Understanding Zen Ritual

zen-ritualThe 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 inherently 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 anti-ritual 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 ritualised 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.”

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