Buddhism talks about a path to enlightenment. The Buddha revealed the destination through his personal practice. First he became aware of a reason or motivation, and that was to seek a way to eliminate the sufferings of life. The realization of the path was not by leading a life of comfort and ease in the palace with his father. After leaving the palace, he began to practice austerities in the forests. Enduring several years of harsh deprivations brought him to the brink of death. Finally, he sat beneath the Bodhi tree and became the awakened one we call the Buddha.
Our Buddhist practice, the practice of attaining enlightenment, is a journey, and it is beneficial to have a guide. The guide can do two things for us that a modern GPS does not. The GPS can show us the route to take; it does not decide on the destination. Without a clearly defined ending point, even the most sophisticated GPS system will fail. Today when needing to go some place we are unfamiliar with we reach for the GPS device and program in the destination and following the directions we arrive. We think nothing of doing this, it is ordinary, it is reasonable. We do the same thing in our religious practice. We decide upon a destination, whether it is heaven or enlightenment. Then we find an appropriate GPS device and follow the directions provided. In religious practice, we replace our electronic GPS device with the instructions of previous travelers, such as teachers who have laid out a map for us to use as travel instructions.
“I once was attached to wrong views, and became a teacher of the aspirants for the teaching of Brahman. You expounded to me the teaching of Nirvana, and removed my wrong views because you understood me.” (Lotus Sutra, Chapter III)
In Nichiren Buddhism, our guides are the Buddha and Nichiren. We also have priests and other spiritual thinkers. The individual to seek out would be someone who has made a deeply and profound spiritual journey. Since the time of the Buddha, various teachers have provided teachings and practices to serve as a guide to living a spiritual life based upon the Dharma. Some of the practices are formal and taught as rituals. Here is a sometimes overlooked aspect of rituals. The ritual had a beginning, it had an original purpose or reason for implementation, and by doing the practice, an objective was hoped to be achieved. We may not always be able to identify the answer to those questions. Not knowing does not mean there wasn’t an answer. In the absence of knowing the challenge is to explore and be open to other possible reasons. The process of exploration is also an invitation to make the ritual meaningful for you for your reasons that may be uniquely yours.
The ritual then becomes an initial structure upon which we can build our spiritual experiences. We use ritual as a point to start from so we do not have to start from scratch as we begin our practice. Also, rituals provide continuity over periods of time; a connection to the past remains in the present. Over time, we learn more which enables us to expand upon the basic foundation given to us by our teachers.
We might think of our practice of these rituals as elements in our lives based in the realm of action. These various activities provide opportunities to enter into the world of spirit though there is no guarantee they will. There is safety as we enter the world of spirit, for those might be fearful, because there is a guide.
In many activities, there are such guides who provide safety. When lifting weights, for safety there is a spotter or someone who can assist us if we get into trouble. If it is scuba diving, skydiving, rock climbing, the list could be endless. In all cases for safety and to gain necessary expertise an excellent teacher who will guide us is essential as we learn and even beyond.
Rituals also may serve to open a window of opportunity, which is different from taking advantage of a window of already opened. An important consideration to keep in mind the ritual provides for opening of windows and doorways, but they are not the window or door itself. Rituals should and can serve to expand one’s experience and transcendence, but not limit those experiences. Nor are the rituals the only experience.
In our lives, we rely on faith for many things. We have faith that the bridge we drive across will not collapse. We have trust in the buildings we inhabit or where we work. We have an expectation of safety in our cars. Faith is to a degree the relinquishing of control to those who have mastered the fine arts of the things we wish to do. It is the same in religion. We have faith in the teachers and the teachings and we realize that we may not have mastered all there is to know, and we trust those teachers to instruct us.
Rituals also are not merely structure and formula to learn as a person might a math formula or historical event. Knowing all of the facts or particulars of a ritual is not the same thing as changing your inner core of being. Having accumulated information does not equate to having made a significant advance in making changes in your life. Ritual can help transform information into actualization. Rituals can facilitate a transcendence from knowledge about something to a manifestation of benefit.