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14: The Way of Sacred Rite

  • Page ID
    37137
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    There are many types of rituals common to certain subtraditions of Buddhism and Christianity: veneration of images, symbols, and relics (involving bodily gestures, sometimes the use of incense); offering of food, material wealth, and so forth; penitential rites of confession; individual and corporate prayer; sung and/or chanted hymns of praise; reading and/or chanting of scripture; rites of blessing; annual cycle of holy days and holy seasons; pilgrimage; on rare occasions sacred drama; rites of initiation; rites of ordination; rites pertaining to death; and rites pertaining to the routines (daily and annual) of monastic life. Any and all of these are well worth comparative study and might well be chosen for illustration here.

    Buddhists generally, but especially Theravada Buddhists, tend to play down the sacramental significance of their rituals and symbols-for example, denying that the Buddha is in any sense specially present in his images or relics, which are nonetheless elaborately venerated. Here, however, the principal concern is to deny what might be supposed to be the external efficacy of rituals to make progress toward enlightenment, as opposed to efforts that directly root out from within oneself the ego-centered causes of suffering. In this connection, trust in the power of rites and rituals is regarded as a fetter binding one to ego-centered striving in the round of samsara, that is, as an obstacle to Enlightenment. In the way of sacred rite, however, sacramental rituals should not primarily be seen as means of accomplishing something external to the rites themselves or as leaving one's mundane ego unchallenged. Rather, their sacramental significance lies in affording direct participation in the archetypal aspects of ultimate realityo. Thus, an authentically Buddhist "sacramental ritual" would be a ritual expected to afford participation, in one respect or another, in the transcendence of samsara-which necessarily would have to be (symbolically or sacramentally) a state of egolessness.

    Some of the more interesting expressions of sacramental ritual in Buddhism are the ritual meditations of Vajrayana Buddhism. We do not to take them up here primarily because they are more directly fused with the way of mystical quest than any corresponding sacramental ritual within Christianity and because they are usually private rather than communal.

    A different, very promising study, because so widespread in both Buddhism and Christianity, would be a comparison of initiation rituals-though even here the correspondence is not exact. These are, of course, not repeated rituals but are oncein-a-lifetime events for participants. The most widespread ritual of initiation in Christianity is Baptism. Depending on the subtradition, it is sometimes regarded as sacramental and sometimes not. Another important initiation ritual is Ordination to one of the priestly offices of the Church: deacon, priest, or bishop. Within the Roman Catholic tradition is the ritual of Profession, by which a person is initiated into a religious order in which vows are undertaken. A similar ritual initiation can be found in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and in the few instances of Protestant religious orders. For Buddhism, there is a rather elaborate ritual of initiation into monastic life. A layperson may become a Buddhist through undergoing a kind of scaled-down version of the same-the scale depending on the seriousness of the person's commitment-for example, from formally "taking refuge" in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha to undertaking intensified observance on the uposatha days of the Buddhist lunar month, undergoing ritual tonsure (shaving of the head), and temporarily assuming monastic life. In Theravada contexts, initiation into a probationary period of monastic life, pravrajya ("going forth"), and later full ordination, upasampada ("full attainment"), are significant events for the entire com- munity, for laypersons and those already part of the munastic community, as well as for those undergoing the initiation. In sacramental Christian Baptism and and in Profession when entering a Christian religious order, there takes place a symbolic death and new birth, a symbolic identification with a major event in the central story of the Gospel, a bestowal of a new identity (often signified by means of a new name), and an adoption into a new family. Similarly in pravrajya and upasampada there takes place a symbolic death and new birth, a symbolic identification with a major event in the central story of Buddha, a bestowal of a new identity (with a new name), and an adoption into a new family. Differences come into play with respect to how the symbolic death and new birth are to be understood, the event in the central story with which the initiate identifies, the nature of the new identity, and the character of the new family or community into which the initiate enters.

    Interesting and worthwhile as this comparison may be, we shall not attempt to explore it further here but instead, review examples of ritual communion: the Buddhist Rinzai Zen Tea Ceremony of Japan and the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion as celebrated within the Eastern Orthodox Church. As in previous examples, here, too, much is implicit. Indeed, it is the essence of sacramental rituals that simple symbols signify whole constellations of meaning. Readers should beware taking them abstractly simply as presented here but should en- deavor to imagine them placed fully within their respective traditional contexts of meaning and practice.


    This page titled 14: The Way of Sacred Rite is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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