Right now, Buddhism gets a pretty good rap in the wider world.
Part of this, I think, is because it’s fairly open and accepting. It doesn’t require you to convert. You don’t even need to think of yourself as “Buddhist” in order to benefit from the practices.
Meditation has an impact on your brain chemistry, right? And Buddhist philosophy was obviously worked out by some pretty clever dudes.
But when it comes to Buddhist ritual, we start to get a bit uncomfortable. It all feels a bit too much like a “religion.” Something many of us are uncomfortable with these days.
When you throw an apple in the air, it comes back down. Gravity continues to work 100 percent of the time. We like that.
When you push a kid on a bike and then let go, they don’t stop straight away. They slowly come to a stop. Unless they hit a wall or are going downhill when you push them. But assuming no wall and level ground, that’s momentum. Momentum can be relied upon. We like that too.
Science allows us to get things done. Belief in science doesn’t feel like belief to us. It’s just how things are.
And yet there seems to be a strange split in our psyche.
Are these your tarot cards, dear?
We buy tarot cards. We don’t walk under ladders. We pick up pennies we find on the street. We read our horoscope. We deck out our house with all kinds of strangeness every Christmas. Bringing trees inside? How strange!
Maybe we don’t take it too seriously, but we do it just the same.
Many of us also believe in ghosts. And when things get hard and the scientists fail us, we pray.
Some people take these things to extremes and have whole belief systems based on them. The New Age movement is not a small movement. Neither is Christianity.
The Buddhist take on all this
Buddhism acknowledges and caters to both aspects of the psyche—the rational and the non-rational.
And it works with different levels of the psyche—the conscious and the unconscious.
Buddhism even caters to belief in “other powers” as well as encouraging belief in our own effort. Buddhist cosmology has room in it for all manner of gods and ghosts.
What’s more, Buddhism acknowledges that the non-rational aspects of us are far more powerful than the rational parts. This is the reason we do crazy things.
How do you access, integrate and transform those non-rational parts of you? You can’t do it with study or by thinking it through. But ritual has a way of working its magic with the non-rational mind.
How to do Buddhist ritual
There are loads of different Buddhist traditions and they all have their own rituals. But there are common threads.
If you’re interested in trying some ritual in your life, here are a few ways to engage with this side of Buddhist practice.
1. Make an offering
Incense is one common offering, but really it can be anything (as long as it’s legal and ethical!). Some people bow. Some people offer flowers or food. A lot of this comes from the traditional offerings given to an honored guest in ancient India. So I think it’s fair to say we have some wiggle room to innovate.
Make an offering to something that symbolizes your highest values. By honoring those values, you move a little closer to them.
2. Give thanks
Ritually giving thanks for what is going well for you can really shift your energy in a positive direction. Doing it regularly can change your life.
3. Acknowledge your failings
“Confession of faults” is a traditional Buddhist thing. The Buddhist take on this is that it isn’t about confessing to God, but more about getting things off your chest so they don’t become obstacles. Bring the fault to mind, say sorry, commit to doing what you can to make it right, commit to not doing it again, then move on, with a happy heart.
4. Re-dedicate yourself to the path
Whatever it is you’re trying to achieve (for Buddhists it’s Buddhahood), re-dedicate yourself to achieving it.
5. Get funky
In a Buddhist ritual you’d probably chant a mantra, or a sutta/sutra (a Buddhist scripture) in its original language. You would get into the rhythm, the tones, the connection between yourself and the tradition. You might have musical instruments with you.
For me, this kind of “cements” the rest of the proceedings. It’s the most non-rational part of the whole thing. By this stage, you’re already in a different state than you were when you began. This stage moves you further. Beyond that, I don’t know what to say, since at this point, you’ve gone beyond language.
You don’t have to do all of the stages. These are just ideas. You might just want to do a one-minute ritual in the morning before you meditate. Or, if you have the leisure time and the stamina, you might want to do it Tibetan style and keep a ritual going for 11 days!
Padma Gillen lives in the UK and runs the My Buddhist Life blog. He has an MA in Buddhist Studies and has been practicing Buddhism for around 20 years. As a Buddhist, blogger and ex-yurt dweller, he’s been interviewed on national and local radio in the UK and Canada.
Editor: Jayleigh Lewis