Rethinking Ritual

Review of Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen, Buddhist Theory in Practice, edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright.

Norman Fischer
1 March 2008

Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen
Buddhist Theory in Practice
Edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright
Oxford University Press, 2008
352 pages; $74 (paperback)

Buddhism was first introduced to the West in the late nineteenth century as a rational, iconoclastic, psychologically oriented form of spirituality. So different did Buddhism seem from Western religions that there was even some question as to whether it was a religion at all, considering there was no God, no revelation, and no supernatural element whatsoever. Educated Westerners who held this view of Buddhism had a strong Protestant, anti-magic, anti-ritual bias and an enthusiasm for the new science of psychology, which more or less debunked religion as a product of the primitive human mind. While other religions were full of superstition and mumbo-jumbo (the very concept of God as a punishing father being entirely dependent on blind belief and fear), Buddhism, in the view of these Westerners, was sober and balanced. It was an essentially rational approach to spiritual fulfillment, based on personal effort in meditation to reach exalted states of human perfection.

The British scholars who translated the early Buddhists texts were predisposed to see them in this light, and the Asian Buddhists who supplied the texts to the British were quite happy with this view as well; it’s nice, when you are a victim of colonial rule, to be praised by your master for the superiority of your religious culture. In Japan, the twentieth century saw the advent of a generation of Buddhist scholars who depicted Zen as all this and more: Zen was supra-rational, that is (in line with Heidegger and other Western philosophers of the time who were critiquing rational Western metaphysics), it possessed a reason beyond reason.

Clearly aware of the challenge the West posed to their own traditional culture, these Japanese scholars wanted to show that Zen Buddhism was not only the best of all possible religions, but also that it was a religion beyond religion. The rough-and-ready, spontaneously enlightened Zen master, beyond all piety and doctrine, was a creation of these scholars, who depicted Zen as essentially antinomian, iconoclastic, and beyond all categories.

This all sounded very good to postwar Western artists and cultural entrepreneurs, who were looking for a spirituality that fit in with their needs and preconceptions. In fact, though, these scholars were blinded by their heavy agenda. Their version of Zen, although skillfully turned out and based on brilliant textual scholarship, was never the way Zen in China or Japan had been understood or practiced—or at least this is what I learned from T. Girffith Foulk’s impressive essay, “Ritual in Japanese Zen,” presented in Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice.

All of the scholars represented in this important collection of essays share a point of view: they cast doubt on the Western view of Buddhism as rational and sensible, as a path to individual spiritual fulfillment and personal growth. Buddhism in Asia, they say, has never been understood like that. In fact, Asian Buddhism has always functioned the way religion in the West has, with just as much ritual, magic, and irrational exuberance.

There’s no doubt that if you read Buddhist texts—from the Zen masters’ sayings to the Pali canon materials—you will find a basic philosophy and recommended practice that does lend itself to the idea of Buddhism as a sort of rational self-improvement religion. And Zen and early Buddhist texts do express, to some extent, the notion that ritual, faith, and sacrifice are to be rejected in favor of personal ethics, meditational cultivation, and transformative insight. So the early scholars, however blinded they were by their own cultural biases, were not making something up out of whole cloth. They had texts to cite.

But the essays in this book are not based on the study of sacred texts. These essays are valuable because they reflect a crucial sea change in the contemporary study of religion: a shift away from the study of what religion says it is about (as explained in sacred texts) to what religion is actually about (as discovered in historical records and sociological observation). And this turns out to be one of the most astonishing and salient facts about Buddhism and religion in general—that there is always a huge gap between what a religion says and thinks it is about, and what it is actually about. And the question of ritual, why and how it is practiced, and how important or unimportant it is lies at the center of this gap.

The contemporary Western Buddhist movement tends to be anti-ritual. Most Western Buddhist converts reject a ritualized religion they grew up with, one in which people “just went through the motions.” They come to Buddhism because it’s essentially not about ritual, it’s about “experience,” usually identified as meditational experience. In the Vipassana movement, ritual has been eliminated altogether. In the Tibetan and Zen Buddhist movements, ritual is more likely to be practiced, but by and large only as a supplement to meditation, which is viewed as the real practice. Or if ritual is not seen as supplementary, it is practiced as another form of experiential practice; that is, practice that will “change the mind.”

In thoroughly exploring the question of Buddhist ritual, both in theory and in historical practice, the ten essays in this book reject such one-dimensional views. In his introductory essay, “Rethinking Ritual Practice in Zen Buddhism,” Dale S. Wright explains the “performative theory” of ritual that sees ritual as going beyond an exclusively mental or psychological orientation to transformation to one that is embodied in action of body, voice, and heart. Far from mere empty gesture, ritual can be a fuller and more developed way of practice than the personal-growth style of meditation popular among many Western Buddhists. Ritual allows for the possibility that the practitioner cannot only recognize change cognitively, but also practice change with the whole body, mind, and heart. Performing rituals over and over again remakes the practitioner into the form of being suggested by and embodied in the ritual. Mario Poceski’s essay on the Zen dharma talk as essentially a ritual expresses this view, as does Taigen Dan Leighton’s piece, “Zazen as Enactment Ritual,” which shows that even meditation itself can be most effectively seen not as a technique toward a desired result but rather as the ritualized physical enactment of truth within the act of meditation itself.

The study of ritual presented in this collection brings out another limiting bias of Western Buddhism: the notion that spiritual practice is exclusively an individual affair. Though ritual is important for individual spiritual transformation, it also, and possibly more importantly, has a communal effect. Two essays in the book in particular emphasize this. Paula Arai writes of a ritual performed by Soto nuns in Japan, the Aran Koshiki, in which the nuns ritually offer thanks to Ananda for interceding with the Buddha on their behalf, thus establishing the original order of Buddhist women. Arai studied this ritual not in libraries, but by attending it several times (which involved long stays in nunneries) and interviewing the nuns who perform it. She found that the ritual had a profound effect on how the nuns felt about themselves as a community of practitioners, and on the position the nuns eventually came to occupy within the essentially male-dominated Soto hierarchy (they were accorded much more respect). She thus shows how ritual creates and affects community and has the capacity to influence society.

This point is further amplified in Albert Welter’s essay on Eisei’s “Regulations of the Zen School,” a thirteenth-century document that argued for the original founding of the Zen school in Japan. The essay makes clear that the original intention behind the founding of the school was less about the production of enlightened individuals than about the promotion of the general welfare of the nation—an intention that was generally expressed in Buddhism, not only in thirteenth-century Japan but also throughout history in Asia. The idea of practicing Buddhism, or any religion, not for personal benefit but rather to promote the general welfare, sounds to me like an idea worth considering for the present.

Other essays in the book of particular interest to me were David E. Riggs’ tour de force discussion on the history of kinhin, Zen walking meditation (its detailed textual analysis set my head spinning), and William Bodiford’s discussion of Zen dharma transmission, detailing the religious and sociological meaning that dharma transmission has held in Zen. Bodiford also discusses a new transmission ritual created in the West in recent years and how that ritual fits in historically.

Reading this book raises two important questions for me as a religious practitioner: First, what is the use of knowing the history if what you are primarily interested in is not what religion is or has been, but rather what you’re interested is the ways in which religious participation can give meaning to a human life? Is there any use in history at all beyond mere passing interest? I think there is. While one doesn’t need to be an expert on religion in order to practice it, one’s practice will definitely be broadened and widened by at least some knowledge of how religion has operated in the lives of individuals and societies elsewhere and at other times. Just as traveling to places or meeting people from different cultures has a direct influence on how we live, so too does the study of the religion of other times and places affect the way we understand and practice religion.

Second is the question of how Buddhist scholars and practitioners could best influence each other at the present time. The field of Buddhist scholarship seems to be booming in the West now. There are many good scholars, with new university programs training more every year, and these scholars are collectively building an understanding and appreciation of Buddhism that is more thorough and multidimensional than we have ever seen in history. There’s a tremendous value in this for practitioners, all the more since this understanding and appreciation represents not only a fuller and more extensive view but also a completely new view, a post-modern view, that includes critique as well as celebration and that honors religion for its central place in human culture without dishonoring or denigrating—as religion has so often done—other aspects of life.

Unlike previous generations, most Buddhist scholars today began as practitioners. This gives them a real respect for the tradition and a desire to study it not as an artifact or an absolute, but as a living thing. I have engaged in dialogue with Buddhist scholars many times, and I have always found it profitable and enjoyable. My own practice has been much influenced by these personal contacts and by my reading of scholarly material. At this crucial moment in our cultural life, in which religion is taking center stage, it seems to me that dialogue between practitioners and scholars is more important than ever, not only for Buddhists, but also for all religious people. We need a sense of perspective. It is, however, unfortunately the case that there is a wariness between scholars and practitioners. Many scholars are suspicious of the historical ignorance, and therefore the naivité, of practitioners, while many practitioners have a hard time with the scholars’ sometimes too-bracing critique. This is a shame, and not good for Buddhism’s possibilities as a transformative post-modern Western religion. Books like Zen Ritual need to be read by practitioners, especially teachers. And scholars need to be willing to share what they know at dharma centers.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.