Koshin Paley Ellison, co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, via Sweeping Zen,

“A town with no temple bell
—What do the people do?”

When I read Basho’s poem, I feel a pang of sadness. What would it be like to live without a sense of ritual, liturgy, or intimacy?

A few weeks ago, one of our chaplaincy students asked me to teach them more about liturgy and ritual to do at the bedside. Since that time, I have been thinking about what these words mean. What images are evoked for you when you hear “liturgy” or “ritual”? For many, those words have a sour taste, and evoke distasteful images. For others, ritual may conjure images of calmness and community.

Ritual comes from the Latin, meaning “to observe rites.” To observe the rites is to express mythological and archetypal themes, to express their message symbolically. Liturgy originally comes from the Greek word, litourgia, which means performing a public service or ceremony. I could talk about the liturgy of the trash collectors who ceaselessly move around the city in a prescribed way, taking care of us all. We could talk about the liturgy of how we all decide to come together as a community to quiet our minds.

Rituals can be dead if we do not imbue them with our whole body and mind. We each can experience the difference. When you bowed to your cushion today, were you there? Did you observe the rite? Or did you just go through the motion of bowing to the Buddha’s seat, and then turning around and bowing to the community? For me, everything we do can be seen as a ritual. In the Zen tradition, we have countless mindfulness techniques to bring us into our bodies. We have ritual eating, walking, chanting, talking, sitting, exercise, and inquiry. How do we show up for them?

In the 1200′s in Japan, the founder of our school of Soto Zen Buddhism, Eihei Dogen, teaching at his Eiheiji Monastery, found that the practice of ritual and liturgy had become dead: meaningless forms done by rote. To rekindle aliveness in the practice, he refocused and widened the understanding and practice of ritual and liturgy. His teaching was to use all our everyday activities as sacred. Our school places emphasis on the “Great Retreat.” It is said that the “Small Retreat” is to go off in the mountains; the Great Retreat is to disappear in the capital.

Bodhidharma, the mythological founder of Zen Buddhism, said that ritual and liturgy are the expression of the whole mind. Is there a place where your mind can’t express itself? Do you relegate it to a time a place? Is it at the bedside but not in the rest of your life? To do this is a form of deprivation from living your life.

In the hospital, I was working with a patient who said, “When I get out of this place, then I am going to change my life.” “How?” I asked him. He said, “I’m going to start really paying attention in my life.” “Why wait until you are somewhere else?” I asked. He was silent, and after a moment, he began to cry. After a few moments he said, “I’ve lived my whole life waiting for the right moment. This is what brought me here into this difficult place.”

When I first began sitting, attention and care were what I did in the zendo. My life outside was not imbued with a sense of ritual and liturgy. I practiced the one body in the zendo, and by the time I got to the coat room I let that go. I was waiting for the next zazen to pay attention. It wasn’t until I faced (and continue to face) myself through ongoing analysis and continued Zen practice that I saw how I split my life apart.continued

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