say just a few things before we begin. When you take your place for service, what you do is bring your attention to your body and breath, just as you do in zazen. We stand in shashu: you grab the thumb of the left hand, put the right hand over it. We are standing in a dignified posture. The idea throughout the service is that you set aside your conditioned self and all your various hang-ups and inadequacies and troubles and problems. You temporarily put them down, and you put your body and mind into the position of being in a Buddha mandala. During the time of the service, you would actually be liberated – you would be free of whatever ongoing problems you had in your life. Rather than slouching in our usual ways, we now take a special posture, which expresses our Buddha nature.
Traditionally, you have an officiant at the service who takes the centre of the mandala. The centre of the mandala is the interaction between the Buddha on the altar and the Buddha who is acting the part of the Buddha in the ceremony, who is the priest. The priest is wearing the okesa (robe). I am not the person who is important; it’s the robe. I’m enacting the Buddha, and the statue on the altar is that same energy. I’m a proxy for all of you. So we are all enacting our own Buddha nature, our own Buddha heart.
Another way of looking at the service is that it is a re-enactment. In Mahayana Buddhism, the idea is that you are the Buddha – all of us are the Buddha – but we don’t know that. We are deeply convinced that we are not. So our practice is to awaken the reality of who we are by invoking buddhas, by giving devotion to the buddhas, by making offerings to buddhas, by making prostrations to buddhas. This is the way we awaken.
When I stand in front of the altar to do service, I try to orient myself in a very conscious way to this wide and deep world that is characteristic of life and of our practice. I try to bring my whole heart to the person I am – that is far more than the person that I think I am. And I try to enter that person with my body and mind, and to enter the ritual of the service as that person. And the same is true of everyone in the service. We stand in the dignified posture of a Buddha, entering with our body that person that is our self most deeply. Even though I can be standing there at the altar in various kinds of moods – tired or grumpy – when I stand there and take a breath and orient myself, I immediately come to that position. I have been doing ritual a long time, and it has that impact on me, no matter what kind of mood I’m in, or what I’m doing. Immediately, when I enter the space of the mandala of the service, this happens.
Esoterically, devotion is identity. If I am devoted to the Buddha, it means I am identified with the Buddha. Through the practice of devotion to the Buddha and making offerings, we become a Buddha. That’s the endlessly repeated trope in thousands and thousands of pages of Mahayana sutras. So in a way, when we have a service, we’re re-enacting those sutras. We’re making offerings of incense to the buddhas, and we’re offering flowers. One stick of incense stands for infinite fragrances of all kinds. Each flower stands for infinite flowers. So we offer incense, we offer flowers, we offer light, and then we make prostrations to the Buddha.
There are two reasons for chanting. One, we are conditioning our mind to the teaching. There’s a difference between chanting the teachings as a ritual – not as intellectual activity or trying to understand them – and intellectual study. There’s a sense that chanting the sutra conditions the heart in a more mysterious way than study or understanding does.
The second reason is that merit is generated. There’s a certain kind of spiritual power generated, because the sutras are wholesome. This is the theory and cosmology of Buddhism, that these texts are wholesome and beneficial. So chanting them generates benefit, and the benefit can then be dedicated. And what we usually do is dedicate the benefit to our friends who are ill or who have passed away.
[Question about bowing]
There is actually a verse that is recited when you make a prostration, which I always recite when I make prostrations. The translation from Japanese is, “Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature. The bodies of oneself and other are not two.” So this is what I was saying earlier, that when you are making a prostration, the idea is you are bowing to yourself.
When I first started doing Zen, like a lot of Jewish boys, I thought, Why would you make prostrations? That seems completely un-kosher. So I went to my teacher. He brought me up to the front of the altar and showed me the image on the altar. The image was in gassho, bowing to me. So he said, “You bow to Buddha, and the Buddha bows to you. You are bowing to yourself.” And, in fact, that is exactly the orthodox understanding in Buddhism, that in venerating the Buddha, you are venerating your own real nature. The bodies of oneself and another are not two. They are empty. In emptiness, there is no separation. I vow with all beings to obtain liberation, to surpass the unsurpassable mind, and return to boundless truth.
So that’s the idea of making prostrations. You are recognizing the oneness of yourself with the Buddha, and in making a prostration, you are throwing away your worldly needs and desires and problems. You are saying, I am now returning to boundless truth. I vow with all beings to obtain liberation, to return to boundless truth. So it’s actually very profound to make prostrations.
Chanting that verse reminds me that what I really love about ritual is that most of the time – the vast majority of the time – it’s rote, routine. In other words, how many times when you recite a verse do you actually call forth the feeling that the verse expresses? Usually not that many. Because any ritual is repetition, and you do the ritual all the time. We do that chant every week. A Buddhist service is done every day, if you are living in a temple or a monastery. And you get used to it! You don’t think anything of it. You just go through the motions. That’s what people are always complaining about. Oh, the rituals – you’re just going through the motions. But I love that about ritual, that most of the time you’re going through the motions, but every now and then, often quite spontaneously and unintentionally, it hits you what it really is. It’s rare, but the rarity of it, in a way, makes it more powerful. The fact that the experience is coming out of many years of rote repetition only makes it that much stronger. So that’s another aspect of ritual that is really kind of wonderful.
We live in a world that is not interested in ritual. We’re not interested in venerating and devoting ourselves to buddhas. We’re interested in what works, what’s effective, what’s going to make a difference. Ritual seems like an extra thing. Very few people come to Buddhist practice and say, Oh, I love the Buddhist ritual, that’s why I want to go and study Buddhism. Very few people in the west have that point of view. We all come with a very practical point of view: this is going to help me. This is going to make a difference in my life somehow. We come as if it were a kind of medicine or psychology where you can go, and you pay your money, and you expect to be healed.
Ritual also is fraught with difficulties and problems. For one thing, most people who come to a Zen place find it extremely alienating and troubling. They’re not used to it, and we all want to feel included and comfortable. You walk in to a place where they’re doing all these things, and right away you feel uncomfortable! You don’t feel included. It’s weird, it’s strange. And maybe some people are used to it, and you’re not, so it makes you feel kind of bad. You feel like an outsider. And then it goes both ways, because once you do get used to it, then you feel more included than otherwise, which makes the people who feel less included even more out of it. Right? So now we have an in-group and an out-group. We have the people who look like they know what they’re doing; they’re wearing their rakusus. We can tell they’re pretty experienced and used to all this, and we don’t know it. We don’t have rakusus. And we really don’t like that. None of us had that intention to begin with, and yet here it is. In other words, ritual seems to foster that kind of division.
The other problem with ritual is that the more ritual you have, the more chances you have to make mistakes, right? Oh, I’m supposed to be standing that way, and I’m standing this way! Oh, I should be facing that way! Oh my God! Everybody’s bowing facing this way, and I was just bowing facing that way. It’s humiliating. It’s terrible. I mean, you always thought before that you knew how to walk, and how to stand, and sit, and eat, and then you realize, I’m not walking correctly. I’m not standing correctly. I’m not eating correctly. Because we have a whole eating ritual called oryoki practice in the zendo. It’s very complicated, and you think, I don’t know how to eat! I can’t eat a meal! I’m like a child! So we don’t like that at all. So we blame the ritual: I hate ritual. You don’t need the ritual. It’s extra. You don’t need it. I’m going to go do this other kind of practice where they don’t have this ritual, because they realize it’s just Asian tradition.
But there’s something good about ritual. When we do get used to it, and when we do it together and move harmoniously, there’s a wonderful feeling. And there’s a way in which we really feel close to the other people, who also know how to move in that ritual space with us. There’s a kind of intimacy that that we didn’t have before.
Actually, I think that our whole practice is nothing but ritual. It’s all ritual. Zazen is ritual. Dharma talk is ritual. Walking into the zendo is ritual. We come because of our human life, our human needs, and that’s the only way that we’ll ever come. So we need that. But after a while of practice, it dawns on us that our practice, our life, is not about us. We realize that we’ve been given this life – this particular life – for some reason. Not that we know the reason, but we feel, There’s some reason why I am here as this person in this life.
So we’re not really meditating to clarify our minds, or to improve our emotional or mental health; although, we hope so. We are – as we say in in the Full Moon Ceremony – immersing body and mind deeply in the Way, in order to redeem the whole of the past, and to provide benefit for the whole of the future. I think whether we think about it this way or not, we feel, through the process of the ritual, this dimension to what we’re doing and what our lives are.
And then we do feel a sense of gratitude. When you have a day like today, on this planet earth, just so lovely, you know? Here, when you see all the plum trees scattered over the hillsides, you think, There must bea genius gardener! Perfect! When you see that, you realize how grateful you are for this life. And ritual gives us a way to express that. There’s nowhere else to put that. But you can offer incense to the Buddha; you can make prostrations, surrendering the whole body and mind. You can bow to this huge dimension of our own lives, to this immense possibility that is within each of us. Then we really feel, All my gratitude is met. There’s a form for it.
This is one of the main dimensions of the service, to Zen ritual, and to all Buddhist rituals. It’s an expression of gratitude. We’re offering thanks and expressing our gratitude by making these offerings and these prostrations. We chant the sutras to train our heart-mind in the teachings, but also out of gratitude and offering.