This has been a month of ceremony at my Zendo. We had Shukke Tokudo Ceremony (ordination ceremony) and Zaike Tokudo Ceremony (discipleship ceremony) along with our usual weekly ceremonies. If there is one thing that all Buddhist seem to have in common it is their seeming love of rituals and ceremony.
Just so we are clear a ceremony is an event of ritual significance, performed on a special occasion. A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The term usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers.
As some of you know I practiced Vajrayana Buddhism before I came to practice Zen. With all respect and no insult to them my old Tibetan teachers loved ceremony and could put on a ritual at the drop of the preverbal hat. Until I actually joined a Zen group I had thought they would be real low on the ceremony meter.
I guess my idea of how Zen was practiced was shaped by the Books and stories I had read. I saw Zen as shedding all paper and all standardized practice. You know what I mean, the Zen master who appears out of no where, says something both profound and confusing and then disappears over the hill in a cloud of dust.
So I was surprised when I found that they were generally speaking as fond of ceremony as the next school of Buddhism. Earlier this year I read a wonderful book called “Soto Zen In Medieval Japan” by William M. Bodiford. I am by the way, after reading several things written by him, beginning to believe Mr. Bodiford is the greatest Soto Zen scholar the English speaking world has ever produced, just so you know.
Historically speaking if Mr. Bodiford is correct ceremony and rituals were very much what Soto Zen was all about after the third generation of the Soto Zen School in Japan. Rituals for weddings and funerals paid the monks rent for centuries. Rich patrons paid monks to do blessing rituals for their relatives both living and dead. The monks would chant and pray for Granny two times a day and the grand children would fork over the land or the cash you needed.
In fact it appears that for many years teaching someone how all the rituals were performed was how the early Soto Zen Masters “made” Dharma heirs and transferred their lineage. Bodiford claims that one great master asserted knowing the rituals is the complete essence of Zen. That the ceremonies Dogen brought from China were the sum total of his gift to Buddhism. I don’t think anyone can doubt the importance Dogen placed on ceremony; however I really doubt that he himself believed that the ceremonies he taught were all there was to his Zen.
In Japan today Soto Zen still seems awash in ritual and ceremony. In the Temples and Monasteries It appears to me that the Zen monks of today’s Japan do as many ceremonies as anyone else in Buddhism.
In America I think explaining Buddhist ceremony especially to the kind of people Zen attracts is often a hard sell. Unlike Buddhist of the past most Americans who come to Zen today reject the idea that ceremonies are a valid form of magic that can have a real influence upon them in this world and the next. The most common stated reason I encountered early on was that performing and even watching and listing to a ritual gained you merit.
I have heard my teacher explain the meaning and significance of ceremony and for the life of me I just seemed to hear noise. This happens to me sometimes when explanations, true or not, just don’t make any sense to me. I mean no disrespect to him, it's just sometimes I just don't get it.
Of course there is the standard fall back position that ceremony and ritual in Buddhism are upaya, which is Sanskrit for "skillful means." If they are upaya that would of course imply that performing or watching them somehow is of a spiritual benefit to the practitioner on his way towards enlightenment, or a relaxing sit, whichever comes first?
Dogen said, “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” I suppose that treating the ritual or the ceremony the same way you treat kinhin (walking meditation) might make that verse apply to ceremony.
On the whole my experience with the ceremonies conducted this month was an enjoyable one. But I do have a concern to express here.
We seldom have a talk on how to experience a ceremony. I know I have heard it said to do a ceremony like you do zazen, but my real worry is that zazen is becoming a ceremony in and of itself. I see people grasping for the proper posture and sitting as ridge as a post, looking good and fearful of even scratching their nose, because we all know how the ceremony is performed, how it should look and what it should sound like.
So I really have no problem with ceremony in zen, its zazen as ceremony that worries me.