Category Archives: Comparative Religion

Rituals? Really?

RRlogo2-copy.gifShortly after I began writing the Buddhism section of, a reader named “Ernie” contacted me to complain about rituals, among other things. He was interested in Buddhism, he said, but he was turned off by the rituals. When I explained that the rituals have a purpose and suggested he give them a try, he angrily replied, “Buddhism, like all other religions, has its rigid robots who know everything about their religion’s ritual and nothing about its heart.”

A person who insists that a centuries-old tradition change itself to accommodate him perhaps is not one to accuse others of rigidity. He also didn’t explain why “ritual” and “heart” are mutually exclusive. Ritual can touch the heart, in fact. if you put your heart into it.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion:

Across religious traditions, ceremonies and rituals function to create a sanctified space, and those who enter that space are dedicating themselves to fulfillment of the ultimate concern of their religion, whatever that is. The space is sanctified by the participants’ own reverence and devotion, and ritual objects such as chalices, crosses, incense and candles give physical presence to that reverence and devotion. …

…I’m not saying that rituals and ritual objects have magic power. I’m saying that rituals and ceremonies, when carried out with care and attention, can have a palpable psychological impact on the participants that really can expand awareness and change perspectives.

Modernity has become very anti-ritual, for some reason. Like my correspondent “Ernie,” the very idea of participating in ritual is unacceptable to many. This may spring from a fear of loss of autonomy or individuality; to participate in group ritual is to relinquish doing one’s own thing, even for just a little while. Or, we may shrink from ritual because we think they are superstitious; we chant some words and perfume the air with incense and perhaps unseen spirits will listen to us. But there are a lot of ways to think about ritual.

Part of the reason I wrote Rethinking Religion was to open up the definition of “religion” so that it applies to traditions other than the Big Three of monotheism — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In thinking about what all traditions considered “religions” have in common, it seemed to me that the One Constant Thing is that they are all about connecting to or realizing something beyond the individual, finite self. The something might be God, although not necessarily. The practice might involve prayer and worship, although not necessarily. And, yes, the discipline or practice probably is framed by doctrine that cannot be verified objectively but which might be personally verified in one way or another. But merely believing in the doctrine is not the point. Religion is also something that we do, and how we live and experience ourselves and our lives.

Rituals are also about making something visible or tangible that is invisible or intangible. A wedding ceremony is a tangible expression of a couple’s love and commitment, for example. Rituals can help us express and share joy and sorrow, grief and hope, in a nonverbal way. Mindfully practiced, a ritual can bring the teachings of a religious tradition “into the body,” as we say in Zen, making the religion something more than some ideas or beliefs we carry around in our heads. The physical activity of ritual brings the religious tradition into your body and life in subtle, subconscious ways.

Rituals are not necessarily religious. I was thinking about ritual after attending the recent funeral of my brother, a retired U.S. Army officer, complete with an honor guard and three-volley salute. To me, this part of the ritual spoke of continuity — that my brother was part of a tradition that extended into the past and will continue into the future. There are rituals expressing patriotism and loyalty to sports teams. Again, rituals are a way to make tangible one’s connection to something larger than oneself.

Alice_par_John_Tenniel_04In modern times much of Christianity de-ritualized worship services. In some Protestant denominations little is expected of the congregants other than to sing the hymns, hear the sermon, and occasionally  bow their heads. I saw a video of communion inside one of the big Christian megachurches and found the entire spectacle annoying, from the congregants who received the bread and grape juice on trays and consumed them as if they were party hors d’œuvres to the schmaltzy organ music that oozed over the proceedings like pancake syrup. The minister’s wife talked nonstop through a microphone, reassuring the congregants that by receiving communion they would also receive God’s blessings and various other benefits.

But the congregants just sat there. There was no expression of devotion or commitment to their religion’s ultimate concerns. There was no mindful expression of the mystery of life and death or (important to Christians) the sacrifice of Christ. It was a transaction; drink the magic potion and become one of God’s Chosen People.

At Patheos, a student of religion at Boston University named Connor Wood wrote of the importance of ritual to religion. His use of the word index is puzzling to me, but I think he’s using index in the sense of measure or indicator. He argues that while words are purely symbolic, indexes are inseparable from the thing indicated. And rituals are indexes. Modern internet culture, however, is purely symbolic and disembodied, and people of that culture are more than ever baffled by the idea of ritual.

Remember that indexes are efficient; simply showing up for temple each week conveys much more information than words realistically could. But words are also rational. Logical arguments require language, not actions. And so our culture, which highly values logic, elevates reasoning and language over bodily habits, a preference rooted in historical Protestant emphasis on Scripture over rituals. Rationalism trumps efficiency.

This Protestant anti-ritual attitude is staggeringly amplified in Internet culture, the most de-ritualized social space in history. We can’t see each other; others can’t see us. There’s no way for social conventions that involve the whole body to take root. And so the way we communicate online is almost purely abstract and discursive, and thus extremely symbolic.

Religion divorced from the body becomes something entirely abstract and symbolic, and the symbolism itself is increasingly detached from anything but ideas. Like “Ernie,” who felt attracted to Buddhism but was outraged at the idea of practicing it,  we forget the simple truth that religion is about experience, in particular our experience of living and dying. It is about trust in things we may not understand intellectually. It is about dropping away the hard shell of self and becoming vulnerable — to God, or enlightenment, or whatever your tradition calls its ultimate concern.

When religion becomes just about ideas or beliefs, is it still religion? How may intellectual theory cause us to transcend the self? Where is the commitment, the sacrifice, in mere loyalty to belief? Indeed, what seems to happen more often than not is that religion becomes fused with ego and becomes just an attribute of the self. Through ritual, religion becomes fully embodied, and we learn how to experience it, not just how to think about it.

The Christian Conceptual Box

One of the challenges in explaining Buddhism to people amounts to breaking through the Abrahamist — and mostly Christian, in the U.S. —  conceptual box into which people compulsively shove all things “religious.”

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I discussed conceptual boxes in the last post. In brief, our conceptual boxes are the mental filing system our culture and upbringing build for us, and by which we sort and classify all phenomena so that we can recognize it and know it.* This is a mostly workable system for navigating the world and probably has a lot to do with how human brains evolved to secure the survival of our species. However, the filing breaks down when confronted with something that actually doesn’t fit. What usually happens, then, is that instead of adjusting the filing system we distort the new thing so that it fits the existing system. This is one way to understand what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” but what I’m thinking of is actually a bit broader than that.

Western culture in the 21st century has arrived at fairly narrow and rigid conceptual boxes for “religion” and “philosophy,” and for the most part the “religion” box only accommodates Abrahamism.  Anything else you shove into it, whether Buddhism or Vedanta or something else, has to be rather grossly distorted to make it fit. Those who do recognize that Buddhism doesn’t fit into the “religion” box often then decide it must belong in the “philosophy” box, but it actually doesn’t fit that box either, unless you slice big chunks of it off first. Many Buddhist teachers have attempted to get around the conceptual box problem by explaining Buddhism in terms of psychology, but that’s turning into another kind of problem — see the older post “Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas.” **

This post was touched off by some propositions written by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who has a very nice blog for those of you who are philosophy nerds. The propositions, which I found on Facebook and may be paraphrased, are how he conceptualizes objections to  religion  —

Consider first the different attitudes an atheist might take to the theoretical side of a religion. There are at least three such attitudes, which, going from the most hostile to the least hostile, could be summarized as follows:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

My primary issue here is that “religion” is defined primarily as “belief,” which is the chief issue with the Abrahamist box. In many other religions, not just Buddhism, doctrines are propositions to be confirmed through mystical or other practices. Merely believing them serves only a provisional purpose. In Zen, it’s best to not believe them at all, but rather let doctrines inhabit one’s body for awhile to see how they work. For that reason, intellectual arguments for or against the propositions are also beside the point, since it is understood that what is to be realized cannot be reached by intellect. So these three propositions are hopelessly stuck in an Abrahamist conceptual box.

This is not to say that Buddhists don’t argue, but the arguments can take very odd forms, from a western perspective. See, for example, and old post on a koan from the Mumonkan, “Ryutan Blows Out the Candle.” See also the story of Miaoxin and the koan about flag, wind, and mind.

A Facebook participant paraphrased  Edward Feser’s propositions this way:

  1. Theism is still intellectually defensible — but not as defensible as non-theism.
  2. Theism has no respectable intellectual content at all and obviously never had any.
  3. Theism’s prior intellectual content has been refuted by science and philosophy.

From my perspective the propositions all have an Abrahamist bias, and it could be argued it’s a modernist Abrahamist bias. I don’t call myself an atheist (although many western Buddhists do), but neither am I a theist or an agnostic. I am a nontheist, by which I mean the existence of a God or gods is irrelevant to my religion.

I wrote a long ‘chapter about the existence of God in Rethinking Religion, which boils down to “The question “Does God exist?” cannot be answered until you (a) define “God”; and (b) define “exist.”‘

Buddhism simply does not deal with a person-God or creator-God or a judge-God. Even if such a being existed, in Buddhism, he/she wouldn’t have anything to do. All of the functions of such a God have been assigned to forces or energies that are something like natural law and are not being operated by a supernatural being or intelligence. However, I can appreciate the standard Abrahamist God-concept as something like an archetype of those natural laws.

On the other hand, if you wander into Paul Tilich’s “God as ground of being” territory we might have some agreement. If we define God as something like the force or essence or ineffable something that pervades everywhere in time and space and makes existence possible, we’re looking at what Mahayana Buddhists would call the dharmakaya or Buddha-nature. That’s also one definition of the word dharma as used in Theravada Buddhism as well as Vedanta.

However, worshiping the dharmakaya is kind of pointless. We’d only be worshiping ourselves. There are also huge issues in Mahayana about making the dharmakaya a bigger deal than conventional reality, or the phenomenal manifestations that we recognize as trees, toasters, and us. One is no less, or more, important or “true” than the other. As the Heart Sutra says, form is exactly emptiness; emptiness is exactly form. There is no separation.

And that takes us into the sticky question, “What is existence?” We speak of existence and “reality” as if we all agree what these things are, and we don’t. Trust me.


*(Buddhists will recognize that this is a function of the third skandha, although our opinions or feelings about what we “know” are a function of the fourth skandha.)

**(A big reason I wrote Rethinking Religion is to redefine religion in a way that actually takes in all of the world’s major religions, not just monotheism, without distortion. This is going to be an uphill slog, but I think all religions will benefit.)

Is a Kinship of Faith Possible?

[An earlier version of this post was originally published as “The Dalai Lama vs. Stephen Prothero”  on Buddhism, June 17, 2010.]

I’ve written a few times about Stephen Prothero, the professor at Boston University who writes provocative books on religion. He has demonstrated pretty good understanding of Buddhism. But lately Professor Prothero has been going around claiming that His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches all religions are alike. And Professor Prothero disagrees with this.

Professor Prothero has a new book out titled God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter. I have not read this book yet, but my understanding is that Prothero argues against the common popular notion that all religions amount to different paths up the same mountain. This is a terrible distortion, Prothero says, because in fact each of the world’s religions looks is viewing a different “problem” and coming up with a different “solution.” Put another way, they really are different paths up different mountains, and to ignore the distinctions is both disrespectful and dangerous.

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Meanwhile, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has a new book out called Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together that I am reading, although I’m only part way through it. In this book, His Holiness speaks warmly of his encounters with people of other religions, such as Thomas Merton. He emphasizes the values, in particular compassion, found in the teachings of all religions. The main point is that there is no need for all the world’s religions to have a competitive and adversarial relationship with each other.

Rod Meade Sperry writes about this disagreement at Shambhala Sunspace. Rod quotes Timothy J. McNeill, president of Wisdom Publications, who says that Prothero is misrepresenting His Holiness.

In numerous times and places including the The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus (Wisdom Publications 1996) the Dalai Lama demonstrates respect, and calls for harmony among religions but in no way glosses over the “top of the mountain” differences. He repeatedly emphasizes that “in order to develop a genuine spirit of harmony from a sound foundation of knowledge, I believe it is very important to know the fundamental differences between religious traditions.” He specifically refutes and dismisses any notion of universal unity of religions.

This is what His Holiness says in the new book, also. He is not suggesting that it’s perfectly OK to abandon all religious distinctions and boil all the world’s religions into one big pot of mush. It clearly is very important to him to maintain the integrity of Tibetan Buddhism as it has been practiced for many generations. However, even though each of the world’s religions may maintain distinctive practices, perspectives and doctrines, they can still co-exist harmoniously.

However, I also appreciate much of what Professor Prothero says about the “many paths up the same mountain” metaphor. Although on one hand I can sorta kinda see truth in it, on the other hand there is a growing attitude in some quarters that paths don’t matter. As long as you’re wandering around in the general vicinity of the mountain you’re bound to stumble onto the peak eventually.

I sense also a growing popularity in what I call “reverse fundamentalism.” That is, if you insist that a specific religion (say, Buddhism) teaches X (say, Dependent Origination) instead of Y (a creator God) that makes you some kind of fundamentalist. And this would be true even if you aren’t pushing the teaching as the One Holy Truth, but just marking the parameters of what the particular religion teaches.

To a reverse fundamentalist, no amount of “I respect your belief in X, but Buddhism teaches not-X” will shake them from the notion they can believe whatever they want and call it “Buddhism.” And if you say that they can believe whatever they like but that what they believe isn’t Buddhism, you are a closed-minded dogmatist.

I think this is an extreme version of the “I’m spiritual but not religious” school, which says that “spirituality” (whatever that is) is good, but “religion” (usually, specific religious traditions and the institutions that maintain them) is evil, so if you are trying to maintain the integrity of a particular religious tradition, you are some kind of intolerant fundamentalist. When I read Propthero, I appreciate that part of his shtick is arguing against the belief that all religions should be melted down and distilled into the pure ur-religion that must have existed before mankind invented churches.

I agree with what His Holiness says, also, that there is no reason the many religious traditions of the world have to be adversarial. Can’t we all just get along?

The problem here is that, from a Buddhist perspective, there really is no reason to be anxious because other people believe in, for example, a creator God. We can appreciate the teachings of other religions when they resonate with our understanding and also when they challenge our understanding.

Unfortunately, the perspectives of some other religions don’t allow practitioners to be complacent about the beliefs of others. So until people get over the idea that everyone has to be browbeaten into believing as they do, there will be religious conflict, unfortunately.