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Buddhadharma : Spring 2008
buddhadharma| 67 |spring 2008 British were quite happy with this view as well; it’s nice, when you are a victim of colonial rule, to be praised by your mas- ter for the superiority of your religious culture. in Japan, the twentieth century saw the advent of a generation of Bud- dhist scholars who depicted Zen as all this and more: Zen was supra-rational, that is (in line with heidegger and other West- ern philosophers of the time who were critiquing rational Western metaphysics), it possessed a reason beyond reason. clearly aware of the challenge the West posed to their own traditional cul- ture, these Japanese scholars wanted to show that Zen Buddhism was not only the best of all possible religions, but also that it was a religion beyond religion. the rough-and-ready, spontaneously enlightened Zen master, beyond all piety and doctrine, was a creation of these scholars, who depicted Zen as essentially antinomian, iconoclastic, and beyond all categories. this all sounded very good to post- war Western artists and cultural entrepre- neurs, who were looking for a spirituality that fit in with their needs and preconcep- tions. in fact, though, these scholars were blinded by their heavy agenda. their ver- sion of Zen, although skillfully turned out and based on brilliant textual scholarship, was never the way Zen in china or Japan had been understood or practiced—or at least this is what i learned from t. Griffith foulk’s impressive essay, “ritual in Japa- nese Zen,” presented in Zen Ritual: Stud- ies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice. All of the scholars represented in this important collection of essays share a point of view: they cast doubt on the Western view of Buddhism as rational and sensible, as a path to individual spir- itual fulfillment and personal growth. Buddhism in Asia, they say, has never been understood like that. in fact, Asian Buddhism has always functioned the way religion in the West has, with just as much ritual, magic, and irrational exuberance. there’s no doubt that if you read Bud- dhist texts—from the Zen masters’ say- ings to the Pali canon materials—you will find a basic philosophy and recom- mended practice that does lend itself to the idea of Buddhism as a sort of rational self-improvement religion. And Zen and early Buddhist texts do express, to some extent, the notion that ritual, faith, and sacrifice are to be rejected in favor of per- sonal ethics, meditational cultivation, and transformative insight. so the early schol- ars, however blinded they were by their own cultural biases, were not making something up out of whole cloth. they had texts to cite. But the essays in this book are not based on the study of sacred texts. these essays are valuable because they reflect a crucial sea change in the contemporary study of religion: a shift away from the study of what religion says it is about (as explained in sacred texts) to what religion is actually about (as discovered in histori- cal records and sociological observation). And this turns out to be one of the most astonishing and salient facts about Bud- dhism and religion in general—that there is always a huge gap between what a reli- gion says and thinks it is about, and what it is actually about. And the question of ritual, why and how it is practiced, and how important or unimportant it is lies at the center of this gap. the contemporary Western Bud- dhist movement tends to be anti-ritual. Most Western Buddhist converts reject a ritualized religion they grew up with, one in which people “just went through the motions.” they come to Buddhism because it’s essentially not about ritual, it’s about “experience,” usually identi- fied as meditational experience. in the Vipassana movement, ritual has been eliminated altogether. in the tibetan and Zen Buddhist movements, ritual is more likely to be practiced, but by and large only as a supplement to meditation, which is viewed as the real practice. or if ritual is not seen as supplementary, it is practiced as another form of experi- ential practice; that is, practice that will “change the mind.” in thoroughly exploring the question of Buddhist ritual, both in theory and in historical practice, the ten essays in this book reject such one-dimensional views. in his introductory essay, “rethinking ritual Practice in Zen Buddhism,” dale s. Wright explains the “performative theory” of ritual that sees ritual as going beyond an exclusively mental or psycho- logical orientation to transformation to one that is embodied in action of body, voice, and heart. far from mere empty gesture, ritual can be a fuller and more developed way of practice than the per- sonal-growth style of meditation popular among many Western Buddhists. ritual allows for the possibility that the prac- titioner cannot only recognize change cognitively, but also practice change with the whole body, mind, and heart. Performing rituals over and over again remakes the practitioner into the form of being suggested by and embodied in the ritual. Mario Poceski’s essay on the Zen dharma talk as essentially a ritual expresses this view, as does taigen dan leighton’s piece, “Zazen as enactment ritual,” which shows that even medita- tion itself can be most effectively seen not as a technique toward a desired result but rather as the ritualized physical enact- ment of truth within the act of medita- tion itself. the study of ritual presented in this collection brings out another limiting bias of Western Buddhism: the notion that spiritual practice is exclusively an indi- vidual affair. though ritual is important for individual spiritual transformation, it also, and possibly more importantly, has a communal effect. two essays in the book in particular emphasize this. Paula Arai writes of a ritual performed by soto nuns in Japan, the Aran koshiki, in which the nuns ritually offer thanks to Ananda for interceding with the Bud- dha on their behalf, thus establishing the original order of Buddhist women. Arai studied this ritual not in libraries, but by attending it several times (which involved long stays in nunneries) and interviewing the nuns who perform it. she found that the ritual had a profound effect on how the nuns felt about themselves as a com- munity of practitioners, and on the posi- tion the nuns eventually came to occupy within the essentially male-dominated soto hierarchy (they were accorded much more respect). she thus shows how ritual creates and affects community and has the capacity to influence society. this point is further amplified in Albert Welter’s essay on eisei’s “regula- tions of the Zen school,” a thirteenth- century document that argued for the original founding of the Zen school in Japan. the essay makes clear that the original intention behind the founding of the school was less about the production of enlightened individuals than about the promotion of the general welfare of the nation—an intention that was generally expressed in Buddhism, not only in thir- teenth-century Japan but also throughout history in Asia. the idea of practicing