Sometimes it seems as though the Zen tradition is of many minds about the value of ritual. On the one hand, ritual can be seen as lifeless and formulaic, failing to express the immediacy of any instant or its true essence. It is criticized as rote activity that is lacking in any vitality, and fails to produce any insight. On the other hand, Zen is a tradition embraces ritual as a completely indispensable aspect of life, integral to even the most mundane of daily activities, and full of abstract expression. How can we understand this apparent dichotomy?
This question reminds me of the koan of Master Gutei and the boy. In Case 19 of the Blue Cliff Record, the commentary mentions an episode in which Master Gutei speaks with a young boy. The boy tells the Master that he’d held up one finger in response to a question about the Master’s teaching. The boy was simply making the same gesture for which Gutei was known, and which Gutei had learned from his own Master. Yet seeing the boy imitating him, the Master cut off the boy’s finger. What is the difference between the two? For me, this case points to the question of authenticity in practice. It reminds me that it is not enough to simply repeat the actions of the Ancestors; I must find a way to make the teaching and its expression as unique as I am.
Thus, although ritual is usually defined as activity done repeatedly and in a prescribed fashion, and religious ritual usually adds a layer of symbolism, the Zen teaching is that both are always present. You don’t need religion in order to add symbolic meaning, because the symbolic is always inherent in the mundane. This is the meaning of the phrase “practice and enlightenment are one.”
Still, it’s necessary to conduct our lives in a way that expresses this understanding; so we practice the ritual of zazen. “Sitting zazen” sees the impermanence and interconnection of life amidst stillness and amidst busyness. “Walking zazen” sees the impermanence and interconnection of life amidst movement and amidst peace. You can only know this by experiencing it. No matter how many times you read about zazen, or hear about zazen, or see people doing zazen, until you actually sit or walk zazen, you won’t know what it is. This is true of all ritual, and I believe that people know this intuitively. As Isadora Duncan, the famous and infamous American dancer once said,
“No, I can’t explain the dance to you. If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”
So talking about (and reading about) ritual gives you some context, yet you know that it’s true meaning is in the lived experience. This particular body and mind can’t find the expression without performing the ritual. Performing the ritual, this body and mind can realize that it has always been expressing the impermanence, expressing the peace, expressing the many, expressing the one.
We play the instruments. We chant the chants. We dance the dance.