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.