Ritual is a foundational component of many Buddhist traditions, yet Western Buddhists are often reluctant to engage in ritual practice. According to Buddhist teacher and professor Anne C. Klein (Lama Rigzin Drolma), this resistance can actually be generative. In fact, Klein believes that working with our resistance to ritual can open us to spaces of wonder, liberation, and belonging.
In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle editor-in-chief James Shaheen sat down with Klein to discuss why so many of us are resistant to ritual, the types of freedom that ritual makes possible, and how ritual practices can support us in the face of loneliness and alienation. Read excerpts from their conversation below, and listen to the full episode here.
Why rituals can feel threatening
Ritual can be threatening on two levels. On one level, it is a certain kind of undermining, at least for certain periods on a daily basis, of the agenda of being a modern 21st-century person with a profession, family, obligations, and talents to display and hone. I think these pressures are very real for us. It would be foolish to deny that. That’s why I feel that resistance is not a bad thing. It’s speaking some kind of truth. On another level, the intention of practice is to unpack and then undo the way we ordinarily manage ourselves or see ourselves or live our me-ness in this life. No wonder we feel threatened. Even without the cultural contrasts or contradictions, we are meant to recognize that the same old habits are indeed coming under scrutiny. And that’s going to feel threatening to the habitual self. There’s no way around that. That’s widely recognized in the tradition.
How rituals can invite creativity
Rituals can bring about a surrendering of the baggage of being me. And that’s a relief. Perhaps the resentment toward ritual is because we feel like it stifles our exuberance and creativity and in-the-momentness, which are things that we value—and which our society crushes in certain ways. I feel like there’s a natural creativity that everyone has, and that creativity is actually invited into the ritual. Traditional instructions on ritual don’t exactly say to bring forth the creativity. But they do say to relax: relax thought, relax your whole body, let your attention be with your breath. What happens? On the way to calming down and being able to stay with your breath, incredible creativity arises. We call it distraction. But it may be very fruitful. I don’t think I’m alone in keeping a notepad by my meditation cushion because you can get all kinds of ideas. Something is let loose. Something is actually set free. Of course, it’s not the purpose of the meditation, traditionally, to capture those ideas. But the teachings do suggest that one purpose of meditation is to use that energy, which is also an energy of creativity. It’s creative to arrange your attention in a different way than we do habitually. Imagine just resting on your breath. That sounds insane to a lot of people—maybe impossible, maybe attractive. People usually like it. They may even have a few moments of respite and tremendous gratitude.
“Perhaps the resentment toward ritual is because we feel like it stifles our exuberance and creativity and in-the-momentness.”
How rituals can help us get out of our heads
Ritual gives every part of you something to do. Your body is positioned a certain way. Your energy has something to do. If you’re sitting silently, your energy is invited to settle. Your mind is intent on whatever the focus of the practice is. You’re being fed in body, speech, and mind, and you’re engaged in a different way than you were before. Posture is bringing attention to body. It seems so important. I always start with that. Tradition starts with that. You take your seat, and you feel your seat. And that is a through line to the present moment right there. You don’t have to do anything complicated. You don’t have to finish your thought. Just feel your cushion. Feel your seat holding you. Any sensation is in the present, is in this moment, and it’s not in your head. It’s an actual felt sense experience. That’s hugely significant. And it’s very important to me personally. I was a practitioner within the Theravada and Tibetan traditions for 17 years before I discovered that I had a body. Even though I was doing the sweeping meditation with S. N. Goenka, there was still some way in which I felt that what was important was my understanding and nothing else. And that really was a big flaw. I thought it meant that I was smart, but it was actually a tremendous obstacle. Attending to the body in whatever way, whether in terms of posture or sweeping or turning into light, is a great antidote to being in your head.
How rituals give rise to love
In Buddhism, love is the ultimate solvent of what obstructs and also the culminating fruition of what evolves. In a real sense, every gesture of ritual is animated toward a fruitional state of love. If we start with the act of sitting in a certain posture, there’s a certain attention to this frail and physical body. That’s already a beginning of love, a seed of love. We place our attention somewhere, usually on the breath. Attention is the start of love. There can be no love without attention. In cultivating attention, we’re cultivating a possibility for intention and a possibility for connection. Connection is all about love.
Then perhaps we go on to take refuge, and in Tibetan traditions, we imagine that the whole universe is taking refuge with us, all of us. We recognize our common need for support, for help, for refuge, for protection. It’s a very genuine, poignant recognition: I can drop my mannerisms of being good enough and smart enough and acknowledge that I need something larger. With one gesture, I’m recognizing that honestly for myself—and acknowledging that everyone else is in the same situation. We all need refuge, however we understand that. We need protection; we need help; we can’t do it ourselves. That’s an opening to love.
“Attention is the start of love.”
And then we can recognize the delicate situation we find ourselves in: we’re all going to die. If the Buddhists are right, we’ve been being born and dying for infinite time, and even if they’re not exactly right, it feels that way metaphorically. In light of the vastness of spacetime in this cosmos, what proper response could there be other than a kind of compassion for oneself and for all beings? Nothing else really meets the situation.
Then we go forward with that. Maybe we send out light, or we give rise to a wish that we could transform everything into an awakened state because that’s the only place where we can be really free of suffering. We have that aspiration, and whether we believe it’s literally possible or not, we allow ourselves to bathe in that aspiration. What culminates? Everything of suffering vanishes in our imaginaire, which at that moment is of the whole cosmos. Everything is filled with light, which means knowing, which means awareness and wisdom.
And then what? Then it all dissolves back into some groundless ground that is itself perfect. That groundless ground is what the Dzogchen tradition calls bodhicitta, the awakened mind. The tender, wise, loving mind is most subtly expressed in that reality itself. It’s not something that you make up out of wanting to be good. It’s nakedly there in reality just as it is, and that’s considered a fruitional recognition. Everything is opening to that awakened mind; in the end, everything is either love or a distortion of it.
Listen to the full podcast with Anne C. Klein here:
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