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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 84-89

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Christian Views on Ritual Practice

Concerning Ritual Practice and Ethics in Buddhism

Donald W. Mitchell
Purdue University

The three papers presented by this panel have given me a much greater knowledge about, and appreciation for, the relationship between ritual practice and ethical action in Tibetan, Zen, and Nichiren Buddhism. I would like to respond to each of the papers one at a time from a Christian point of view by making certain comparisons with the connection between Christian ethics and ritual practice. Let me begin by raising a comparative five points concerning Stephanie Kaza's wonderful description [End Page 84] and insightful analysis of the function of ritual in nurturing authentic personhood in Zen.

First, it seems that the practice of ritual in Zen demands a degree of self-sacrifice which in turn aids in the cultivation of the virtue of selflessness. For example, Kaza says that through the participation in ritual practice, "the student is freed from his or her own individual designs and preferences . . . not asking any questions but just trying to do it better and more fully each time." Or elsewhere Kaza concludes, "Zen ritual is a training ground for intensive practice in giving up the small ego-bound self." In a similar way for the Christian, the self-sacrifice demanded in ritual performance can be seen as nurturing selflessness in the context of community--as aiding one in giving up one's ego in order to participate more fully in the communal life of agape. But more than this, the value of selfless participation in the Christian community that is reinforced by the ritual is connected to a call for future action: It calls one to contribute selflessly together with others to building the reign of God. In Christianity, the performing of ritual with others sensitizes one to the fact that he or she is part of the church working for a collective love and unity that manifests in human community the very holiness of the unity and love of the Trinity. One is thus called within the sacred ritual environment to bring this love and unity into one's everyday environment through ethical behavior.

Second, besides selflessness, another positive quality that is cultivated through ritual practice is mindful awareness. As Kaza states in regard to the meal ritual, this practice "cultivates mindful awareness . . . if one merges wholeheartedly with the process, the meal itself becomes a lesson in co-dependent arising." In other words, the ritual performance brings to mind an awareness of fundamental reality according to Buddhism, namely, dependent arising. Being aware of mutual interdependence brings a deeper sense of compassion for all beings, and a more focused inspiration to act morally on their behalf. So, too, in Christianity, ritual is seen to be a "social drama" that brings to awareness the reality of the mystical body of Christ, the church, being the social form of Jesus Christ in the world. Ritual, as a sacred and dramatic social manifestation of the church, brings this communal reality of Christ to the Christian's mindful awareness by breaking into the secular structures of ordinary consciousness. Furthermore, the ritual also guides, forms, inspires, strengthens, and encourages the participants to re-enter that ordinary life committed to living the values and ideals expressed in the ritual. The formative power of the ritual performance lies, in part, in the fact that ritual ties ideas, values, and ideals to sensual and emotional stimuli in a way that, in the words of Victor Turner, "connects the obligatory into the desirable" (The Forest of Symbols, 1967).

Third, Kaza shows how ritual in Zen helps to convey the tradition and promote solidarity within the community. She says that ritual in Zen: "promotes healthy sangha through sharing the stability and continuity of traditional practice forms... which generate a culture of the larger body--familiar and supportive." In Christianity, too, the multidimensional expressions of the ritual performance--the physical movements, sounds, music, smells, verbal articulations, etc.--all blend together in ways that pass on certain ideas, ideals, and values...