Thursday, November 29, 2012

Universality and Ritual, Part 3 – A Defense of Ritual

universal: “[I]ncluding or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception… [E]xistent or operative everywhere or under all conditions...” Merriam-Webster

ritual: “[A]ccording to religious law… social custom or normal protocol.” Merriam-Webster


I step into the doorway of my meditation room, press my palms together and bow. Then, cupping my left hand with my right, I walk over to the altar against the opposite wall and bow once again before it. To the right, the candle and the incense burner sit ready to accept my respective offerings. To the left, one ceramic bowl half full of water reflects the dim light of the room, and another cradles a single heart-shaped piece of polished stone. In the middle, the Buddha statue resting on its wooden pedestal serenely oversees its domain. A shelf beneath the altar holds a book of matches, a box of incense, and various other bells and containers. I light the candle and extinguish the match with a quick wave of my hand – disposing of its remains in a small ceramic dish kept beside my store of incense. I select a stick of incense and hold it to the candle flame until it ignites, and then I wave it into a softly glowing ember. With the incense standing upright in its holder, I survey the altar once again: the glowing candle and smoldering incense, the water and the stone, the Buddha statue overseeing its Buddha-world. I bow and step over to my meditation cushion where I bow yet again before taking my seat – folding myself into a half lotus posture. I lean right and then left, and then I slowly take a couple of deep breaths before reaching for the striker of the rin gong. Leaning forward, I strike the bell and listen to its resonating tone as it fades into near-silence. I strike it again, and I listen once again. I strike it a third time and lay the striker on the zabuton beside me. The ringing fades into eternity, and I am settled deeply in zazen.




My recent focus on that which is universal might have the regular reader thinking that I would just as soon discard all that does not strictly pertain to zazen on the basis of it being an unnecessary accretion to, or distraction from that which is of utmost importance. It is to address just such a possible misunderstanding that I am writing this post – this defense of ritual. The fact is that every aspect of the pre-zazen ritual described above serves in some way to orient the mind in the direction of the stillness and silence that I’ve been speaking of in recent posts. You could even go so far as to say that zazen begins with that first bow offered while standing in the doorway. (I suppose you could also say that it begins even earlier than that.)

Victoria Zen Center practitioners taking part in the ritual of jukai

Perhaps you recall my post entitled Mind Is What the Body Does in which I discussed the artificiality of the oft-made distinction between the body and the mind.  When we practice zazen within a ritualized context we are utilizing the interconnectedness (oneness, actually) of body and mind; we are bringing our psyches into synchrony with our muscle memory in order to deeply root our entire being into the ground of stillness and silence even before our rear-ends have made contact with a zafu. When the body “just knows” what to do – as is the case with any frequently performed ritual – the mind is set free to settle more quickly and more deeply into stillness. There is nothing to ponder; there are no decisions to be made.


Of course, the benefit of everyone “just knowing” what to do is especially apparent within the context of group practice. It would be unsettling to everyone if we all brought our various and sundry approaches to practice into the meditation hall with us. We’d very likely end up with George doing his thing and Sally doing hers and each of them getting annoyed at the other’s “disruptive” idiosyncrasies. No, it is far better that we all follow some agreed upon protocol rather than for each of us to expend brainpower reinventing the wheel, so to speak – all the while thinking ill of the other guy’s creative process. Now, take a moment to consider the tensions that might arise amongst a group of monastics eating and sleeping and working together, and I think you’ll be able to see the benefit of everyone surrendering to the “confinement” of ritual.


But not all ritual can lay claim to prima facie practicality as can those practices described above. Not all ritual directly supports that which is universal – the practice of seated meditation, or the working, eating, and sleeping that make it possible. To the contrary, some ritualized aspects of practice have more to do with reminding us what we believe and what we value and how we’ve chosen to orient our lives; or, as the case may be, telling us what we should believe and what we should value and how we should orient our lives.


Take the chanting of the Three Refuges, for instance: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.” As integral as these three statements might be to the practice of Buddhism, they simply don’t rise to the level of universality. They are a philosophical context for the universal practice of zazen, but they are not in and of themselves universal. They are a possible example of a religious accretion onto that which is spiritual. I say ‘possible’ because the Three Refuges are, ideally anyway, chanted with a sense of total spiritual investment. See Spirituality and Religion for more on this distinction. At this point it might be good to recall the words of William James regarding “philosophic and theological formulas [being] secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue” (p. 470).


I’ve had a fair amount of time to contemplate such matters during my tenure teaching meditation at a fairly traditional Zen center to a varied collection of beginners, students of comparative religions, curious Christians and so forth. I came to recognize the potential for a strict adherence to or an over-reliance upon ritual to get in the way of that which we are primarily trying to encourage – the adoption of a regular meditation practice by as many people as possible. If you are skeptical that our actions might actually be at odds with our intention, just imagine what it must be like for a Christian to visit a Zen center for the sake of having a place to meditate with others only to find the room resonating at the close of zazen with the chanting of: “I take refuge in the Buddha…, I take refuge in the Dharma…, I take refuge in the Sangha.” Whatever calm sense of oneness that person might have felt during sitting is immediately juxtaposed with the realization that these people are really, really different from me! Perhaps you’ve had a similar feeling yourself (I know I have) while visiting a Christian service and being deeply affected by the solemnity and purposefulness and fellowship of it all, only to find yourself realizing that you just can’t say the words of, for instance, the Apostles' Creed: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary….”


“So what?” you might be thinking. “We’re not trying to turn Christians into Buddhists, and Christians shouldn’t be trying to turn Buddhists into Christians.” Fair enough. But are these chants and creeds that serve to define us and our respective groups and traditions of overall benefit with respect to the realization of ultimate truth, or are they a hindrance? Of course, this is a complex issue. I’m confident that many people coming to Buddhism from other religious heritages actually want to experience that ritual in order to get a true taste of “the tradition.” On the other hand, I suspect that there are many others who would love to begin a meditation practice with a group, but the ritual aspects of traditional Zen or other Buddhist practice either appear to be in conflict with their present religious beliefs and practices or are found to be unpalatable for any number of other reasons based on perception, reality, or idiosyncrasy. A potential practitioner might be unwilling to bow before any statue on an altar, for instance. They might have an aversion to the perceived inane formalism of every move and gesture. Perhaps they chafe at the unquestioning deference paid to or the authoritarian demeanor of the abbot or teacher. I know, I know…, these are all indications that there is some ego to be relinquished, right? But might we also benefit from relinquishing the knee-jerk tendency to conclude that any critical reflection on what constitutes appropriate practice is an indication of an out-of-control ego! We are in the twenty-first century, after all!


And that is why I see merit in placing this ‘universal versus ritual’ dichotomy under a strong enough magnifying glass that we become aware of what “our practice” really is, why we do what we do, and the potential costs and benefits thereof. Might we Zen Buddhists, in fact, be limiting the accessibility of zazen by insisting that it be practiced within the ritualistic context in which it is so often practiced? If even the teachings themselves are, as the Buddha’s own words convey, a raft to be discarded upon reaching the other side, might we be so bold as to suggest that the raft of ritualized practice might actually be a clunkier and less easily maneuvered vessel than it could otherwise be? Perhaps a more streamlined dugout canoe of ritualized practice is all we really need!


Ah, but where might such a process of streamlining ultimately lead us – towards a practice stripped of its richness, devoid of that which might inspire, free of that which might attract practitioners even as it is free from that which might repel them? Do we risk zazen becoming clinicalized? Would Zen Buddhism then be no more – having become completely subsumed by a physio-psycho-spiritual approach to transcendent actualization, perhaps?


I’m being playful, of course, but even with my tongue planted firmly in cheek I can imagine a study with that very title being published in some journal of transpersonal enquiry or something. Such a study would, in its pursuit of scientific rigor, strip away all that is deemed superfluous to transcendent actualization such that that which is hypothesized to be of central importance might be observed in isolation. Of course, said scientific study would show with statistical certainty that this physio-psycho-spiritual approach (ahem, zazen) does indeed lead to transcendent actualization – stillness, silence, truth. And so the clinicalization of zazen would begin in force; its universality will have become recognized. It would begin to be introduced in schools and workplaces and hospitals in such a way that its connection to religious practice would be all but forgotten. The physio-psycho-spiritual approach to transcendent actualization will have then become as universally accepted as a high-fiber diet as far as the overall well-being of the consciousness-expanding organism is concerned. (By the way, if you think this all sounds outlandish, then I suppose you’ve not yet heard of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and how the mindfulness practice of Buddhist inception is now being used to alleviate the suffering caused by everything from PTSD to personality disorders – without anyone even having to come close to declaring themselves Buddhist!)


Have I been all over the board with this piece? Good! I always strive to offer plenty to think about…, and with a little inspiration thrown in for good measure. For those who would like me to draw some conclusions, I would offer up the following:

  1. I hope that somebody one day writes a book entitled Zen and American Culture which might serve as a counterpoint to D. T. Suzuki’s monumental Zen and Japanese Culture. It might take a few hundred years, but I hope it gets written, nonetheless.
  2. I hope that Zen centers become places where people of all faiths might feel comfortable practicing regularly, even as those places remain characteristically “Zen”.
  3. I hope that Zen practitioners become comfortable critically examining their practice rather than unreflectively adopting it, even as they cultivate the ability to relinquish that critical examination in order to wholeheartedly embrace whatever ritual they might be performing.


Given that last point, I think it is fitting that I close with a poem that I first presented in my post entitled Practice is Enlightenment. Not quite a translation and not quite an original piece, Practice was inspired by a combined reading of three different translations of a single poem by Dogen Zenji. Variously titled Bowing Formally (Tanahashi, 1985, p. 214), Worship (Heine, 1997, p. 117), and Prostration (Yoshida, 1999, p. 76), the three grounding translations can be found together in the aforementioned post. Practice conveys the nature of wholehearted spiritual practice. In wholehearted practice there is no longer any dichotomy between universality and ritual – there is only a seamless manifestation of the truest nature of being. So, whatever ritual you might choose to be a part of your practice, I hope it likewise manifests the vastness of your being.




A white heron


On a snowy field


Loses itself within


The vastness of being.





I dedicate this post to my Dharma friends who will be accepting the Buddhist precepts in the coming week as part of the Zen Buddhist ritual known as jukai.



Heine, S. (1997). The Zen poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.

James, W. (2002). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature – The Gifford lectures on natural religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. The Modern Library.

Tanahashi, K. (1985). Moon in a dewdrop: Writings of Zen master Dogen. (Tanahashi, K. ed.) North Point Press; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life, Dogen’s world: Translation of Shushogi, Goroku, Doei. The Missouri Zen Center.


Image Credits

Victoria Zen Centre jukai ceremony by Victory Zen Centre via:



Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, November 23, 2012

Universality and Ritual, Part 2 – The Universality of Zazen

universal: “[I]ncluding or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception… [E]xistent or operative everywhere or under all conditions...” Merriam-Webster

ritual: “[A]ccording to religious law… social custom or normal protocol.” Merriam-Webster

My previous post briefly explored the natural dichotomy existing between these two words before moving on to consider what I refer to as the universality of stillness, of which I stated: “the experience of stillness and silence is universal, the truth to be found therein is universal, but just as soon as we begin to put that truth into words we fall into the realm of disagreement and argumentation.” One might hear echoes of the words of William James in such a statement. In one of his lectures transcribed in The Varieties of Religious Experience, James posits that “feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue” (p. 470).
James, of course, is referring to transcendent or mystical experience when he refers to feeling. I’ll consider some exceptions later on, but for the most part I interpret such transcendent or mystical experience to be that which either results from or which, in fact, is the most complete experience of the stillness and silence that I’ve been speaking of. As I make this statement, I am aware that on the one hand I am being more specific than James in that I have rooted mystical experience (for the most part, anyway) in the ground of stillness and silence. On the other hand I am being more general in that, for my way of thinking, the ease with which James classifies mystical experience as experiences of God already reflects one of the “translations of a text into another tongue” to which he refers. Using such words as “God” or “Buddha-mind” takes an experience which is in essence ineffable and positions it within the preexisting (or quickly adopted) metaphysical framework of the experiencer. Please keep these points in mind as you consider this longer selection from one of James’ lectures:
In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old. (p. 457)

The Universality of Zazen

Perhaps this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: The metaphysical reality that exists for one exists for all, regardless of belief or lack thereof. Whatever is… is, and whether we know it or not or whether we have words for it or not is inconsequential. Similarly, the neurobiological form that gives rise to the mind of any one of us is – within the realm of human variation, anyway – the same form that gives rise to the mind of each and every one of us. We all eat and drink and breathe and wonder; we all adopt or construct some sort of explanation as to how and why we are here; and, most prescient for the purposes of this particular blog post, we all have the capacity for what we commonly refer to as mystical or transcendent experience. This is at least a somewhat complete description of the universality of humanness.

Now, some mystical or transcendent experiences might occur quite spontaneously – so-called peak experiences, for instance, or apparitions brought on by grief or stress or trauma. Others might accompany the ingestion of psychotropic drugs or the entrance into trance-like states. However, to the extent that such states of mind are a function of our unique and individual karma it is difficult to call them universal. Zazen, on the other hand – seated meditation – is different in that the experience of stillness that I’ve been speaking of is predicated upon the stilling of our individual karma. We have to “get out of the way,” so to speak, in order for the experience of stillness and silence to arise. This is the essence of the universality of zazen.

How does this sit with you and your own personal view of metaphysical reality? Does it resonate with you that truth is accessible to us right here and right now simply by “getting out of the way” so as to experience “things-as-it-is,” or do you think of ultimate reality as something that we gain access to only after slipping through some sort of mental portal into “another dimension”? That does seem to be a common metaphysical conception, doesn’t it? For instance, one might think of God-focused prayer as opening up some kind of portal leading toward divine union and light, whereas prayer from any other orientation – or the act of sitting zazen for that matter – opens the portal door so that the forces of darkness might enter into us and lead us down the path of separation and death. A modern heaven and hell worldview essentially requires that we think of conventional and ultimate reality in such a portal-like way. After all, now that we know that heaven is not up above the clouds and hell is not deep in the bowels of the earth we are forced to conclude that these realms must exist outside of our everyday space-time continuum – entered into via one portal or another.

But there are no portals opening up when we enter into zazen (though my saying so will not convince one who is inclined to believe otherwise); there is only a more and more complete cessation of individual karma – a more and more refined experience of stillness. This stillness is not Buddhist or Christian, Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Pagan – it is universal. Zazen, therefore, is universal.

I introduced this diagram last week in Universality and Ritual, Part 1. Please keep it in mind as I close with the following story: For a time, my ex-wife and I attended the Quaker service here in town. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) are, of course, Christians who believe that the process of sitting together in silence allows them to discern the voice of God within them and in their midst. Now, the whys and wherefores of a couple of Buddhists enjoying silence with the Quakers need not be delved into at the present time. Suffice to say, however, that this Buddhist sitting zazen in the pews of that Quaker meeting house felt quite at home amongst the stillness, silence, and truth to be found there. Nothing seemed forced or contrived, for as one sits immersed in the immediate experience of stillness and silence, there are no views separating one from another; there is only the shared experience of something universally profound.



James, W. (2002). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature – The Gifford lectures on natural religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. The Modern Library.


Image Credits

Iris image manipulated by author using Photoshop. Original Laitr Keiows photo via:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Monday, November 5, 2012

Universality and Ritual, Part 1 – The Universality of Stillness

universal: “[I]ncluding or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception… [E]xistent or operative everywhere or under all conditions...” Merriam-Webster

ritual: “[A]ccording to religious law… social custom or normal protocol.” Merriam-Webster

It would seem that these two words comprise a natural dichotomy. On the one hand we have something that applies to everyone regardless of position or place or circumstance, and on the other hand we have that which pertains to some initiated subgroup on the basis of mutual agreement, prescription, affiliation, or decree. Perhaps we can think of this dichotomy as another aspect of the dichotomy between ultimate and conventional truth, or between transformation and translation, for that matter. Nonetheless, I think we’re well-served holding loosely in mind our ideas related to this dichotomy. Yes, attachment to ritual can cause us to overlook that which is universal – missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. But attachment to universality might prompt us to unwisely discard those ritual aspects of the rich spiritual traditions after prematurely judging them to be just so much useless baggage to carry along on our journey toward ultimate truth.


If you’ve read my previous two posts you’ll likely recognize why I think an examination of this dichotomy is an appropriate next step. Throwing Away Your Toys, after all, might easily be construed as a call for the jettisoning of all anachronistic or idiosyncratic ritual or protocol in order to more fully embrace that which is universal, namely, stillness – stillness of body, stillness of mind, stillness that becomes apparent once our conceptualizations (our “toys”) have been relinquished. Stillness, Silence, Truth then picks up that thread, ultimately closing with an invitation to embrace this universal stillness and silence for that which it reveals, or that which it is as the case may be, namely, truth.

I know, I know…, talking about universality in the same breath as truth is a very dangerous thing. It’s the stuff of arguments at the holiday dinner table and religious wars, alike. The problem is that most of us are far too quick to assume universality based upon a sample size of one. So, why do I even want to go down this road?

Well, as it turns out I’m not the first one to ever ponder the universality of zazen. Dogen Zenji finished at least one draft of his Fukanzazengi by the year 1227 or so, shortly after returning to Japan from China. Variously translated as, for instance, A Universal Recommendation of Zazen, A Universal Recommendation for True Zazen, and Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen, Fukanzazengi is a masterfully concise and powerful treatise on the how and why of seated meditation. But just how far was Dogen willing to take this claim of universality?

The first translation implies that it is recommended to all human beings, i.e., A Universal Recommendation of Zazen. That sounds a little like the Surgeon General making a universal recommendation of proper diet, regular checkups, adequate sleep and exercise, etc. The use of the word ‘for’, however, in the latter two translations seems to open the door to an ‘if you’re going to do zazen, then this is the right way to do it’ sort of interpretation. Titles notwithstanding, a Dogen scholar might rightfully suggest that we take into consideration the historical context in which Dogen wrote in order to sort through this question. In fact, the various sects of Buddhism in Japan during Dogen’s time did not all recognize the primacy of zazen. It took someone with the gravitas of Dogen to espouse it. Couple that with the uncertainty that we have as to whether or not or how much Dogen was even familiar with the concept of monotheism, and we have to leave room for uncertainty. While it is safe to conclude that he thought that all Buddhists should engage in the practice, going farther than that might be reading too much into his words. And, yet, the question remains: How far would Dogen take his claim of universality if he were alive today?

In the world of today we are made aware on an almost daily basis that our neighbors are  Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Native American Spiritualist, Hindu, Pagan, New Age, Wiccan, Atheist, unaffiliated and so on and so forth. Does a universal recommendation of zazen apply to these folks, too? How do we even begin to go about talking about the question, let alone answering it?

I think it is fairly safe to say that all religions – theistic or nontheistic – have at least some respect for silence, whether it be spent prayerfully, contemplatively, watchfully, meditatively, etc. Here is a smattering of quotes that indicate what I mean:

Be still, and know that I am God… – Psalm 46:10

Let silence take you to the core of life. All your talk is worthless when compared with one whisper of the beloved. – Rumi

Listen to the stillness, the language of God. – Father Richard Rohr

There is nothing in all creation so like God as stillness. – Meister Eckhart.

Are we to believe that the stillness and silence spoken of above is a different kind of stillness and silence altogether simply because it is experienced by a Jew or a Christian or a Sufi? Might it be that the Jew or Christian or Sufi, or anyone else for that matter, must throw away his or her “toys” on the way to knowing that which they refer to as “God” – just as the Buddhist must throw away his or her “toys” on the way to knowing “Buddha-Mind”? After all, is it not the case that words are woefully inadequate when it comes to this ineffable realm of truth – stillness, silence, truth? It is my contention, then, that the experience of stillness and silence is universal, the truth to be found therein is universal, but just as soon as we begin to put that truth into words we fall into the realm of disagreement and argumentation.

Perhaps we should try to stay away from words as much as possible, then. I have constructed a series of diagrams that I hope will let us do just that. As you examine Diagram 1 below, please keep in mind that it represents the actual or theoretical experience of truth – not some intellectual understanding of teachings or dogmas. So, when I refer to “Buddha-Mind”, I am referring to an ineffable experience which, from a Buddhist’s perspective, is called “Buddha-Mind”; and when I refer to “God”, I am referring to an ineffable experience which, from a Christian’s perspective, is called “God”. By the way, I’m restricting the diagram to Buddhist and Christian experience merely for the sake of simplicity. We could add any number of circles that we might like.

Diagram 1

What we have above are two non-intersecting “circles” representing unique experiences of truth, neither of which encompasses any of the truth of the other. Both circles are contained within a larger circle that represents some theoretical human potential to experience truth via some heretofore undiscovered practice or means. If you’ve heard the story of the king who asks a group of blind people to touch various parts of an elephant and describe what they “see”, then you may want to use that story to understand this particular representation. Note that the king represents the maximum human potential to experience truth – he can see it in totality. Of course, people from one tradition might believe that their experience of truth belongs inside the larger circle (or, in fact, is the larger circle) even as they relegate the experience of another to the outside – the realm of delusion! Yes, there can be many different versions of these diagrams!

You might be wondering what has become of the subject of this post – universality. Yes, it would seem to be absent in Diagram 1. Each circle represents a very parochial experience of truth which could certainly stand to be embellished by the truth of another tradition. For there to be any universality there needs to be at least one point of intersection between these two realms of experience. And so we have Diagram 2.

Diagram 2
Diagram 2, for my way of thinking, is a step in the right direction with respect to representing the common ground between Buddhism and Christianity. Each has at least some regard for stillness and silence. I suspect, however, that the universality that Dogen was referring to such a long time ago was not anything that could be circumscribed by any finite circle within some larger domain of human potential for experience. No, I suspect that Dogen would draw the circle representing “Buddha-Mind” just as large as the domain of human potential would allow. Likewise, I suspect that no Christian would be willing to say that their experience of “God” is subject to any limitation other than that of the outer limits of human potential. Does that mean that our diagram should look like Diagram 3? Hmmm…

Diagram 3
Mind you, I’m not saying that I have the answer to this question. I just hope that I’ve framed the question in a clear enough fashion to be instructive. Might it be the case that, if we could only boil away all of our words and theories and concepts about what it is that we are experiencing, we would find that the Buddhist’s experience of truth that he or she calls “Buddha-mind” and the Christian's experience of truth that he or she calls “God” are, in actuality, the same?

I expect to have more to say with respect to this question of universality as this blog continues – both in the next post and down the line. For now, though, let me thank you for following along to this point. I hope you’ve found at least some merit in these graphic representations of the various experiences of truth. I’ve shown them to a number of clergy friends and, while we certainly didn’t arrive at any conclusions, we did have some lively discussion with respect to how else the circles might be drawn. So, please have some (serious) fun with them!  


Image Credits

Iris image manipulated by the author using Photoshop. Original photo by Laitr Keiows via:


Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank