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The Psychology of Buddhist Ritual

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by Sangharakshita

The Psychology of Buddhist Ritual

(1967) (Sangharakshita Tape: 36) Venerable Sirs and Friends, This morning I am going to start off with a question. And the question is: What is the most difficult thing in the world, nowadays? Now, you may be able to provide your own answers to that question, you may not wait for me to provide the answer, but most of you may think - perhaps in terms of international affairs - the most difficult thing to achieve is world peace and so on, and so forth. But I'm not thinking along those lines. I'm thinking more in terms of: what is the most difficult thing nowadays for the individual? And I think if we think this over, if we try to sort out in our minds all these most difficult things, I think we cannot help concluding in the end that nowadays the most difficult thing for us as individuals, the most difficult thing for each one of us, is to be one's self, to be one's self. What we usually find is that circumstances, our environment tend to inhibit us, as it were, to prevent us from being really and truly ourselves. What very often happens is, or what usually happens is, that people get a certain idea about us, they think that we are like this, or like that. Very often it isn't a very true or accurate picture.

But they not only get this idea about us but they succeed in impressing this idea about us on us. And then we have to live up to their idea about us, or of us, and we are not able, therefore, to be ourselves. Sometimes people think that we ought to be like this, or ought to be like that, especially our parents and other well-meaning friends, and we try to live us to their idea about us. And in this way we don't succeed in being ourselves. And this sort of thing is happening all the time: the wife tries to be the sort of wife her husband thinks she ought to be; or, the parent tries to be the sort of parent that he book on childcare says he/she ought to be; you try to be the employee that your boss would like to have in the office; and so on. You try to live up to other people's feelings and thoughts about you, and you act out a sort of simulacrum of yourself, and you are not yourself.

You are not able to be yourself. Not only this, not only is it very difficult for us to be ourselves, most of the time we don't even know ourselves. You can't really be yourself until you know yourself. If you don't know yourself, know what is yourself - your true identity, in a sense - well, how can you possibly be yourself? You can be yourself, in a deep and adequate sense, even and when you really know yourself. But who knows himself? This is what the Delphic Oracle said to Socrates centuries ago: know thyself! And we've been trying to know ourselves ever since but it's only very rarely that anybody really succeeds, truly succeeds, in depth in knowing himself, or herself. In fact we may even go so far as to say, that it is only the Enlightened person, who is himself, because it is only the Enlightened person who knows himself. Paradoxically of course - I'm not going to go into this, but let me just touch upon it - paradoxically of course, the Enlightened person knows himself as a non-self, but to pursue this line of thought may carry us rather too far afield. So, let take it then, let's take it as agreed, that the most difficult thing for the individual is to be oneself, which means knowing oneself.

Now, what is the next most difficult thing, while we're at it, next most difficult thing, next to being oneself? I think we can say that the next most difficult thing, is to think for p.1 oneself. Nearly all our thoughts are second-hand. In the course of the last few days many of us have engaged in discussions and conversations of various kinds, some short, some not so short, some early, some late, some with one other person, some with four of five other people, given expressions to various ideas, various opinions, thoughts concepts and so on, but, if we were to ask ourselves the question: how many of these thoughts, how many of these ideas, were our own? How many were original? How many had we really produced or created for ourselves? Because most people do not think for themselves. They do not think really at all. Most people's conversation in only, we may say, a sort of regurgitation of slogans. You pick up slogans. You pick up slogans of daily life, politics, literature, religion, art, and when a certain subject is touched upon in conversation, out comes something that we've heard, or something that we read, but not anything, usually, that we have really thought out as originally and as deeply for ourselves. And, of course most of the time, we do not think for ourselves, because we are not trying to be ourselves. If you want to think for yourself you must be yourself, thinking for yourself is in fact an aspect of being yourself. The two are very closely connected. When we fail to be ourselves, when we fail to be ourselves, in both cases there is a sort of lack of awareness. And both being ourselves and also thinking for ourselves demand this same quality of awareness.

Now lets take an example; take, for instance, the religions of the world. There are so many religions in the world even now: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zorastrianism, Shinto, Taoism, so many religions, but what usually happens, what is the standard pattern? Most people are simply born into a religion. You're a Christian because your parents were. You're a Hindu because your parents were. You're a Jain because your parents were. There's no question of personal, no question of individual, choice. The fact that you are a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jew, seems to be a complete accident, you might just as well have been anything else, had you been born in some other part, in some other quarter of the globe. And this is very much the case with religious attitudes in general. It is that we are born into them. We accept them unthinkingly as part of our education, as part of our general background. Not only religious attitudes, but even non-religious attitudes. Formally one used to hear people say: `Oh, I was raised a Methodist' or `I was brought up in the Church of England'. But nowadays you hear people say: `Well, I was brought up an agnostic' or `My parents were atheists and I'm atheist too.' You hear this sort of statement nowadays, or else: `I was brought up as a Humanist' or something of this sort. So, there's no real difference as regards being born into religious, and being born into non-religious, surroundings.

There's the same sort of blind acceptance, the same sort of unthinking acquiescence, the same sort of conditioning. Take, for instance, the case of Russia. A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, all the Russians accepted Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Christianity.

They were bon into it. But the children and the grandchildren of those same people, they accept Marxism in just the same way. They are born into it. So the attitude, the mental attitude, even the emotional attitude, is really the same in both cases. There hasn't really been any change at all. One just accepts something into the midst of which one is born, without thinking very much about it.

Now, another example of this sort of thing is our temporary, our current or our modern attitude towards ritual. Very few people have bothered to think out what is meant by ritual. What does ritual really signify? What is it really trying to achieve? We tend to take it for granted - we just accept this from the sort of current intellectual atmosphere of p.2 our times - we just take it for granted, that ritual is a sort of excrescence upon religion.

You usually get a very simplified picture of the histories of religion. One gets a purely imaginary picture, of course, of a pristine, simple, purely spiritual teaching, which in the course of a few centuries degenerates and becomes loaded down with dogma and ritual, sort of groaning underneath the weight, and has to be periodically purged and purified from these things. So most people think of ritual in this way: as not really belonging to the essence of religion, as something added on afterwards, as something with which one can very well do without, and something which is, in fact, an excrescence, if not a positive degeneration or even something harmful.

Sometimes again, people regard ritual as a primitive survival. They think, well, savages in the African jungle they've got their rituals, they dance around the bonfire at night and wave their spears, and all that sort of thing, this is ritual. And you get survivals of this sort of thing in even the higher religions and even in modern life, as when people dance around the Maypole, or when they perform a Mass, it's all the same sort of thing - a survival of primitive ritual. So in this way most people nowadays quite unthinkingly accept from their surroundings, the current intellectual atmosphere and climate, this sort of evaluation, of ritual. This is true, I'm afraid, even of many Buddhists, especially in the West. Most people take it for granted that ritual is unnecessary in the spiritual life and even harmful. And some western Buddhists are under the strange impression, I'm sorry to say, not anybody here I expect but in other places, that there is no ritual in Buddhism.

And this is in fact one of the reasons that some of them are attracted by Buddhism, or what they think is Buddhism, that it has no place for ritual and no time for ritual.

Now today, this morning, I intend to question this sort of attitude. First of all let us try to understand the historical sources of our current devaluation of ritual. I would say there are two sources. The first source is to be found in classical Rationalism and the second in early psychoanalysis. Of these two, Rationalism ...

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