What ritual feels like when it works

Vince Horn interviewed me today for the Buddhist Geeks Community. One of the questions he asked was about ritual. My outline has several posts on that topic—but they may be months in the future. So these are some quick thoughts on the value of ritual for contemporary religion.

His question:

This is probably one of the most confusing aspects of Vajrayana Buddhism for many folks, and perhaps also the most confusing aspect of most religions for modern people.  You make the assertion that we could have a modern tantra that is ritual-free, but that this probably isn’t a very good idea.  What are the redeeming aspects of ritual, and what might modern rituals look & feel like?

Let’s start with the biggest reason we all hate ritual. If you say “ritual,” the word that is most likely to come to mind is “empty.” Mostly, our experience of ritual is that it’s meaningless. It’s boring and stupid. It’s something we’re forced to sit through, even though we’re not enjoying it, and the values it expresses are ones we don’t agree with.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved really believes in what they’re doing. Even the leaders of the ritual are just going through the motions, and it doesn’t mean anything for them either. The only purpose of the whole thing is to enforce institutional continuity and power.

That’s a dead ritual. It’s a zombie ritual, and we should put a bullet in its head.

All of this is true for most Buddhist ritual as well, definitely including traditional tantric rituals, which can be super boring and pointless. In fact, they usually are.

So, basically, if you think of the exact opposite of all this, you have what ritual should be—and can be.

When it’s working, ritual is not in the least boring or stupid. It’s emotionally exciting and intellectually fascinating. It’s intensely meaningful.

In fact, that is what ritual is all about: intensifying, concentrating, and directing meaning. It inspires, it produces ecstatic states of consciousness, it provides purpose, and drives commitment and action.

Ritual connects us to each other, creating communities; it ends alienation. It creates experiences of wonderment, which open us to a wider view. It combines all creative arts in a unified performance, and can be total blast.

Ritual relies on symbolism, and symbolism is culturally specific. That’s one reason rituals don’t have a long shelf life, because culture changes. In fact, Buddhist leaders have always felt free to innovate with ritual even at times when Buddhist doctrine was highly conservative.

However, symbolism also makes rituals difficult to appreciate across different cultures. So this does imply that devising Buddhist rituals that rely on Western symbolism and culture is legitimate and probably necessary.

Luckily, we have immense resources to draw on in the West. Ritual is essentially participatory religious drama, usually with music and costumes and props, so it combines many art forms. And we’ve got all those art forms to draw on, and we could add technologies like computer-generated light shows and EDM bass that weren’t available in the Buddhist tradition. REALLY LOUD MUSIC is consciousness-altering, as any club-goer knows. The Tibetans did the best they could with huge drums and twelve-foot trumpets, but we can still do better.

I think of a spectacular concert as a paradigm for what modern tantric ritual should be like. Or a dramatic protest rally. A successful ritual takes the participants through a defined sequence of emotions that unclog energy by uniting spaciousness and passion.

When you leave a a fantastic concert, you are all pumped up and inspired, but there’s nowhere for that energy to go. When you leave a political rally, there could be a determination to make changes, but spaciousness might be lacking.

So a tantric ritual should avoid both those. It might take a lot of experimentation to get everything working right, and there are some dangers in getting it wrong. Ritual is a loaded bazooka, and you need to be careful which direction you point it. But innovating could also be a lot of fun.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

9 thoughts on “What ritual feels like when it works”

  1. I’d like to add or make more explicit something that is perhaps covered under the community building aspects you describe for ritual, that I heard from Jill Purce. She said (something like) the community comes together and provides witness for a change that takes place in the participants, in order to acknowledge and support them in their new status. For example, the guests at a wedding see the bride and groom transform through the ritual from single people to a married couple, and are then as the couple’s community of friends and family relate to them in their new state. Which is not to say there aren’t all sorts of exceptions to that example… So similarly some sort of transformative spiritual flavored ritual has the participants witnessing each other doing the work or having the experience of going through the ritual process and then supporting each other as a community as individuals that have transformed themselves by that process.

  2. Hi David.
    My 10 year old daughter was asked by a Christian friend , “What her family believed in?”, and my daughter replied ,”We don’t believe in anything”.
    When my wife told me this story, I had to laugh. My wife and I are non-religious and that’s the way we’ve raised our daughter.
    When I was my daughter’s age, my family lived in an urban environment that can only be described as bleak. I was raised Catholic and I remember the Catholic rituals as an escape from the drabness of my urban environment. These Catholic rituals were magical for me.
    The church, itself, was like a palace compared to the buildings which surrounded it. The colorful silk and satin clothes the priest wore, the gold chalice and other instruments, organ music, singing, and incense combined to produce a “richness”, which everyday city life lacked.
    Rituals have the power of raising the mundane to the level of the sacred. I have no regrets about bringing up my daughter in a secular way, but ritual can be a beautiful thing to an impressionable child. Unfortunately the ritual I’m speaking of came with dogma and closed-mindedness.

  3. My opinion is that we can’t know anything about Gautama Buddha, or what he taught or did. The stories about him were written hundreds of years after he supposedly died, they contradict each other, and many are obviously false. Some might be true, but we don’t know which. It’s also likely he’s entirely fictional.

    I recommend that you read this page, which explains my perspective on this. It will make your head explode, perhaps in a useful way.

  4. To me the rituals are like a utensil where we put things to eat. Without a utensil one cannot take food.
    The music distracts one’s mind from the message of the discourse that is being delivered or the scripture that is being read to the audience.
    I think one should concentrate on the message rather than the outer form of the presentation. The ritual should be simple and convenient.

  5. Hey David,

    I liked the podcasts but as they have no comment section (I think) I came here instead. It seems to me as if the question of relevance is an important issue here. Relevance at personal, group, soteriological, and cultural levels. Orienting our sense of what needs to be done along such lines, while not necessarily the most effective, at least helped me to understand better how the discussion could be framed.

    I actually have a lot of questions rather than anything substantially thought through to add but I know that’s fine with you. I wonder about your comment that when a ritual works ‘it’s intensely meaningful’, what makes it so? Obviously a multilayered question but I ask simply to question on what level a ritual needs to be meaningful, or in terms of innovation of ritual how such meaning can be generated, i.e. at the personal, group, soteriological, and cultural levels, and whether such a broad level of meaning can realistically be attained in today’s world (which I think is a biased term btw, though perhaps is simply utilised as shorthand. I mean our world is a relatively small pocket of post-modern technological post-enlightenment such and such, so we’re a minority, I sometimes feel that the term gets used as if that world view should be assumed to be predominant when in fact it is highly specific and relatively small. But perhaps this points to the problem that relevance in ritual needs to be directed both towards the highly specific in terms of culture and the more global domain of human psychology, and I personally assume there is one).

    For example, perhaps some group buddhist rituals in our society fulfill the first three categories, the individuals benefit, the group dynamic is satisfied, and as a practice a meaningful impact arises in relation to some stated goal. Culturally however perhaps the meaning of the ritual is ‘in house’ and fails to connect to more general social mores and/or attitudes and lifestyles? Should it do that, should a modern ritual somehow cross the border of the group into society at large not merely as an after effect but as a part of the flavour and/or content of the ritual? Perhaps it would have to to generate interest (and is that the point, simply to generate interest in order to fulfill the first three aims?). In terms of the specificity and atomisation of our society, how could the cross border effect be attained when the more general is eschewed in favour of the microscopic subcultures? Ironic that the general trend is a rejection of generalities, what does that say about society and human psychology, do people want cross border ritual at all? Would they rather it be in house? Is there in this general dismissal an implication that the postmodern is less iconoclastic and more conformist than is sometimes assumed? Accordingly, are these questions (and rituals) rightfully posed towards individuals consciously embarking upon their postmodern lives, or more towards the general social psychology acted out at a more group-think level? Probably both, but how!?

    A further point here is how the difficultly (if it is indeed a problem) of cross border meaning was significantly diminished within those societies which birthed buddhism and buddhist cultures. I mean, for many of these places the question of personal and cultural was highly blurred in that their rituals automatically assumed cultural significance because they lived in buddhist cultures, at least that’s my assumption. Do we need to address this issue, and if so how do we do it? Another issue in relation to this point is to what end might we address the cultural level of meaning. What are our aims? Do we seek simply to speak to our contemporary culture/s? To affirm them? Do we seek to rehabilitate the trend towards atomisation and/or isolationsim? As a skillful response towards this culture what end does the technology of buddhist ritual set as its aim, i.e. should all four of the categories I mentioned be stated aims (obviously we may well need different categories)? Should, for example, the general psychology of individuals be addressed through cultural specificity, which while fulfilling buddhist soteriological aims, makes no substantive judgment on that culture nor seeks to address cultural content beyond that which arises out of the soteriological goals? Or is that too broad or too complex? Is this too long? Am I losing the thread? Enough questions already?!

    O.k., bye for now (that’s not a threat btw)

  6. Hi Alex,

    These are all great questions. Mostly I have no answers other than “Yes!” or “I don’t really know” or “Perhaps all of the above!”

    I would answer in terms of the framework I set out here (with some slight explanation here).

    According to that framework, the subcultural mode of relating to meaningness is pretty much past. Vajrayana in the West has existed only subculturally, and that may not work after Generation X (the prototypical subcultural generation) retires.

    The PDF says that future Buddhism will be “an amorphous assemblage of means for transformation of culture, society, and self by uniting spaciousness and passion to unclog energy and empower nobility.” Which sounds nice but I don’t altogether see how we get from here to there!

    Still, according to that, I do believe we should attempt to affect the broad culture, not just to create comfortable subcultures. Maybe that was your central question?


Comments are closed.