how to be clear on the meaning of “rite and ritual”

Sīlabbataparāmāso, ‘’attachment to rules and rituals’’ is one of the three mental ties that are undone forever by the event of seeing Dhamma for oneself, and awakening to the level of Sotapana – or “stream enterer,” the two others being the obstacle of doubt, and the view of the five aggregates of body and mind as “I”,”myself’’. In fact, these three things are not really separate; they are together and one; like different sides of the one die. 1

Awakening to the Dhamma, seeing Dhamma for oneself, also means awakening to ‘’Right view.’’ Having “right view’’ simply means to see the truth, to see the reality of things as they actually are – for instance, seeing wrong as wrong as right as right (an aspect of right view which is particularly relevant to our present subject). For whomever is tied up with self-view, with attachment to rite and ritual, and doubt, it is impossible to see right as right and wrong as wrong – impossible to see reality as it is.

“Self-view” 

One who takes the five aggregates of body and mind as ‘’I’;’ myself, is automatically without right view. Wherever something touches his ego, his self, he cannot see right as right and wrong as wrong. When someone is angry towards him, he dislikes that anger and finds it ‘unfair,’ and wrong; but when he is angry towards somebody else he likes that anger and finds it justified. 

The self-centred view is what prevents us from seeing that anger is simply wrong. It also prevents us from seeing and appreciating the value of what is genuinely right and good. For instance, if somebody reprimands us for our fault, we cannot appreciate and be grateful to them for telling us, so that we can correct it, because we are hurt by the criticism and we can’t even see at that moment, that it is justified and they are right to tell it. 

Thus even when it comes to things as simple and easy as this, though we might think that ‘this is right and good’ or ‘this is wrong’ in theory-  as soon as it touches our Self, then everything becomes confused and we don’t see clearly. This is as a result of the wrong view of the ‘self’ in body and mind. 

When we do not see right as right and wrong as wrong, we see right and wrong crookedly, incorrectly. Not seeing right and wrong as they really are, continually tainted by selfishness in some way or another, we cannot do actions that are purely good, and not knowing what is really right and wrong, we can’t rely on right actions to protect ourselves from the misfortune and ill consequences that follow from our own wrongdoing.  

Morality in terms of moral code or ritual

Sīlabbataparāmāso, the attachment to moral codes and/or rites and rituals, is born in this way. Not knowing the true source of right and wrong, and there being a lot wrong with us, we make rules for ourselves, man-made laws and rituals, systems of morality to protect ourselves, to hang onto, to make ourselves feel secure.  

A rite and ritual, or attachment to a moral code, is whatever we do in dependence on a system of rules, or a rite and ritual that we practice and follow, that provides a sense of safety, protection from our own sense of failure and the evil that exists inside us. We do not see the source of right and wrong actions, so we try to put barriers around it, doing some physical action, or having a material object, that will serve as our protection. 

Anyone who strictly follows any kind of behavioural code which involves many physical actions in their daily lives, being attached to these rules just because they are the rules, can be said to be involved in this kind of rite and ritual. In Western society, it’s interesting to see that although there is little remaining of any religiously-driven moral code, we still end up creating our own moral codes, rites and rituals, either personal, or done at a societal level.

Sometimes these might be taken to extremes and are viewed as a mental illness, such as the case of a person whose rite and ritual involves washing his hands at a particular frequency at certain times. 

Sometimes the rules might involve food, supposedly for the sake of health; ‘’no white sugar, no oil, no gluten,’’ or again taken to extremes in this category, one’s rite and ritual might be to do fifteen push-ups after every meal. 

Again, one’s system of morality can be environmental, and rite and ritual centres around recycling and zero-waste. Or one can be vegan, seeing eating any animal product as wrongdoing and eating vegetables as right-doing, regardless of the intention with which one buys and eats these things, regardless of one’s motivation in doing so. 

It also includes belief in good or bad luck – people will engage in rites and rituals while asking for something they desire (succeeding in an exam, earning more money, or to heal somebody) or to keep bad luck at bay (protective chants, tattoos to keep evil spirits away and so on). All superstitions (don’t walk under a ladder, believing that black cats are unlucky or that elephants are lucky) also fall into this category. 

And what about among practitioners of Buddhism?

Buddhist ritual chanting, bowing to statues of the Buddha, and many other rites and rituals that are performed in all religions, including the religion of Buddhism, also fall under rite and ritual, as well as being attached and sticky to any system of rules, including the many traditional rules of a monk. 

The driver of this kind of attachment is our need to to have something TO DO, something to SHOW we are good, we say to ourselves ‘’look, I follow all these rules, I do this, I do that, that means I’m a Good Buddhist,(or a Good Environmentalist, or a Good Vegan, or a Good Worker) – it means I’m okay.’’ As soon as you don’t follow one of the rules or forget to practice your usual ceremony – even if it is a non-sensical or superstitious rule we have made for ourselves such as always entering a room with the right foot first, we feel guilty and insecure.

How can we see right and right and wrong as wrong like this? This is precisely the attachment and the problem with Sīlabbataparāmāso.

Rite and ritual in Buddhism

The fact that this stickiness to and fixed view with regard to rules and rituals, does not necessarily mean that one should abandon all such moral codes. In the case of some moral codes and traditions, the moral code or tradition itself is based on good principals and it is be right to keep it; though it should be done with the right understanding of why it is done, rather than out of attachment. However, some other practices, even including some that tend to be taken as integral to the practice of Dhamma, turn out to be purely rite and ritual, with no good purpose whatsoever, and it is therefore wrong to engage in them. We have to be able to divide which is useful, and which is useless. 

Moral codes in Buddhism

In Buddhism, for instance, the basic and essential moral code is the five precepts, but these should not be followed simply because ‘that’s the rule’ or because somebody said so. We have to understand why we follow them, why these five actions of killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and the use of intoxicants, are harmful and wrong. The rule should be based on the principal of right and wrong, rather than one’s definition of right and wrong being simply based on the rules. Otherwise, it is as if you try to pull a horse with a cart, or build a house on a roof. 

To know where to find the source of right and wrong, we have to look at what is it that guides our thoughts; what drives our words and then our actions. If it is wrong intention – selfishness, anger, greed or carelessness that drives our action, whatever follows cannot be good and cannot have a good consequence. But if the quality that drives our thoughts is non-harmful, non-greedy, non-selfish, and guided by attentiveness and care; – then our words and our actions are right and good. 

The reason that the five precepts are the essential rules of behaviour and always hold true, is that it is impossible to commit these five actions – killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicants – based on right intention; and in all cases they cause harm to others and to oneself.

Monks traditionally followed many more rules, 227 in all – but it is possible for someone to follow all these rules and yet be jealous, carry hatred, or play with sexual fantasies in his mind; while another may keep just the five precepts with complete dedication, while guarding his mind from all selfish and harmful intentions. Which one is the more moral of the two? Following the laws is of course not wrong and it can help those who are working towards higher morality to discipline themselves, but the problem is if we think that the rules in themselves are the practice, they are the religion, that they are what make us moral.  

Rites and rituals in the Buddhist religion

There are many practices that are engaged in by Buddhists all over the world which are done in the service of tradition, and which are not part of the moral code of the monk. They include blessing with sacred water, having tattoos as protection, carrying amulets, and many others. Some of these practices are particular to the culture of the country in which they are practiced. It is quite easy to see that they are purely rites and rituals, and most monks and practitioners in more traditional and serious schools reject them. The Buddha statue, and ritual chanting, however, are pretty much universally accepted and used, and this alone might lead us to think that there is surely a good reason for this. However,  we should not just follow a tradition or the opinion of the majority blindly. We have to question these things, look into the real teachings of the Buddha, and use wisdom to decide. 

a) Buddha statues

Is the Buddha statue a rite and ritual, or is it a good and useful part of the practice of Dhamma? Historically it is a well-known fact2 that the very first statues of the Buddha appeared due to the influence of Greek invaders, at least 400 years after the Buddha’s death. Nobody who saw Dhamma to become sotapana, sagadagami, anagami or arahant during the time of the Buddha, nor for 400 years afterwards, had a statue of the Buddha. So we can pretty easily establish at least the fact that to practice Dhamma correctly it is not necessary to own a statue of the Buddha, to look at a statue of the Buddha or to bow down to a statue of the Buddha. 

Then is it harmful, is it rite and ritual,? 

To have a statue of the Buddha in one’s house is not in itself necessarily wrong. The object itself is neither good nor evil, it is just a piece of metal, wood or stone. What we have to see is why we want to keep it in our house, and why we want to bow down to it, let alone burn incense beside it or give it offerings. The keeping of such an object inevitably lends itself to rite and ritual; we end up seeing it as a holy object, not just a piece of metal, wood or stone but as the embodiment of the Buddha. 

If we really see it as only wood or metal, why would we want to bow down to a piece of dead wood, why don’t we go and salute a tree outside? 

Do we feel comfortable using it for firewood, or melting it down to make a knife for cooking instead? 

The reality is that we like to have something physical, material in which to take refuge, because it is hard to be a refuge for oneself and hold only to the truth, which is immaterial. We want something we can see, with a shape and a colour, and we think that when we pay respect to this material shape, we are paying respect to the Buddha – but in reality this is not paying respect to the Buddha. We are bowing to a piece of wood, while the body and mind of the Buddha died 2500 years ago. 

If we really want to pay respect to the Buddha and show gratitude to the great goodness of the Buddha, to his teaching and to those who have followed the teaching – then the only way to really show our gratitude and respect is to follow the teaching, to actually do it.

b) Chanting

In the time of the Buddha, the oral repetition of teachings was the way in which they were preserved and handed down from one person to another. As such, it had a clear purpose: to preserve the teachings and to be able to hand them on to others. 

Those who practice chanting regularly are supposedly doing this for the sake of carrying on this ancient tradition. If this is the case, then it should be done for the same reason and serve the same purpose: to preserve the teachings and to be able to teach others. However, it’s not at all clear that the chanting that is done now serves the same purpose.

 For one thing, the chanting of texts is almost universally done in Pali, which is a dead language, not understood by the vast majority of those who chant it. When teachings are chanted, it is only the words that are chanted, and the meaning does not become clear, even if they are occasionally chanted in English or in one’s own language – precisely because the nature of the sound of chanting is not designed to help you to pay attention, but rather to put you to sleep. There is also never any additional extra explanation or teaching given around these texts at the time of chanting; all of which leads us to see that the aim of chanting is not to gain understanding, but just to listen to the sounds. 

This being the case, it’s clear that the chanting of the teachings as it is done today in no way serves the original purpose of preserving the actual teachings or handing them on to others. All that is preserved in this way is the words without the meaning: as though one wished to preserve the meat of a deer, but instead took only the dry skin and bones, nothing that can be eaten. 

Then what is chanting done for nowadays, what is its purpose? There are two main reasons for chanting; either it is done as a blessing or chant of protection, or it is simply way to make the mind calm, like repeating any mantra.  

The first is probably the most common – chanting the metta sutta or the Jewel discourse or any other special words that are supposed to provide protection, blessings and wellbeing. Is this in line with the Buddha’s teaching?

As soon as we depend on magic words for protection it means that we are not depending on the power of action. If we believe that these things have the power to protect us and/or bring us luck, then why why would we need to go to all the trouble of correcting our faults and practicing good actions? 

On the contrary, if we believe in the Buddha’s teaching that all actions must have their results, we have to follow up with seeing that if we act with harmful intentions towards others, there is no force, no god that can save us from the consequence. Rather, if we protect our mind first and foremost from harmful intentions, this is the one true protection from harm, as by this we are removing the cause by which harm would come to us.

Some people say that they practice chanting not as a prayer or as a protective charm, but just as a kind of pleasant meditative chant to make the mind calm. While this is not technically a rite and ritual according to the definition above, it is not a form of meditation that can lead to wisdom

Chanting sounds that could be replaced by the lyrics of the latest pop song, since the meaning is not important; or having an experience of calm that could just as easily be reached by listening to classical music – this has nothing to do with the search for wisdom; its only result is to make the mind calm by keeping it focused on one subject. How could this lead us to see the changing nature of the body and mind, see their suffering, be free from them? 

In all cases, regardless of the justification we give ourselves for practicing these things or any other rites and rituals: as soon as we depend on, hang onto and find a sense of security in any practice that is not looking into our own mind and finding where there is the source of wrongdoing in it, watching how it works, observing how it really is – we are caught up in Sīlabbataparāmāso. 

Doubt and rite and ritual

So – in summary, as soon as we are believing in a self in body and mind, we cannot see right as right and wrong as wrong, and we cannot do actions that are purely good. Since we cannot see the source of right and wrong, we create our own moral codes and systems to give us a sense of security, and we hold on to our belief in these things for dear life.

Since we are firmly believing in something that is not true – for instance, that ‘I am’ this body and mind – or that washing the hands so many times a day protects us and keeps us safe – then as soon as somebody tells us the truth: that this does not keep us safe and this is not where right and wrong are to be found – of course there is doubt, uncertainty, all kinds of resistance to this idea. 

If we did not have attachment to the view of self, if we did not have our own ideas to which we cling, then of course there would be no resistance and no doubt when facing the reality of things. This is how all these three things: self in body and mind, attachment to rules and rituals, and doubt in the true nature of things – are tied together and part of the same cause. 

  1. For more in-depth discussions for serious practitioners on the subject of stream-entry, this youtube channel might be interesting for some.
  2. See this article, to start with.

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