Ritual vs. mentalism

Reading Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity was somewhat shocking.

The book covers many of the same topics I plan to write about, both here and in the Meaningness book; and comes to mostly the same conclusions. Does that mean my work is wasted? I’m unsure. I plan to continue regardless. In the mean time, I recommend Ritual and Its Consequences highly.

The book illuminates diverse topics using a contrast between “ritual” and “sincere” modes of being. The authors’ choice of the term “sincere” may have been unfortunate, because normally it contrasts with “insincere,” and insincerity is often a genuinely bad thing. In fact, as they observe, part of modern hostility to ritual is the belief that it is not merely non-sincere, but anti-sincere, hypocritical, or duplicitous.

Perhaps a better name for the view they contrast with ritual is “mentalism.” Mentalism, in this sense, is the idea that meaning is a matter of mental contents. The classical version says that religion is about beliefs (either true or false, or perhaps meaningless); and ethics is about intentions. Classical mentalism was promoted by the Protestant Reformation, and then by European Enlightenment rationalism. The newer Romantic version says that meaning is about feelings and experiences.

Both brands of mentalism are now central to the modern world-view. Mentalism is, in fact, so taken for granted that most people can’t imagine how it could be otherwise. “What could meaning be, if not something mental?” Traditional views in which, for instance, enlightenment is not an experience strike modern Buddhists as nonsensical: not just false, but incomprehensible.

The central point of Ritual and Its Consequences is in its subtitle: the limits of sincerity. That is, mentalism is both factually wrong and harmful. Sincerity—expressing true beliefs and correct feelings—is often valuable, but not always, and not the only value.

In the mentalist worldview, the only function of ritual could be to express beliefs or feelings. But ritual is, at best, a highly inefficient and imprecise way of doing that. Why not just say what you mean? Worse, if you interpret rituals as expression of beliefs, most of what they say is obviously false or meaningless. If you interpret them as expressions of feelings, they are mostly inauthentic. Ritual, then, is clearly a bad thing, and should be gotten rid of immediately.

This completely misses the point of ritual, however. What matters about ritual is not what it says, but what it does. And what it does is create, sustain, modify, and destroy connections and boundaries. (I have written on this blog about this as the function of Buddhist tantric ritual.)

Because modern culture denies the value of ritual, it has lost important tools for working with boundaries and connections. Therefore, it tends to fall into dualism (hardening boundaries into absolutes) and monism (denying the existence of boundaries altogether). Fundamentalism is an extreme expression of dualism; New Age woo and Buddhist All-Is-One theories of enlightenment are forms of monism. Both these are harmful failures, due in part to rejection of ritual.

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Two new podcasts: tantra and ritual creation

Vincent Horn interviewed me recently for the Buddhist Geeks Community. An edited version is now available as a pair of podcasts:

I enjoyed the interview considerably. Vince asked some questions I wasn’t particularly expecting, and I came up with coherent answers. I haven’t actually listened to the podcasts, because I find my own voice grating, but I’ve been told they are good!

Much of the content will be familiar if you are following the blog, but some topics came up that I haven’t covered before. Also, some folks find it easier to absorb information by voice than text.

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.

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Reinventing Buddhist Tantra

A conversation has begun about what post-Consensus Buddhisms could be. I will join in by suggesting renewed Buddhist Tantra as a possibility. Tantra aims in a direction many people want to go—quite a different direction from mainstream Buddhism. So its goal is inspiring; and its path can be exhilarating.

That might seem unlikely. “Isn’t Tibetan Buddhism incredibly conservative? What about all those gods and demons and miracles and Medieval superstitions? And prostrating to lamas, and rituals and robes and thrones and crowns? And hours and hours of chanting gibberish in Tibetan? This is exactly the stuff we want to leave behind—hardly the way forward for Western Buddhism!”

Mostly, yes, vintage-1959 Tibetan Buddhism is the only Buddhist Tantra that is available; and I agree that it’s culture-bound and anachronistic.

Yet I think new Tantric Buddhisms could be particularly relevant to life in the 21st century.

This page previews upcoming posts that will sketch possibilities that might look entirely unlike what has come before.

I say “Buddhisms,” plural, because I don’t want the new, better alternative to Consensus Buddhism. What I want is space for many alternatives to develop. Some may sprout from Tantra; others from other roots.

I say “sketching possibilities” because I do not have a worked-out alternative to offer. I can only wave toward directions that look promising. I hope others will explore further, and that new forms may emerge collaboratively.

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