Ritual, Modernity and Citta

One of the arguments I make in my book Rethinking Religion is that religion is not about adopting supernatural belief systems. Instead, religion is about changing the way we experience and understand our lives and our selves, especially as part of everything else — the whole universe throughout time.

I realize western monotheists may struggle with that definition, but I think if you look beyond the specifics of doctrine and understand religion’s effects, I say that’s what it is. Those effects are achieved in many different ways, and in many religions belief in an actual God is essential to those ways. But in many other religions gods often are more like learning aids; just believing in them or praying to them isn’t the point.

In trying to come up with a definition of religion that is inclusive of the whole world’s religious traditions and not just the Big Three of monotheism, the great underlying commonality I could see was was this: Religions are about engaging in many kinds of practices that help us experience and connect to something beyond the confines of the limited self. That something may be God, but not necessarily.

It’s important to understand that this connection is not primarily intellectual or conceptual, and again, I think this is common to all religious traditions, and it also sets religion apart from philosophy, as westerners usually use the word.  Both religion and philosophy address questions of how we humans relate to life and death, time and being, but they address these questions in entirely different ways. Philosophy gives us conceptual and theoretical answers that engage the intellect. Religion primarily engages what Buddhists call citta — the mind of subjective experience, sometimes described as an awareness that is more emotive than intellectual, or something like what westerners call “heart.”

And, personally, I think the reason large parts of the Abrahamic religions are going through an identity crisis now is that they have no concept of citta.  The parts of monotheism that are not fundamentalist seem especially unsure about what it is they actually are doing, or why. They may still believe in God and have high regard for the Bible, but then what? If religion is not just about believing things, then what is it?

Many practices can engage citta, from praying to meditating to yoga and martial arts. But right now I just want to say something about ritual.

In many religious traditions there was a time that laypeople weren’t expected to know much about doctrine. Instead, religion was all about ritual. Through ritual, people reenacted and actualized the myths and symbols of their traditions and thereby came to “know” them on an intuitive level. This in turn made the myths and symbols feel relevant and the mysteries they represented seem immanent. They may not have been able to explain original sin in any coherent way, but religion still had an impact on their experiences and perceptions.

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Possibly because it has no concept of citta, much of Christianity has downplayed ritual in modern times.  If one does not believe literally in evoking spirits or whatever the ritual claims to be doing, then what is the point? Rituals are not rational. They seem to be about performing some kind of magic — we light a candle and say the magic words and everything will be better. People today often are uncomfortable with ritual.

But I found a great quote by Carl Jung —

Offerings are made to the invisible powers, formidable blessings are pronounced, and all kinds of solemn rites are performed. Everywhere and at all times there have been rites d’entrée et de sortie whose magical efficacy is denied and which are impugned as magic and superstition by rationalists incapable of psychological insight. But magic has above all a psychological effect whose importance should not be underestimated. [Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 1957]

Put another way: The myths and rituals of religion are meant to transform citta. They are not (necessarily) meant to evoke magic powers. They are not intended to supplant reason and intellect. Mindfully done, however, a ritual can affect citta and thereby have a real impact on how a person experiences himself and everything else. And that’s no small thing.

4 thoughts on “Ritual, Modernity and Citta

  1. Carl Carey

    Thank you Barbara O’Brien, I really enjoyed this article. Do you think Zen Koans work in the realm of “citta?” From my understanding, from the end of the Renaissance came the the “Enlightenment” movement. Of course in the West, it meant something very different than in the East. It was the beginnings of “rational” thinking and the age of modern science. Since then, everything has to be proved with the rational part of the brain or it’s not accepted as fact. There’s no room for “heart-thinking” or at least it’s not looked upon that fondly. Do you think that this has crept into general Western thinking even in matters of religion? At the same time, I do understand the idea of not just accepting things with what might be called “blind-faith.” I guess there should be a balance. Any thoughts?

    1. Barbara Post author

      Carl — I think koans work partly on citta but I think there’s more going on with them as well, but I’m not sure how I’d analyze it.

      I absolutely do think that rational-scientific thinking has overtaken religion in the West. Religion scholar Karen Armstrong has written a lot about this (as do I, in my book). It’s the reason so many people demand that the Bible be understood literally, and not allegorically, because they think what is not “factual” is not “true.” The West seems to have lost an appreciation for “heart thinking.”

  2. Jair

    For me, spirituality “is about changing the way we experience and understand our lives and our selves, especially as part of everything else — the whole universe throughout time.” Spirituality is very personal and individual. What we call religion is, to me, a power structure used to reinforce a singular reference spirituality, which means it usually winds up being corrupted by those who seek power over others. I’ve never been happier since I realized this distinction.

    1. Barbara Post author

      Jair — I realize that it’s trendy to define “spirituality” and “religion” as two separate things, as you and the “I’m spiritual but not religious” herd have, but I reject that separation. What you’re seeing is the difference between religious traditions and religious institutions. Speaking from the perspective of a long-time student of Zen Buddhism, it seems to me that spirituality completely untethered from tradition usually is a directionless thing that may have its moments but is unlikely to be genuinely liberating. By the same token, religious tradition with no sense of spirituality is just a weird supernatural belief system. Religious tradition and spirituality need each other to be whole.

      Also to be whole, religion needs to be grounded in an intimate experience of the self, which is something a lot of contemporary religion in the West has forgotten (it was not always so). But at the same time, when a person is entirely self-directed and has no connection to a larger tradition — with teachers/clergy, a path of seeking, and other seekers — spirituality nearly always turns into nothing but a projection of one’s own ego. That also can have its moments, but it will never, ever be genuinely liberating.


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