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.”