This past week I received the 3rd best Christmas present of my life (the first being my son who was born last year on Christmas eve and the 2nd being the iPod my wife got me 2 years ago – I heart gadgets) when my Father sent me my Christmas ornaments. I’ve been without them for 9 years, and this is the first time in as many years that I’ve really gotten into the spirit of things.
For me, Christmas has always been about the tree. But first you need a stand for your tree. I think my family has the coolest one ever. My Great-Grandfather built a house in my hometown of Saginaw, MI. It was one of the original neighborhood houses on the East-side, then a center for the manufacturing industries. Eventually, he decided to make a scale replica of the house and make it into a Christmas Tree stand. It’s a really cool stand, that looks exactly like the house. There are spots for lights to light up the house, and he even drilled little holes in it, so we could stick tree sprigs in them to replicate trees. The house is still standing to this day, and my Father currently has the tree stand. This is the one item that stands out above all from my childhood, and it is the only thing besides my last name and male pattern baldness that has been passed down from generation to generation in my family.
Next on the tree come the ornaments. Yes, I am completely attached to my ornaments. And I am fine with that. I have had my own ornaments since I was born, and I’ve been collecting them every year since. My whole family would make the annual trip to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland to pick out our ornaments for the year. Bronner’s is literally the world’s largest Christmas store. It is Christmas there year-round, and it will absolutely overwhelm you when you walk in the doors. They have pretty much every kind of decoration and Christmas themed item you could ever imagine, and then some. Their ornaments though are a notch above everyone else’s. They are imported from Germany, Poland, Italy and Czechoslovakia and most of them are quite beautiful hand-blown glass replicas of just about anything you can think of. So we’d make the half hour trip over there, pick out our ornaments, and then head home to hang them on the tree. Everyone had their own ornaments, and even their own box to keep them in. And every year, it was a little bit like Christmas came early when I opened up my ornament box and “discovered” ornaments from years past that I forgot I had.
For me, it was this ritual that marked the beginning of the holiday season. I wasn’t really in the “Christmas Spirit” until we decorated the tree. And afterward, everything was about Christmas until the morning of the 25th when it all culminated in the usual gift-giving celebration, followed by food and family get-togethers. This year, I was able to start this tradition with my own family. My wife and I decorated the tree with the ornaments my Father sent me, along with some others ones that we have collected over the years and just haven’t used yet. The next morning when my son Corbin woke up, his face lit up brighter than the tree he was staring at.
So, I suppose the reason for this post was to examine ritual and tradition a little bit. When I started thinking about hanging my ornaments, I realized that this was the act that got me in the “Christmas spirit”. While it certainly isn’t necessary, it helps. This is how I view the various rituals that the many sects and schools of Buddhism perform on a regular basis. Whether it is using juzu beads, prostrations, bowing, turning prayer wheels or whatever your particular cup of tea (which could also be a ritual).
These rituals aren’t the means by which you realize enlightenment. Big shock, I know. So what is their purpose if not practical? I think it all just has to do with the intention behind the act. If you intend to bow deeply to world out of respect, and repeat this action again and again, and are genuine in your action, how does that not carry over into the rest of your life? If you immerse yourself in loving-kindness practice, this is how you will react to the world. The same thing if all you listen to is Rage Against the Machine (which I love). Eventually, you’re going to hate the government (and white people too I think?). We’ve built up so much of the delusion, greed, and hunger in our lives that sometimes it takes 100 prostrations or 300 nam myoho renge kyo-s to break ourselves out of that mode of thought and being.
But it’s not just some kind of brainwashing exercise. Lighting candles and incense, chanting, offering food and water, these things create the right environment for earnest practice. They are the same as hanging the ornaments on my tree, or watching It’s a Beautiful Life. Those things are not the Christmas Spirit in and of themselves, likewise my offering a pear on my Butsudan alter isn’t going to bring me enlightenment. But it helps me. I understand the symbolism, and how it should reflect in my life.
Of course, there is also the flip side. I’m sure I have neighbors that have put up their lights out of some sort of obligation. I’m sure there are plenty of Buddhists in the world that light incense with no intention behind it. This can be found in all the world’s religions, as well as in social interaction itself. People just going through the motions for whatever reason. And I’m sure that there are some that don’t see the ritual items as physical symbology, interpret everything literally, and hope to bow their way to enlightenment. But I think that most practitioners are aware that many of the rituals they perform are symbolic, and are there to aid their practice, not be their practice.
So it kind of bugs me when people like Sam Harris say things like “While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced.” [emphasis mine]
I’ll just say that I fully believe Buddhism to be a religion, though whatever way you choose to practice it is up to you. But I don’t think that looking down your nose at the world-wide sangha is helping you to develop loving-kindness or compassion Sam Harris. I could just as easily say that treating Buddhism as anything but a religion, and practicing it as a mere philosophy with only personal gain in mind is futile and selfish. And reducing it to the “Science of Mind” that many propose misses the entire point of Buddhism altogether. But that’s just an opinion. It’s divisive speech, and it makes the claim that I somehow own Buddhism and propose to know the true and “right” version of it to practice; when in fact this would be far from the truth. Rather than attempt to create more division, why not just embrace what it is that you choose to practice, without degrading others?
This kind of talk is common. Many people here in the West believe that Buddhism has too much ritual and metaphor and if we just rid it of these, and it’s cultural baggage, it would be better off. If that’s what you want, practice that. But there’s no need to go stripping Buddhism of it’s rich culture, tradition, and history. Personally, I’m choosing to learn from the diverse cultures that have developed Buddhism over the past 2500 years or so. I don’t see it as “baggage”, even though there is plenty of it that doesn’t speak to me on a personal level. What do I then do with this cultural “baggage”? I try and understand it. I try and understand it’s purpose and meaning. I take what I can from it, and then move on. I like the metaphors and symbolism, but I understand that is what they are, and nothing more. Calling the culture that has intertwined itself with Buddhism “baggage” is disrespectful on so many counts, but I’ll let Arun talk more about that (that’s kind of Arun’s niche).
Back to the topic at hand. I think that ritual has it’s place in Buddhist practice. One shouldn’t get lost in it, nor do I think one should have a strict aversion to it. I enjoy ritual. It helps me. It helps to bring focus to my practice. While not necessary, it’s a tool that I can use that has it’s roots deep in Buddhist tradition and culture. When I find my mind wandering while chanting, I use my Juzu beads to bring my focus back where it should be. They also help provide that feeling that what I’m doing in the present moment is focused practice, which it then becomes. So what’s wrong with that? Why strip me of that? I like my ornaments on my tree. They certainly aren’t getting in the way of anything. They’re pretty, they make me happy, and it just plain feels like Christmas with our tree now.
I’ll leave you with this. Awhile back, Jack from Zen Dirt, Zen Dust wrote a post called “The Stripping of Buddhism“. One of his readers Lee left the following comment, which I think sums this all up nicely: “I never thought I’d like ritual..but first time I spent time with monks and bowed I found the purpose in my training for bowing…full bowing…chanting…having services..lighting candles…all the symbolic bringing together of the mind in action and letting go self in the process… For some I suppose it’s helpful…but no one should mistake it for some old idea .. not necessary… and somehow unworthy… to bow deeply to the universe is good to do… Gashho!”