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Ritual & Message

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      QUESTION: A sangha member recently asked, ‘if Honen’s teachings are so simple, why are our services so complicated?’ As the sangha member noticed, our services have lots of words, bells in the right places, and ritual. How does this fit with the simplicity of Honen’s ‘just say the nembutsu’?

      SHORT ANSWER: Ritual can be as simple or as complicated as you like. The simple message within it remains the same.

      LONG ANSWER: In Pureland, ritual is not a means of achieving something, but of celebrating. In that sense it is a kind of party and you can have a big party with lots of activities or you can have a little party with not many elements. This is the fundamental point. Tangentially, nonetheless, ritual does achieve various things. It acts as a focus for the community, bringing people together in ways that promote harmony and enable us, in a variety of ways, to express our faith together. Hopefully there will be elements in the ritual that reach a variety of people – singing, praying, reading, bowing, offerings. Secondly, it acts as a training ground for character development as people learn to co-operate, follow, take the lead, and even compensate for each other’s errors as the performance unfolds. Thirdly, while the ritual revolves around a single, simple message, it also speaks a range of sub-texts that act as auxiliary practice, supporting our primary faith. Thus chi quan and nei quan deepen our appreciation of the meaning of “Namo” and of “Amida Bu” respectively. Making offerings reminds us of the beginnings of Buddhism when the Buddha would arrive in a village or town as a guest and people would receive him and hear his teaching. The offerings we make are the things one would give to an honoured visitor. Doing walking nembutsu reminds us both of the spiritual path journey and also of the earliest tradition of circumambulating the stupa. People went to stupas to pay respect to the Buddha’s relics. This was both to remember and honour the great sage and also, by presence and association, to receive his blessing and grace into one’s life. Each element of ritual has some deep meaning or history encoded in this way. Participating becomes a way of enriching our lives. When we do not understand the code it may seem unnecessarily complicated, but when we do understand the meaning it becomes a wonderful way of immersing oneself in the richness of the tradition and associating with all the great figures who have, down the ages, spoken these time-honoured words.

      We should also note that it is up to us individually or collectively how we perform our rituals. They are not an imposition. Each temple and each community will do it a little differently, but they all draw on a common stock of ancient meanings, most of which are common to the whole Buddhist world and not merely to one school.

      ~ Dharmavidya, February 18th 2016

      :: link to original posting on La Ville au Roi

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