Third in a series of talks on Zen Ritual
Third in a series of talks on ritual
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
March 19, 2008
Transcribed and edited by Mary Wilson and Barbra Byrum
I’ve been thinking about this subject of ritual, and tonight I want to give you a sort of smorgasbord of all kinds of different things that I have been looking at, and thinking about, and researching.
First of all, some anthropological speculations about the roots of ritual: There’s a lot of really good anthropological and sociological work done on where ritual comes from and how it functions in societies. I thought I’d say a little bit about Confucian ritual, because Chinese ritual, which is basically Confucian ritual, is different to some extent from other kinds of ritual, and it’s Confucian ritual in particular that underlies our Zen ritual. And then, if there is still time, I would like to go through the ritual of receiving the precepts, the Zen ritual of Zeikke Tokudo, also called Jukai.
According to the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ritual is defined in the following way: “Ritual is an imitative or symbolic action, designed to achieve some end, often of a supernatural character, that could not be achieved through normal means.” So in other words, you’ve tried everything that you could think of, but nothing has worked. Or it’s the kind of a thing that you know you can’t influence, like, Why doesn’t it rain? In other words, as soon as you open up the question of ritual, you are already stepping outside the realm of practical life in its ordinary forms of causality. I can fix this over here, and that will happen. You are automatically recognizing the limitations of human power and human capacity, and you’re saying, I release myself to something beyond my capacities. My powers only go so far. My hope is beyond what my own powers can effect, so I am stepping outside of that circle of the objective world. I think that, to some extent, ritual is foreign to us nowadays, because the objective world has so increased its scope. But in times when the objective world was a lot smaller, and the scary forces beyond the causal world were bigger, ritual was actually a necessity for ordinary everyday human life.
The dictionary goes on to say, “Ritual is invariably regulated by traditional prescription. Indeed, its efficacy is usually deemed to be dependent essentially upon its careful conformity to the traditional pattern.” We have discussed the idea of repetition and tradition as being the essence in ritual. Ritual is not something that you have created. It’s something that comes from the ancient past that you are repeating, and that has the force and the power of all of those people from the past up to the present, who have repeated and repeated and repeated this ritual.
So this applies to our basic Zen ritual that is called a service. In a Zen service, we’re imitating the ritual actions in the Mahayana sutras. In Mahayana Buddhism, the idea is that awakening is achieved not in this lifetime, meditating and achieving enlightenment. It is achieved over the course of many, many lifetimes, mainly through the practice of offering and devotion. So you serve many, many buddhas, you make offerings to them, you are devoted to them, you follow them; and you do this, lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, and then eventually you yourself become a buddha. So that’s what we’re doing in the service. Many of the things mentioned in the Mahayana scriptures – the offering of flowers, the offering of light, the offering of incense, the offering of candles, the serving of buddhas, the prostrating to buddhas, and listening to teachings of buddhas, which we are doing when we are chanting the words of the buddhas – are an imitation of the Mahayana rituals that bring on the desired result, which is our salvation and our awakening. So in a way, in Mahayana Buddhism, you serve the buddhas to become a buddha.
Confucian ritual is a little different. The Tao is like a ritual pattern of the harmonious universe. It’s the harmonious pattern of the cosmos in which everything has its place, including human beings. The ancient, mythical kings – who in Chinese culture are the epitome of sanity and rightness and great wisdom – modeled the pattern of ritual on the way of the tao, on the natural pattern of heaven. They intuited the pattern of the heavens, and they figured out how to bring that down to earth for human beings to participate in. So the emperor or king in China is child of heaven. The king comes from heaven, and is heaven’s analogue on earth. This is a radically non-theistic practice. There is no sense that a ritual is to appreciate the god, or ask the god for anything. It’s about harmonizing with this grand pattern. It’s all about balance and harmony and measure. So the purpose of participating in the ritual is to bring our hearts into harmony with the cosmic order, because we have a part of ourselves that gets out of balance. We need to participate in ritual to keep that part of ourselves in harmony with everything.
Soto Zen is very Confucian in that way. The idea that the secular world and the ritualized world are a continuum mapped perfectly onto the Mahayana Buddhist idea of samsara and nirvana being one and the same thing, rather than two separate realms. In Soto Zen, as in all of Japanese religion, Confucianism is a big influence. And it is especially true in Zen on questions of relationship with teachers and with lineage, which are central and important practices in Soto Zen. It’s not a really necessarily part of Buddhism at all, but Confucian doctrines and practices became completely central to Chinese Zen, which is Chinese Buddhism.
There is a really interesting book on Zen ritual. It’s a set of essays and is called Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice. I would like to read to you what I think is a useful section from the introduction. So I’m going to read you a couple of pages from this and maybe make some light comments.
“In the Zen tradition, ritual is a thorough-going, disciplinary program…” (Ritual, not as magic, but as a disciplinary program) “… imposed at first upon the practitioner until such time as the discipline is internalized as a self-disciplinary, self-conscious formation of mind and character.” So that’s an incredible statement, that through the practice of Zen – and I think it’s true for any religion, but particularly in a practice like this one – you are undergoing a formation of mind and character. You are becoming a different kind of a person through the actions that you perform in the course of doing the practice. And this is exactly the kind of thing that ritual does. In Zen, through the agency of the repetition of the ritual, there is self-discipline – discipline that could get you to the place where it is internalized, and it becomes a formation of mind and character. So if you do enough prostrations, something happens to you. You somehow become a different kind of a person.
“Even if we take enlightenment to be the ultimate goal of Zen ritual practice, it is still important to see that these rituals serve multiple characteristics of enlightenment simultaneously. A particular Zen ritual may foster a sense of humility and selflessness, while simultaneously giving rise to mindfulness, self control, courage or wisdom. And then (skipping a bit) the effects of a single Zen ritual may be one thing for a novice practitioner, while quite another for someone more advanced in the practice. Character differences also mean that what one practitioner might glean from a ritual to shape his or her character will be lost on another.” That makes sense.
“In contemporary ritual studies, the view that ritual goes beyond the task of expressing or communicating cultural values to effecting fundamental change in a person’s perception of self and world is called ‘the performative approach.'” The performative approach to ritual is that it changes you. It not just expresses something, but it is actually changing you actively. So rituals perform a transformative function that is not captured in reductive interpretations that remain at the level of belief or concept. One is imagining and visualizing oneself in a particular way. Stepping inside the ritual space, you become a buddha. You become an elevated person, in the same body.
“Zen rituals are about postures, gestures and patterns of movement. To make sense of this basic dimension of Zen, we need to engage its fundamental corporeality by understanding Zen as a specifically embodied practice.” And that’s true. The practice is very, very much a physical practice, and the transformation that takes place in the practice comes through all the physical gestures that one makes through the rituals.
Now I’ll speak briefly about the jukai ceremony. In the ritual of jukai, the people who are going to be receiving the precepts enter the space, offer a sacrifice, and offer their whole bodies to the Buddha. They make prostrations. They offer incense. It’s a sacrifice, a total offering of the self. They are venerating the Buddha, because when you venerate the Buddha, you become the Buddha.
Then they go to the ordination table, and they make a prostration, as if the ordination table were the sacred ordination table of the Buddha’s time. The ordination platform in Buddhism is considered a very sacred place of the presence of the Buddha. So they make a prostration to it.
Then the officiant of the ceremony invokes a company of sacred beings. There’s a lengthy invocation – a calling forth –of the buddhas in all directions, the dharma in all directions, the sanghas in all directions, Shakyamuni Buddha, the bodhisattvas and ancestors, Dogen, and Suzuki-Roshi. Then we invoke the triple body of the Buddha: the Dharmakaya, the Sambhogakaya, and the Nirmanakaya. The Dharmakaya is the nameless, shapeless, unknowable, universal being, body of Buddha. The Sambhogakaya is the purified shape of that Buddha in the spiritual worlds. The Nirmanakaya is the way that Buddha appears in this physical world. These mythical, spiritual beings are invoked.
Then we invoke Maitreya, the Buddha of friendliness, who is the future Buddha. Buddhism has a specific vision of a time in the future, in which friendliness, compassion and cooperation among all creatures will be the hallmark of that eon. (Buddhism has this vision. It always gives me great hope.) Then all other buddhas are invoked.
Then homage is paid to the Lotus Sutra, since this ceremony comes from Dogen’s time. Dogen really loved the Lotus Sutra, and it is the Lotus Sutra that reveals that the practice is much more than the one-dimensionality of the practice that teaches: cultivate the mind and heart, achieve enlightenment, and then be liberated and happy. The Lotus Sutra reveals that that was just the cover story, that the whole process is way more cosmic than that. In reality, it’s a way bigger question than that, so that is why the Lotus Sutra is invoked at this point.
Then all the bodhisattvas are invoked. They are qualities of our own heart: wisdom, compassion, the quality of activity, and finally prajnaparamita, which is the total vision of reality that shares and sees all of reality as one being. As we chant that, we imaginatively think we are bringing these beings here, into the room, in order to help us perform this ritual.
Then there is the ritual of purification. First, you purify the mind and heart. You purify the mind and heart by chanting three times the verse of confession: “All my ancient, twisted karma, through beginning-less greed, hate and delusion, born through body, speech and mind, I now fully avow.” Then the officiant says, “Now you are purified.” This is a mind-boggling concept, don’t you think? You say a few words, and that’s it! Your endless karma, from boundless, past lifetimes, has now been dissolved by chanting these words! By virtue of saying these words in the presence of these holy, sacred beings, with full faith and imagination – in that moment anyway – we have let go of all of our karma, and we are purified.
Then there is the purification of the body, which is done with water. There are, actually, highly secret mantras and mudras that only certain privileged people know, to make this water into the kind of water that will purify the body. The water is then sprinkled all over, purifying the space.
This purification with water is a very common trope in many rituals, in all kinds of religions. It’s actually exactly the same kind of thing as baptism, which was based on the pre-existing ritual of purification. The Jewish ritual of baptism pre-dated the Christian ritual. In the original baptism ritual, people would throw away their clothes, and they would put on fresh, white garments. They would go into a river, they would be immersed, and they would be given a new name – just as in the jukai ritual. And they would come out a new person. There is a statement by Paul which is very amazing and mystical, where he says, “You die in Christ when you are baptized. And then you are reborn.” And that’s exactly the idea in jukai. You are purified with water. You let go of everything of the past, all the conditions of the past, and you are purified. Now you are ready to receive the precepts, having been purified in the body, purified in the mind.
In Zen, the symbolism is that when taking the precepts, you are taking on the blood of a new lineage, a new ancestry. The bloodline is the pure, ethical conduct, which in Zen is called enlightenment. Conduct is awakening. It’s the essence of the Buddha’s heart. So when you take the precepts, the idea is you are now entering a new lineage. You’re a new person with a new name, new clothes. You are remade.