What is Buddhism For?

robes and rituals

Let’s back up a bit. Buddhism is a methodology for becoming aware in that true awareness relieves suffering. We do not have scientific proof for this assertion so we take it on faith. Through faith Buddhism becomes a religion. The danger with religions, for those of us who have the habit of attaching themselves to externals, is that religions can become elaborated with all sorts of easily misunderstood and rather seductive rituals, rules and robes. To be more exact, it is easy for people who join religions to get cluttered up with believing that the rituals, rules and robes are the point of the religion rather than just helpful tools for reaching the ‘goal’ stated by the religion. In Buddhism, when we forget that the RRRs are only there to help us realize the main purpose, we are no longer on the path to awareness, to being awake. We are merely falling into the delusion of dogmatism. This causes suffering.

The purpose and methodology of Buddhism is simply stated in the Four Noble Truths. The Forth Noble Truth unfolds to become the Eightfold Path. The first two parts of the Eightfold Path, Right View and Right Intention, tell us what we need to cultivate in ourselves in order to realized full awareness. The next three parts, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, outline what we need to do in the external world, on a daily basis, in order to realize the promise of the first two parts of the path. The last three parts, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, give us the tools for dealing with our own monkey mind while we live in the day to day world.

According to Buddhism, the prescription for our day to day suffering is the Eightfold Path. The difficulty in taking our medicine is that we are being told that we need to pay attention to each one of the eight at each moment of our lives. How hard is that?

We can approach the problem of applying the eightfold path to our daily lives in the same way we approach the monkey mind when we are meditating. When we notice our minds (or our lives, or our actions) wandering away from the concerns indicated in the eightfold path, gently take ourselves back to an awareness of our situation. Watch how we are being. Do not judge. (Sit with it, run with it, work with it, eat with it) See if there is anything at the present time that we can do to align ourselves closer to the eight injunctions. This is what the religion of Buddhism is suggesting. This is what being a Buddhist means. Day by day, bringing oneself back to awareness. How hard to take on. How much easier it might seem to simply focus on the robes, or get caught up in the daily excitement of mass culture, or go looking for love, or fight for money. How much easier to externalize our aspirations. How much easier to think that the solution to our suffering lies outside our self.

picture of chinese monks in robes and ritual

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Robes and Rituals

Taking a deep breath before I plunge into the third of the Eightfold Path (thereby avoiding for at least another day the terrifying implications that Right Speech has for me), I want to say a few things about a posting on my friend Daishin’s blog yesterday. He seemed to be chaffing in his metaphorical robes. Why do we wear these things, he asks? Why is zen so full of seemingly unnecessary, incomprehensible ritual?

The short answer is that rituals can give you deep insight if you enter into them in the right way. The danger with ritual is simply that we might, through misunderstanding, rebel against or get attached to the ritual and therefor miss the message. One extreme take on ritual was given by Carlos Casteneda. He suggested that we might try putting a silly hat on our head everyday and rolling an egg across the floor with our nose. Try it for a while. See what it tells you about yourself. I practised Iaido for thirteen years. I primarily studied ten, one minute katas. Over and over again.

While practising, iaidoka wear elaborate costumes, robes not very different from the robes worn by monks in zen monasteries. There were ritual ways of folding and wearing the various parts of the robes, but teh meaning of few of these rituals were ever spelled out to the newbie unless the various pieces of clothing were directly implicated in the kata. The way one was being urged to treat one’s clothing was usually illustrated by example – or sometimes by comments delivered with great sarcasm by senior students.

We often practised our Iai in school gyms. Such temporary dojos have limited changing facilities and we generally all changed into our gear to one side of the gym. When I first started practising, I would haphazardly throw my street clothes into a pile on the floor. After a while I started treating my street clothes with the same respect I was being taught to treat my hakama. This was illustrated by neatly folding the clothes into a pile, with larger items underneath to carry the smaller items on top.

In Iaido one practises in ways that can hurt or, potentially, kill the inattentive. Swords vary from wooden, to dull, to sharp enough to cut through a body. All types of swords can do damage to the unwary. As we all practised in the same room, it was worth your life if you failed to pay attention to where everyone else in the room was located and what they were doing. No one casually strolled across the gym. No one drew their sword without caution. Occasionally someone cut their own thumb to the bone. At least one rib was broken. But in all cases, anyone who practised for any while developed a greater respect for the way they handled the facilities, their clothing and each other – at least they did so in a formal manner while in the dojo.

Our sensei, Ken Maneker , always admonished us to bring our Iaido training, or rather whatever understanding we had gained from it, out into the world, into our lives. Iaido was not to be understood as a good way to win fights. We don’t carry swords around at this time in history. Iaido was all about developing awareness. The ritual aspects of the art were to teach us to see what really is, to inspire us to try to understand where we fit in the great dance of reality. Unless we bring our training into the day to day world, the training is for nothing. In the ten bulls, after achieving awakening, one returned to the market place.

There is a danger in a religion’s robes, rituals and skills. They can get in the way of understanding if they become the desired thing, a symbol for some holiness that exists only outside of our self. But equally, the clothes we wear everyday are dangerous in that they are our everyday robes, whether dictated by the rituals of fashion or by what we find in the thrift stores. Do we identify with our fashion statement? Are we attached? Do we let our attire, or our skill set, stand in for what we really feel about what is going on inside? What other personal rituals do we make up for ourselves. What purpose do they serve for us? How do we feel when we engage them? I just watched a DVD where in one character, after dinner without fail, for thirty five years, said, “That was tasty, dear.” To the couple this small ritualistic message stood in for an expression of love and appreciation.

Robes are like experimental apparatus designed to reveal truths for those who observe carefully. If we object to Japanese, Korean, Indian, Chinese, or Tibetan rituals because they seem meaningless to us, then we can invent new ones – if we want. We just have to be careful we don’t get caught up in them as ultimate truths, whether in adoration or rejection.
photo of Sensei Ken Maneker practising iaido