The following excerpt is taken from "Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice" edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright. It provides an informative counterbalance to the western perception that Zen is inherrently anti-ritualistic.
"That Zen life is overwhelmingly a life of ritual would not always have been so obvious to Westerners interested in Zen. Indeed, early attraction to this tradition focused on the many ways in which irreverent antiritual gestures are characteristic of Zen. This side of Zen is not a misrepresentation, exactly, since classical literature from the Ch’an/Zen tradition in China includes some powerful stories and sayings that debunk ritualized forms of reverence. Huang-po’s Dharma Record of Mind Transmission, for example, dismisses all remnants of Buddhism that focus on 'outer form.' It says: 'When you are attached to outer form, to meritorious practices and performances, this is a deluded understanding that is out of accord with the Way.' Following the lead provided by that image, the Lin-chi lu directs its strongest condemnation to what it calls 'running around seeking outside.' Such seeking is deluded and irrelevant because, from Lin-chi’s radical Zen point of view, 'from the beginning there is nothing to do.' 'Simply don’t strive — just be ordinary.' 'What are you seeking? Everywhere you’re saying, ‘There’s something to practice, something to prove’ . . . As I see it, all this is just making karma.' Other now famous stories in classical Zen drive the point home, from Bodhidharma’s provocative line to the Emperor that all his pious observances warrant 'no merit' to Tan-hsia’s sacrilegious act of burning the sacred image of the Buddha."
"This critique of ritual piety in early Chinese Ch’an was later understood to be part of a larger criticism of any aspect of Buddhist thought and practice that failed to focus in a single-minded way on the event of awakening. Encompassing formal ritual, textual study, and magical religious practices, a full range of traditional Buddhist practices appear to have been submitted to ridicule — what do any of these have to do with an enlightened life, some Zen masters asked? In this antinomian stream of Zen discourse, ritual was simply one more way that mindful attention could be deflected from the central point of Zen. What the essays in this volume make clear, however, is that although slogans disdainful of ritual can be found in classical texts, the traditions of Chinese Buddhism appear to have proceeded in the same well-established ritual patterns as they had before the critique, even, so far as we can see, in monasteries overseen by these radical Zen masters. Ritual continued to be the guiding norm of everyday monastic life, the standard pattern against which an occasional act of ritual defiance or critique would stand out as remarkable."
"...emotional pain and suffering, such as grief or loneliness, can be debilitating though those feelings reflect the attachments we make. One way to avoid grief is not to form attachments and not to love any other creature. This would require denial of our own needs and isolate us from the communities in which we live. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in a poem: ‘'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ Interestingly, Lewis wrote on 14 July 1960, ‘One doesn’t realise early in life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy one must be tied.’"
This comes very close to explaining why I shifted from Buddhism to Christianity back in my early twenties. Quite simply, I found the path of nonattachment saved me from suffering, sure, but I think Tennyson (and Jesus) had it right. To open ourselves to love we have to open ourselves to loss. And sometimes such openness can be transformative.
In seeking to understand Hinduism more thoroughly I came across an interesting little article called, "Hindu Rituals and Routines - Why Do We Follow Those?" It covers a number of aspects of Hindu practice that, while familiar enough from observation, I've never heard explained so well for before. One in particular was the Hindu use of ash which I have quoted in full below. Maybe you see, as I do, some potential for redemptive analogies coming out of this.
Why do we apply the holy ash?
The ash of any burnt object is not regarded as holy ash. Bhasma (the holy ash) is the ash from the homa (sacrificial fire) where special wood along with ghee and other herbs is offered as worship of the Lord. Or the deity is worshipped by pouring ash as abhisheka and is then distributed as bhasma.
Bhasma is generally applied on the forehead. Some apply it on certain parts of the body like the upper arms, chest etc. Some ascetics rub it all over the body. Many consume a pinch of it each time they receive it.
The word bhasma means, "that by which our sins are destroyed and the Lord is remembered". Bha implied bhartsanam ("to destroy") and sma implies smaranam ("to remember"). The application of bhasma therefore signifies destruction of the evil and remembrance of the divine. Bhasma is called vibhuti (which means "glory") as it gives glory to one who applies it and raksha (which means a source of protection) as it protects the wearer from ill health and evil, by purifying him or her.
Homa (offering of oblations into the fire with sacred chants) signifies the offering or surrender of the ego and egocentric desires into the flame of knowledge or a noble and selfless cause. The consequent ash signifies the purity of the mind, which results from such actions.
Also the fire of knowledge burns the oblation and wood signifying ignorance and inertia respectively. The ash we apply indicates that we should burn false identification with the body and become free of the limitations of birth and death. This is not to be misconstrued as a morose reminder of death but as a powerful pointer towards the fact that time and tide wait for none.
Bhasma is specially associated with Lord Shiva who applies it all over His body. Shiva devotes apply bhasma as a tripundra. When applied with a red spot at the center, the mark symbolizes Shiva-Shakti (the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire seen and unseen universe).
Bhasma has medicinal value and is used in many ayurvedic medicines. It absorbs
excess moisture from the body and prevents colds and headaches. The Upanishads say that the famous Mrityunjaya mantra should be chanted whilst applying ash on the forehead.
Urvaa rukamiva bhandhanaan
Mrytyor muksheeyamaa amrutaat
"We worship the three-eyed Lord Shiva who nourishes and spread fragrance in
our lives. May He free us from the shackles of sorrow, change and death – effortlessly,
like the fall of a rip brinjal from its stem."
To kick of the season of Advent, here is a poem by a good friend, Lucy Jarasius. Lucy is a Christian with interests in dancing, ministry with Aboriginal Australians and social justice.
©Lucy Jarasius 2014
Iffhuwanah, Maid of Gondwana,
made of earth
waiting for light-shining, night-splitting Amor
capable of scaling the heights of blindness
the depths of acts heinous
– sheltering banality, root of carnality
searing pain, needling nerves, jaw-clenching on pain of death
deluded by delving doubters
digging deep holes in the heart
unwelcome windows into the dark
caverns yawning hopelessly
welling up with the weight of waiting
making light of redemptive possibility
Incarnation? Don’t be silly!
Deity wouldn’t take that much of a shine to us
wouldn’t make that much of an effort for us
couldn’t give that much of a damn about us, soiled goods!
waiting, waiting, waiting… lying in wait, lies in the waiting
weighed down by the game of waiting… all lying, but no slumber
If only we could escape, sleep-scape free…
somnambulant eyes, roaming the hilltops from whence cometh our help
scanning the ridges for some light relief, some small spark of soterial reality
really ANYthing remotely resembling a doom-dispelling dawn, drawn from the dreaming
Light dreaming, dreaming of Light, flickering hope,
Is it here? Is it there? Is it really nearly here?
just about there, just here, just there, justice everywhere…really? really!
Deity may yet take a shine to us
Make a massive effort for us
re-spark adam-nation through incarnation, maid of earth,
dirt-made, glory-shards through-shining lightly, reticently recognising the dawn of a new age
…rejecting “I CAN-descence”
for “the Light of the World” to embrace
Star-gazers, found him then, Maid of Gondwana
made of earth
waiting Light-seekers may yet reveal him again…
If you wanna…