Life is a performing art. So is Buddhism.

Zen practitioners, intent on taking care of the Buddha all around them, honor everything as worthy of keen attention. They express this through precise and formal ways of bowing, eating, washing, entering the meditation hall, sitting on cushions, rising, and moving through the day. Much of this is accompanied by rhythmic sounds and wafting incense. Iconic music or percussion, patterned movement, and chanted speech are among the ritual elements commonly found in traditional Buddhist communities.

While modern Westerners in the last 50 years have grown increasingly curious about Buddhist practice, for many curiosity and practice often halt at the shores of ritual performance. For such people, ritual performance seems in tension with modern modes of self-expression and identity. As a modern person who is quite immersed in Buddhist tradition, I wonder how we might draw on our modernity while also coming to appreciate ritual engagement.

Rituals are not unique to antiquity, of course. They govern modern secular behaviors, too—from Super Bowl halftime events to TGIF exuberances to pride parades to how we eat meals with friends and family. When we feel in tune with ritual expression, its social cohesion and choreographed activity affirm our sense of belonging and being. In Buddhist and other spiritual communities, ritual expression provides support for very personal inner work.

Yet for contemporary people, traditional rituals might not feel so nourishing. We moderns are more likely than traditional peoples to experience orchestrated behaviors as compromising our right as individuals to act and believe as it seems right to us. What’s more, we tend to believe that our own unique perspective should override inherited ones. Through this lens, ritual can seem superstitious and in tension with our cultural deference toward reasoned logic. Ritual seems to ask us to believe things that we just don’t believe and to do things we don’t ordinarily do. Why bow if you don’t believe in what you’re bowing to? Or if you just don’t feel like bowing?

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