One City

One City

Reconnecting with Ritual

by Evelyn Cash


For the past two months, I’ve started my day in much thesame way nearly every day.  I wake up,wash up, then step into the spare bedroom in our apartment.  The room is primarily an office, full ofbooks, important documents, a desk and so on but we also keep a small altar onthe top of one of the waist-high bookshelves. I step into the room, in the dark of the pre-dawn morning, light acandle, make a bow and then begin my morning yoga practice.  I take that morning practice easy, just basicposes chosen to wake up my body, stretch my muscles and loosen my joints aftersleeping and allow me to re-connect with my breath.  After I’ve completed the yoga, I sit forzazen on a zafu facing a part of the wall that is not covered by a bookshelf ora desk.  Once my meditation is complete,I set an intention for the day, chant the three refuges then I put out thecandle, make a bow and step out of my little make shift zendo and into myday. 


I did not place much importance on regular ritual untilrecently.  I’d attend zazen with thesangha when I could and when I couldn’t, I would sit at home without muchprep or ceremony. I’d just pull out the cushion, find a wall and sit facingit with a timer of some sort nearby.  I’dmake a bow before starting zazen and a bow before getting up but little more.  Something changed for me when I went on theRohatsu retreat right after Thanksgiving. At the Zen Center, I was exposed tothe ritual of Buddhist practice in a deeper way than ever before.  For that week, my life as a retreatant wasordered around the bells, drums, bows and chants of the center.  When I got home, I wanted to keep a littlepart of that experience going and it has opened up an aspect of the practice tome that I previously had little experience with.


Growing up, I was one of the Protestant (Christian Methodist Episcopal in my case) girls at Catholicschool.  We were the ones who remainedseated during the once a month mandatory school mass as most of the studentsand teachers rose for communion. As an outsider, I never really felt a deepconnection to the elaborate ceremony of the Catholic Church.  I appreciated their ritualized mass andprayers but, by comparison, my own church had very little ritual.  Sure, we had communion and a regular order toservice but our rituals had nowhere near the depth of complexity and intricacyof those that I saw during Catholic Mass.   



Since becoming Buddhist, I have primarily practiced in smallgroup settings where much of the ritual has been reduced or abbreviated.  It makes sense, when you only have a fewpeople, things naturally become simplified. When I went to the Zen Center for my weeklong retreat, I was able tocatch a small glimpse of what full Soto Zen service looks like.  In some ways, I was reminded of the Catholicmasses I’d grown up attending but the purpose behind the rituals wasdifferent.  In Zen, every ritual Ilearned about was meant as a practice of mindfulness.  Each motion, each bow and each strike of adrum or gong helps to cultivate mindfulness of the present moment.  The individual actions and motivations behindthe rituals are different but the result is much the same.  Ritual helps us to gain a sense ofconnectedness to our practice – whether Buddhist or Christian – and to those whohave done the same ritual and practice for generations.



Over the break, I began reading Pema Chodron‘s “The Wisdomof No Escape.”  She talks about the powerof ritual in Chapter 14: Not PreferringSamsara or Nirvana.  She says,”ritual is about joining vision and practicality, heaven and earth, samsara andnirvana,” she goes on to write: “ritual, when it’s heartfelt, is like a timecapsule.  It’s as if thousands of yearsago somebody had a clear, unobstructed view of magic, power, and sacredness,and realized that if he went out each morning and greeted the sun in a verystylized way, perhaps by doing a special chant and making offerings and perhapsby bowing, that it connected him to that richness.  Therefore he taught his children to do that,and the children taught their children, and so on.”



A ritual can be just about any set of actions that helps bring that sense of connectedness to something greater; or asChodron put it, anything that joins “vision and practicality,” in a meaningfulway.  I’ve come to see, first-hand, howrituals can have their own personal meaning for each individual.  My morning ritual of lighting a candle,practicing yoga, sitting zazen, chanting the refuges then putting out thecandle holds unique meaning for me. Making an incense offering or bowing to the rising sun may hold specialmeaning to someone else. 


Do you have a ritual forstarting or ending your practice?  Or, doyou mark the beginning and end of each day in a certain way

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posted January 10, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I too have recently started a morning ritual similar to the one you describe. When I wake, I take care of my dog, wash up & then do my yoga. I have been trying to be more present in the moment & not become drawn to the past or future. I would like to learn more about the mindfulness that you refer to. Can you suggest a good source? Thank you so much for sharing your insights!

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posted January 10, 2010 at 4:30 pm

nice post evelyn. very interesting.
i start my sits with contemplations of the buddha, metta, the repulsive aspects of the body, and the certainty of death. it helps to set the mood and point me in the direction i want to point in. i end with bow.

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posted January 11, 2010 at 8:28 am

I learned a little bit about the formal Soto Zen service when I was on retreat at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center from my teacher – the abbot there – Taiun Michael Elliston Sensei. If you’re interested in mindfulness, I’d just recommend finding a local meditation group. The choices may be different depending on whats available in your area so you may have to do a little research to find a group that works for you. One good resource for on-line information on the dharma and mindfulness is the Audio Dharma website; it contains a ton of talks given by Gil Fronsdal from the Insight Meditation Center in California. Here’s a link:
Yoga is a great practice for mindfulness also. As we work on linking our breath with our motions, we’re also taking time to practice focusing on the present moment.
In addition, Psychology Today has a blog dedicated to mindfulness that I check out from time to time with some interesting tips and articles:
Mindfulness can be deceptively simple. At it’s core, it’s about connecting with the present moment as we go through the actions of life. It can be tough to remember to come back to the present moment and I’ve found that adding a little bit of regular ritual to my mornings helps me to reconnect and make a mindful start to my day.
Good luck on learning more!
Shigetsu Evelyn Cash

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