Mahayana Buddhist Ritual and Ethical Activity in the World

Article excerpt

SOCIETY OF BUDDHIST CHRISTIAN STUDIES MEETING, ORLANDO, FLORIDA, NOVEMBER 20, 1998

Contemporary attempts to derive a present-day social ethic from traditional Buddhism usually stem from doctrinal understandings and higher practices of meditation, often overlooking Buddhist ritual practice as a source of ethical formation and expression.

Philosophical study of Buddhism alone may leave one's capacity for ethical response untouched. Rigorous contemplative practices of Vipassana, Zen, or higher Tibetan meditation are out of the reach of many. Ritual forms have provided ways for Buddhists from all walks of life to become attuned to the same subtle dimensions of body, speech, and mind that higher Buddhist philosophy and meditation engage. Ritual also serves as means to empower and deepen philosophical inquiry and meditation. We do well not to forget the unique power of Buddhist ritual to include the many (not only the elite) in the most profound dimensions of Buddhist ethical understanding, formation, and expression.

The relative obscurity of ritual practice in contemporary consideration of Buddhist social ethics may also obscure from view some of Buddhism's past social-ethical expressions, which have sometimes taken symbolic ritual forms, rather than organized social outreach of the sort we are accustomed to identify as social-ethical activity. Buddhist ritual-contemplative forms have been viewed as ways to perform social service within and through the mythico-magical cosmoses of Asian traditions: cosmoses of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and myriad powerful, sacred beings. Since Asian Buddhists understand these cosmoses to interpenetrate our world, many of their ritual-contemplative practices are intended to perform needed social functions, within a broad context of universal salvation: healing, treating pain, treating mental illness, promoting economic well-being, preventing and assisting in disasters, protecting the helpless, easing the transition of death....

Contemporary Buddhist ethics tend to de-emphasize the ritualistic and devotional aspects of Buddhism to newly emphasize material resources and strategies for social transformation which can be related to higher Buddhist philosophy. While this is important, there is a danger that contemporary Buddhists, by reinterpreting practice as social service too exclusively in modern, material terms, may dilute rather than reinforce the ontological and epistemological intuitions of Buddhism, losing touch with time-tested means for persons to actually learn to embody an ultimate source of ethical response that transcends ontological assumptions of modern, secular thought.

By experiencing social service as a natural extension of ritual activity, each element of such service symbolically expresses an ultimate source of ethical response within a path of ultimate transformation, reinforcing rather than diluting the deepest intuitions of Buddhism even as Buddhist practice takes new social-ethical expression in our world.

As an example, I will focus on one of the earliest and most popular continually practiced Buddhist rituals of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: the Bhadracaryapranidhana ("resolution of excellent practice") which appears within the Avatamsaka sutra. This practice, further delineated in treatises ascribed to Nagajuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Satideva and many others, consists of seven ritual activities: bowing, offering, confession, ritual rejoicing, requesting teaching, entreating the buddhas to continually manifest, and dedication of karmic merit.

The ritual appears at the end of the Avatamsaka sutra, a scripture thousands of folios long in Tibetan translation. What follows is my own condensed commentary on the first portion of the ritual, which aims to correlate its elements with the fuller context of practice and visionary experience described in the sutra as a whole.

The ritual takes place set within the nirvanic realms of infinite buddhas, bodhisattvas, and holy beings whose salvific power and activity penetrate all realms of living beings who remain caught in the sufferings of Samsara. …