Some folks are keen on creating a Buddhism without ritual. They equate ritual with religion, even though Buddhism as it has existed for thousands of years can be either a religion or not a religion, depending on one’s point of view. And that is what the whole question of ritual boils down to – point of view, or more precisely, how one understands ritual and its relevance to our journey.

There are some Buddhist rituals I am not overly fond of, and my method of dealing with these rites is simply not perform them if I can help it, and then move on. Sometimes, though, I’m at a temple or a dharma center, and I feel it is necessary to be respectful and follow the principle of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I’ve found that even when forced to engage in some ritual I don’t like, I somehow manage to survive.

We perform rituals every day. Just the act of getting up from bed in the morning is ritualistic. Most of us have our own routine for this. Getting dressed, going to the restroom, making coffee or tea or breakfast, we usually have a certain procedure that we rarely alter. Sex is a ritual, and you don’t hear too many people complaining about it.

There is actually very little in human society that isn’t ritual. Rituals serve to connect us to one another; they help strengthen community, link individuals with society. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell once suggested that when a society loses its capacity for ritual, it begins to disintegrate, and he said there is a constant need to invent new rituals to keep societies moving forward.

Even in those Buddhist groups striving to create dharma sans ritual, when they meet, they generally follow some set format. If they ring the bell to signify the time to begin meditation, that’s a ritual.

I’m not crazy about doing full-body prostrations, but I do like bowing. You know, the little half-bows with palms pressed together. To bow to another is not necessarily saying that person is superior to you. When two people bow to each other, it’s a sign of respective equality.

A teacher of mine once suggested that one could view bowing as a way to touch the spirit of Bodhisattva Fukyo (“The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged”) in the Lotus Sutra. One day, Fukyo went around and bowed to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.” People thought he was strange and a mob beat him, almost to death. Yet, as a result of his sincerity in performing this personal ritual, he extended his life span by two-hundred-ten-thousand-million billions of years and taught the Buddha-dharma to countless beings. Those who had slighted and condemned Bodhisattva Fukyo eventually became his followers.

It’s a myth, but it has a rather obvious point. Fukyo saw that all people have Buddha nature, that they inherently possess the nature to become a buddha. The practice he engaged in is called raihaigyo or “bowing in reverence.” Fukyo represents the true spirit of the bodhisattva, and his ritual is one we should all perform in daily life, the ritualpractice of treating others with respect.

Bowing to statues and objects may be a slightly different matter, but here is Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s take on that subject:

[When] you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”


The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged

The Lotus Sutra contains a number of parables and stories, and this is one of my favorites. From Chapter Twenty, based on the Watson and Kato translations, the story of Bodhisattva Fukyo:

“Once there was a bodhisattva bhikshu named Fukyo (Sadaparibhuta) whose name meant ‘Never Disparaging.’ Why was he given this name? Because he paid respect to everyone he saw, whether bhikshu, bhikshuni, layman or laywoman, by bowing in reverence to all of them, saying, ‘I deeply respect you. I would never condemn or disparage you, because you all walk the bodhisattva path and are becoming buddhas.’

Bodhisattva Fukyo did not devote his time to reading and reciting the scriptures but only to bowing and paying respect. If he happened to see any of the four kinds of believers far off in the distance, he would go to them and bow, saying, ‘I would never disparage you, because you are all to become buddhas.’

Bodhisattva Fukyo was often subjected to insults and abuse, and yet, he did not give in to anger, instead, each time, he spoke the same words, ‘You are to become Buddhas.’ There were those who said, ‘Where did this ignorant person who predicts we will become buddhas come from ? We need no such false predictions!’ And some of them attacked him and beat him with clubs and sticks and pelted him with stones. Still, while escaping from these people, he continued to call out in strong voice, ‘I would never disparage you, for you are all certain to become buddhas!’ It is because he always spoke in this way that the contemptuous bhikshus, bhikshunis, laymen and laywomen gave him the name ‘Never Disparaging.’

When Bodhisattva Fukyo was at the point of death, he was able to receive and retain a million verses of the Lotus Sutra as it had been taught by the Buddha Awesome Sound King.  As a result, he obtained the purity of the sense organs and extended his life span by two hundred ten thousand million billions of years, and taught the Buddha-dharma to countless beings. Those who had slighted and condemned Bodhisattva Fukyo then became his followers.”

In this story, Bodhisattva Fukyo sees that all people have Buddha nature, that they inherently possess the capacity to become enlightened. The practice he engaged in is called raihaigyo or “bowing in reverence.” He represents the Buddha himself, in another lifetime.

Obviously, the major point here is that we should treat others with respect, and it is offered as an example of bodhisattva practice. The reward of long life that Fukyo obtains as a benefit from this austerity represents the principle of ‘what goes around, comes around’ in the positive sense.

Here’s what Thich Nhat Hanh has had to say about this inspiring bodhisattva:

Sadaparibhuta, the bodhisattva who says, “I would never dare to despise anyone,” is also everywhere. Even if someone does not seem to have the ability to be awakened, he sees that within everyone there is that capacity. Sadaparibhuta helps everyone to have self-confidence and remove any feelings of inferiority. This kind of complex paralyzes people. Sadaparidhuta’s specialty is to be in touch with and water the seeds of the awakened mind or the mind of love in us. This bodhisattva is not just a person in the Lotus Sutra but can be found right here in our society in many different guises. We have to recognize the bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, who is around us in flesh and bones.

We do not worship imagined or mythological figures. Bodhisattvas are not figures from the past living up in the clouds. The bodhisattvas are real people who are filled with love and determination. When we can understand someone else’s suffering and feel love for him/her, we are in touch with the bodhisattva of understanding.

This bodhisattva removes the feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem in people. “How can I become a buddha? How can I attain enlightenment? There is nothing in me except suffering, and I don’t know how to get free of my own suffering, much less help others. I am worthless.” Many people have these kinds of feelings, and they suffer more because of them. Never Disparaging Bodhisattva works to encourage and empower people who feel this way, to remind them that they too have buddha nature, they too are a wonder of life, and they too can achieve what a buddha achieves. This is a great message of hope and confidence.