A shout out to Adam and to all his blog audience as we commence this big Buddhist blog swap. This is the first time I’ve participated in the blog swap. It’s a lot of fun to dip into someone else’s pool, and to have Shane Hennesey of Zenfant post on my blog, The Jizo Chronicles.
The way this works, all of us who volunteered for this endeavor were matched up with another blogger, and we were to write something for his or her blog. We each suggested a topic to write on, and then Nate Montigny put these into a hat (was it a real hat or a digital hat? I wonder…) and assigned a topic to each of us. The topic I suggested was “how do you practice with irritation?” The one I was assigned was “the importance of ritual in your Buddhist practice.” I didn’t understand that we weren’t going to write on the topic we suggested… and so I have to tell you, I am irritated that I have to write on a topic other than irritation. I guess that is perfect. I may end up writing about both topics here.
First, ritual. I grew up Catholic, and I mean really Catholic. Twelve years of Catholic grammar school and high school at St. Andrew’s, in Pasadena, California. This was in the 1960s and 70s, so if you can imagine the scenes in the Meryl Streep/Philip Seymour Hoffman movie “Doubt,” you’re not far off. Okay, maybe not quite that bad, but we were definitely steeped in ritual and nuns and priests. I can remember being herded from our classrooms across the street to the big church every Friday for Mass. When I was growing up, the post-Vatican II Church was just on the cusp of “modernizing,” so I have some faint memory of the mass being said in Latin when I was very young. But most of what I remember is that awkward transition to guitar masses and the priests trying to act very hip.
Even so, there was still a great deal of ritual. During big masses like Christmas and other holidays, the altar boys, dressed in black robes with a splash of red and white garments, would carry large bronze urns filled with incense and swing them around on their way up to the altar. The most ritual-intensive part of the liturgy was around the consecration of the ‘host,’ when the priest held up the golden chalice and whispered some kind of secret incantation as the bread and wine allegedly turned into the body and blood of Christ. It was wild. So when I encountered Buddhism later in my life, I was already pretty comfortable with ritual. I started practice in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition where there was actually less of it. But by the time I hit Soto Zen, I was happy to see the black robes come out again and hear all the chanting in morning service. I know this can be a turnoff to some people, but I felt right at home. Maybe that’s why there are so many ex-Catholics who seem to turn up in the ranks of Zen Buddhism.
Over the years, something really valuable I’ve discovered is that it’s important for me to personalize those rituals a bit more, otherwise they can end up feeling kind of dead after a while. In the past couple of years, I’ve created a morning ritual for myself that has really helped me to feel much closer to my practice. When I sit on my own at home, I end the sitting period by lighting incense and then chanting a set of three vows that are close to my own heart – not something that someone else has come up with. This seems to go to the core meaning of ritual for me – it’s a remembrance of things that are close to my soul, that vitalize me for the day ahead.
Finally, a few thoughts about irritation. After my irritated moment about not getting the topic I wanted for this blog, I realized how much irritation has permeated my practice. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Really, irritation has permeated my life and I would guess that is true for you as well. I remember one of the first things that my root teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, said to me: “We spend most of our lives circling around the drain of resistance.” I thought that was fabulous and I’d never heard it before. It’s so true, only the problem is we usually don’t realize how resistant we are to “things as they are.” Irritation really seems to get at the heart of the First and Second Noble Truths, that there is suffering in life and that suffering arises when we resist what’s going on. I’m not sure I can say I’ve experienced any less irritation in my life since I’ve been practicing meditation. In fact, maybe even more. Or maybe it’s just that I am more aware of it (damn awareness!). Sometimes it seems that just about anything can trigger the irritation: the loud breathing of someone else in the zendo (and it’s always someone else, not me!), the co-worker who drives me crazy with his stupid questions, the method for choosing the blog topic that I didn’t have a say in… If it’s not one thing, it’s another, as Gilda Radner would have said.
One saying that’s made the rounds in many Buddhist settings is that when we practice and live together as a sangha, we are like a bunch of hairy potatoes being washed in the same bucket of water together, continually rubbing each other clean through the process of bumping up against each other in our irritation. If that’s the case, I am getting to be a very clean potato.
Thank you so much Maia! Wonderful!