Ango Week 8: The support of ritual and ceremony

November 10, 2022

A weekly message from teachers Sarah Dōjin Emerson and Charlie Korin Pokorny in support of the 2022 Fall Practice Period.

To bow to the floor and to bow standing is dignified bearing in motion and stillness. Painting a decayed tree, and polishing a brick of dead ash continues without stopping. Even though calendar days are short and regent, study of the way in this manner is profound and deep.

—Eihei Dogen-zenji from Shinjin Gakudo (Body-and-Mind Study of the Way) in Moon in a Dewdrop

With news of Kosen’s diagnosis, and the complexity of feelings that are arising for many of us in digesting this news, we want to wait to take up joy together next week, and skip ahead to the nourishment and support of ceremony and ritual.

In Soto Zen ceremony and ritual are central, and are practice-engagements of non-duality. Ceremony is a place of integration of everything that can seem separate. Coming together in ceremony, we enact how this separation is delusion, and create space for the connectedness of all things to touch us and change us. For example, zazen practice itself is the ceremony of the non-duality of Buddhas and practitioners. When we sit, this is a ceremony of engaging how we are our particular selves, and how to tenderly be with our particular selves; and also how we are not apart from buddhas, how Buddhas sit in the world right where we sit.

Ceremony is a place where things that are hard to digest become digestible, because we do ceremony together, and together we have a capacity greater than when we imagine ourselves to be separate. Even if we offer incense alone in a room, we are engaging the enactment of how all Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and all practitioners of the past, present and future, are here with us. The meaning of any offering now lives in relationship with all the beings who have sustained this meaning over time, and do now, and will in the future.

So this week, coming from our practices of attuning to our bodies, and of exploring nourishment, we can take up ceremony and inquire: how does ritual and ceremony support me right now? If we are working with emotions and memories and feelings and life circumstances that feel un-integratable, is there a way that ceremony can help us integrate, help us feel connected to one another, and help us hold what is arriving to be held?

This week for the online daily zazen and service, we are offering well-being ceremonies for Kosen as a way to help us meet what’s arising, and then also to offer the merit and intention of our practice together to be of benefit to him. As we do this, we can open to how, as we make an offering of our coming together, this is also caring for ourselves- as we naturally want to do something to respond when someone we care about is in distress. So the making of an offering cares for our distress and benefits Kosen and we are alive there, in relationship with one another and how we impact one another.

Ceremony is a place of alignment of our conventional reality with the equal truth of the transcendent. In Charlie’s most recent Dharma talk, and in the class on Zen Ritual Life, there has been discussion of how ritual supports a different sense of time than our everyday, quantifiable sense of time. This articulates how, in ritual and in ceremony, we collectively make space to move at a different pace- one that allows for integration of complexities with our bodies and in concert with one another. And how, in a life of practice, this is not only nourishing, it is essential to move into with some frequency to nurture bodhicitta, to nurture our freedom, to nurture liberation.

So this week, please find a way to engage with ritual and ceremony in a way that supports you.

Practice possibilities:

– Wednesday through Friday morning after the ceremony of zazen from 7:30-8:00am, there will be well-being ceremonies for Kosen from 8:00-8:15am. To join these online offerings, please see here.

– On Wednesday evening (November 9) at Boundless Mind Temple we will offer a well-being ceremony in person.

– Utilizing the altar you created in the first week of the practice period- light a candle and simply make the offering of light. Or offer incense: light it, bring it to your forehead and state an intention, then place it in the incenser (or in something where it’s safe to burn), maybe spend some time with it while it burns.

– Take time to sit quietly and acknowledge all of what’s present for you and alive in you. Write down everything you can name on a piece of paper that you can fold into something that fits on your altar. If you practice with offering incense, you can light a candle and some incense, and circle this offering over the incense three times clockwise, then lift it to your forehead and name an intention, just in your mind, of how you want to offer this piece of paper and all it contains. Then put this on your altar and let it rest there for as long as it needs to be there.

– Everyday there are beings of all kinds- human, plant, animal and otherwise, offering us teachings. Offer a bow to something or someone to thank them for being in your life or the teaching they have offered in return. If it doesn’t feel appropriate to do this explicitly or outwardly in any given situation, offer a bow internally or maybe even on the sly so only you know, but the offering of gratitude will still be made.

Inquiring into conditioning:

What place did ritual and ceremony hold in your early life? How did these concepts and practices show up? What were you taught about them? How did you feel about them?

How do ritual and ceremony live in you presently? Are there ways they show up that are obvious? Are there ways they happen in your life that are more subtle, or not something you would historically think of as ceremony or ritual, but is part of a cyclical rhythm of your life?

When engaging with ritual, what arises for you? Some possibilities: skepticism, cynicism, doubt…devotion, love,immersion, freedom…discomfort, comfort, familiarity, resonance, alienation, confusion…and everything else in between. Take some time to turn this and just observe whatever is stirred up.