I went to church this morning. Now those of you who know me well are probably a bit surprised by that, as by my own reckoning I haven't been to a Christian church service for around twenty-five years. And yet today I went to church - voluntarily. I am currently in Philadelphia on business, and my colleague decided that he wanted to go to church and I said I would tag along with him.
The church was an impressive building on Rittenhouse square, and the Episcopalian service was fairly 'high' compared to what I was used to when I was young (Rite 1 if that means anything to you). The people were lovely and friendly and I enjoyed the music - the organist and choir-master clearly loved their C20th classical arrangements with lots of spicy dissonances.
And of course there was a lot of ritual. I was keeping an eye firmly on those around me to know whether I should be standing or sitting. An unexpected godsend of the fact we were masked meant that nobody knew whether I was singing, chanting or staying silent.
Having been brought up myself in the free-church / charismatic movement (much longer story - I am a PK believe it or not) I had been taught that all this kind of ritual was at best 'empty' and at worst deceptive. When in my later years I started to follow a Buddhist path I actually had difficulty initially with the more ritualized elements - I have very strong memories of when I first allowed myself to light a stick of incense for a Buddha statue.
Some forms of ritual play an important part in many sanghas - the exact form and level varies from tradition to tradition. But whether it is chanting suttas, entering the zendo with your left-foot first, the bells or the prostrations, there are many types of ritual that we may follow.
Even in our private practice we might light a candle, ring a bell or even simply make a cup of tea - all of these can be part of a ritual.
So it may come as a surprise to some that a 'belief in rites and rituals' is actually one of the five 'lower fetters,' things that we are encouraged to 'cut off.'
And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views, uncertainty, grasping at precepts & practices*, sensual desire, & ill will.
This 'grasping at precepts and practices' is a warning that indeed ritual can be empty, that we can falsely elevate the act of the practice above the purpose of the practice.
So what is the point of ritual? As we practice we work on training our minds, on removing our delusions. The practices are merely vehicles to help with that - my first teacher Achalavajra used to call them 'technologies' - and that is a great way to think of them. The purpose of the rituals - of reciting a sutta, ringing a bell, entering a room mindfully - are to place our minds in a place conducive for us to do the work. It is when we get this wrong, when we mistake the ritual for the work, that we start to 'grasp at the precepts and practices' - which as we know is a fetter and a hindrance on our path.
I have written before about the metaphor of 'leaving the boat' - that having used a practice to help us on our way we need to be prepared to leave it at the far shore. Our rituals may be the boats we will have to leave behind. But for now a ritual may be exactly what you need to help get your mind to the place where you can do the work - even if that ritual is just a cup of tea.
(*) What Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates here as 'grasping at precepts and practices,' Acharya Buddharakkhita renders as 'belief in rites and rituals.'
I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on the metaphor of 'leaving the boat.' Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.
"Sanyojana Sutta: Fetters" (AN 10.13), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 July 2010,