There is a question about rituals that
comes up from time to time: "Why do we need to practice any rituals at
all? Aren't rituals all about dogma? And isn't dogma the opposite of the
Tao, which is all about freedom?"
This is an idea that makes sense to those
caught in the trap of kong tan (empty talk), but fails the
reality check. If we really don't need rituals, then what about weddings
and funerals? Do these rituals not have a special power in and of
themselves? Why is it that every group of people throughout history has
its own highly specific customs for such special occasions?
Those who speak against rituals may not be
aware that they themselves practice small, personal rituals as they go
about their daily activities. The truth is that rituals have their
integral place in the human psyche. We can say that it is the way of
human beings to have rituals. Rituals are an inextricable part of
the human experience, part of the Tao of humanity.
It is a misconception to say that the Tao
is all about freedom. Freedom and discipline are two sides of the same
coin. They complement each other in yin-and-yang interactions and
dynamics. The Tao is about the totality, not just one side of it.
It is possible to practice discipline to
excess, which the principle of moderation informs us is at odds with the
Tao. Discipline by itself is a neutral quantity. It represents the
middle road between imposing impossible demands on yourself and letting
yourself do whatever your whims dictate. Therefore, discipline is
completely congruent with the principle of moderation, and thus the Tao.
It is a general rule in the world that your
achievements will usually correspond to the extent to which you impose
discipline on yourself, up to but not exceeding the optimum point. The
same is true in cultivation. Discipline leads to spiritual progress,
which in turn leads to improvements in every aspect of life. This is why
we regard rituals as being very important - they are a reliable, proven
way of practicing consistent self-discipline.
A ritual of the Tao is a form of moving
meditation. This is unlike sitting mediation, where the body is kept as
still as possible. In the Tao, we recognize that everything in the world
is constantly changing, and yet it is still possible to maintain peace
of mind no matter what is happening around us. The design of the ritual
reflects this wisdom. The body may go through continuous movements, but
the mind settles down, like muddy water gradually becoming clear. This
allows us to access a fundamental state of tranquility and clarity - a
state that is unaffected by any chaotic external conditions.
The rituals of the Tao are not transactions
with deities where you ask for blessings, health, prosperity or
protection in exchange for promises of good behavior on your part. Those
who cultivate correctly will automatically enjoy such benefits as a
natural consequence of cultivation. Therefore, in rituals we do not
request the good things in life. Instead, we connect with a profound
sense of appreciation for all the good things that have already come
into our lives. When we do that, the power of gratitude elevates us to
an entirely new level of spirituality.
Rituals of the
Tao are also not a form of therapy where you confess your sins
and beg for forgiveness. This does not mean we disregard the bad things
we have done. Rituals are a time for deep contemplation when we reflect
upon the past in order to learn from it. What has occurred? What exactly
did I do? Have I been able to follow the Tao in both actions and words?
Have I done others wrong? What can I do differently, or better?
The divine beings in a Tao ritual play an
important role in this process of reflection. They represent virtues we
can cultivate and they set examples for us to follow. As we pay respects
to each deity, we are also asking ourselves specific questions: Have I
acted toward others honorably, as Guan Gong would? Have I treated people
with the generosity of the Maitreya Buddha? Have I been able to come to
someone's rescue, mirroring the great compassion of Guan Yin
In addition to reviewing the past, we also
need to focus on the present when we practice rituals. By centering
ourselves, we can bring our fragmented mind back together into a
coherent whole. We can then direct our attention to the here and now. We
notice not only what is happening at this very moment, but also the
goodness, power and joy inherent in it. When we are completely present
in this manner, we can bring ourselves into alignment with the Tao.
Finally, rituals are a crucial practice in
humility. We can all agree that being humble is a defining
characteristic of a great cultivator. We often talk about the danger of
arrogance and the necessity of managing the ego. We pay much lip service
to the virtue of humility, and yet the questions still remain: Can we
actually be humble? Can our actions match our words?
A ritual can be seen as a microcosm of
life. It's a practical, real-world application of the Tao. It represents
the point where the rubber meets the road. What happens to your ideal of
humility when you have to actually put it into action? When it comes
right down to it, are you capable of lowering yourself, or will your ego
prevent you from doing so? Are you able to recognize not just your
specialness, but also your insignificance?
Rituals are a critical test for every
cultivator of spirituality. Those who consider themselves knowledgeable
in the Tao, and yet look down on rituals - they don't really know much
about the Tao at all. They are destined to fail this critical test. How
about you? Can you pass this test with flying colors?