Project Conversion

Project Conversion

The Dangers of Ritual

posted by abowen

My oldest daughter has a security blanket named “Pooh.” It’s actually a fitted bed sheet (what’s left of it) with a “Winnie the Pooh” print that went over her crib and she’s carried it around since she could crawl. Sometimes it’s a scarf, other times it’s a parachute, but it always represents her sense of security and comfort in any situation. If my wife and I want her to stop running through the house or just behave in general, all we have to do is threaten to take away Pooh.

She is very particular about Pooh, and any deviation in where he (sometimes it’s a she) is placed, touched, or dealt with may result in an emotion hurricane.

I think this is how we sometimes treat our religions–particularly, our rituals. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religio which means “duty.” If we want to boil religion down to its critical parts, it’s really made up of a set of beliefs and associated rituals which either illustrate (symbolically or otherwise) or support those beliefs. What’s interesting is that, with most faiths, many of the rituals we practice weren’t in place at the onset of the faith.

So what happened?

We got comfortable. Rituals are spiritual security blankets. Just as my daughter might not be able to fully articulate why a bed sheet makes her feel good or safe, likewise a religious and/or ritualistic person often cannot rationalize why they carry out their rituals. What’s really trippy is that almost without exception, nearly every religious founder (or at least a portion of their philosophy) talks trash about habit and ritualism!

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” –Rabbi Hillel, from the Babylonian Talmud

Christianity: Jesus ruffled the feathers of the Jewish priests when he healed on the Sabbath, thus breaking tradition to attend a need far more important than rules and rituals.

Buddhism: The Buddha once advised that the Dhamma (his teachings) were like a raft: It is useful for crossing the river (life, difficulties, liberation, etc.), however once you reach the other side, carrying it around becomes a useless burden. In other words, drop what you don’t need–even if that is your religion or ritual!

Hinduism: After listing a ritualistic process by which to take the practitioner to liberation, the author of this Upanishad follows with, “Such rituals are unsafe rafts for crossing the sea of samsara…Doomed to shipwreck are those who try to cross on these poor rafts (rituals).” –The Mundaka Upanishad

Islam: When they are told: “Follow what Allah has sent down to you,” they say: “We are following what we found our fathers doing.” What, even though their fathers did not understand a thing and were not guided! –Qur’an 2: 170

Sikhism: One day Guru Nanak went down to a river. There he found people in the river, tossing up water toward the sun. He asked them what they were doing. They told him they were offering water to their ancestors in the region of the sun. Guru Nanak turned the other way and tossed water in the other direction. The people asked what he was doing. Guru Nanak told them that if the water they tossed could reach the burning regions of the sun, then he could toss water the other way and nourish his farm, which was much closer. The people in the river realized their foolish practice and followed him.

Every religion is a revolution against the native belief system. Every new philosophy or faith reforms its predecessor, but the irony behind these evolutions in belief is stated beautifully by writer Franz Kafka:

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

It’s so easy to slip into a habit and routine and not even know it. This month, as I study Sikhi, I am constantly floored by the wake-up call of the Japji Sahib. In the very opening verses, we are told:

    1. “The purity of the mind cannot be achieved through ritualistic cleansing.”
    2. “Nor can the tranquility of the mind be accomplished through self-imposed solitude or meditation.
    3. “Greed of the mind can never be appeased, even by all the wealth in the world.
    4. “Nor can the countless acts of wisdom of the mind, acquired through mere ritualistic reading of holy books are of any consequence.
    5. How are we to become worthy of God’s Grace? How do we tear down the wall of separation?
    6. “By learning to live in His “Order,” which is engraved in our very existence.

Talk about having our egos slapped around. The three pillars of Sikhi are 1) meditation on the Name (God), 2) Seva (service to others), and 3) Sharing of your wealth, time, resources. That’s it! Everything else is religious gravy.

How often do we allow our rituals–our security blankets–become the noise of our lives and the shadows of our faith? Does it mean anything anymore when you read scripture or sing hymns? Do you know them so well that they no longer challenge/change/enlighten you? If so, one of two things have happened: Either 1) They have become your “raft” and you no longer need them, or 2) You have turned them into a meaningless ritual.

The other danger is that we too often depend on our rituals rather than our faith and relationships. Our actions become simple, mundane processes which produce no fruit. Sometimes I wonder if that is what happened to me with the river. Is that why there was so much anguish in leaving? Had I become dependent on the process instead of the result? Once we place expectations and parameters on our spirituality, it can no longer grow and move in mysterious ways.

Today I challenge you to analyze your rituals. What are you doing day after day–for your religion or otherwise–that has turned into a meaningless, mechanical function? Is your faith cold because of ritualism? Even relationships–once vibrant with excitment–fall victim. What can you do to spice up your spiritual life?

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posted September 16, 2011 at 10:10 pm


You smacked the nail on the head there, Marco!

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posted September 16, 2011 at 10:09 pm



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posted September 15, 2011 at 9:42 pm

most of the problems occur when the followers start to worship the rituals/traditions and chain themselves with non sense adapted customs rather than focusing on the essense of their faith.
being aggressive and protecting some rituals/traditions rather than assimilating followers of the same faith with various rituals.

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posted September 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Fair enough. I guess I felt a somewhat anti-ritual bias in the tone of the post, and was responding to that… I am actually in the midst of analyzing a number of things in my personal and spiritual life and determining what no longer sustains me, what I can and should try to rejuvenate and what just needs to go, so I guess I’m actually doing what you suggested already! :)

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posted September 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm


Wonderful example, Art. Thank you for providing a Latter-day Saint perspective!

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Art Sherwood

posted September 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm

The Book of Mormon contains an interesting passage somewhat related to this in that it talks about the Law of Moses (which was full of rituals) and about its purpose. This is in 2 Nephi 25: 24-27.

24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.

25 For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.

26 And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

27 Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away.

I think from this we can see that there is a purpose to the rituals and these outward motions that we go through and that they can be good as long as we remember what they are there for. The rituals themselves aren’t what change us and bring us in line with the divine, they are there to help us remember what truly is important and that continual remembrance is what exhalts us.

But, when we lose sight of that and begin doing the rituals for the ritual’s sake, then we are “tossing water towards the sun”.

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