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


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