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.

Continue reading “What ritual feels like when it works”

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Free-flowing energy

I mean “energy” in an everyday, non-spiritual sense. I mean “energy” in the way you speak of:

  • Having a low-energy day because you’re tired or bored
  • The electric energy of a club on Saturday night
  • The tense energy in your office just before job cuts are announced
  • The chaotic energy of waves in a storm

“Spiritual” people often use “energy” to mean something supernatural and special, and make strange claims about it. That could cause confusion; but I haven’t found a good alternative word.

“Energy” is the immediate potential for change. It powers passion, action, and connections.

The union of passion and spaciousness releases energy; and energy unbound intensifies passion and widens spaciousness. Tantra increases all three, and they reinforce each other.

This can be uncomfortable. You may feel that your emotions are already too strong, and that the world is already too complex and confusing. More of both might be the last thing you want.

Continue reading “Free-flowing energy”