Interiorized Fire Rituals in India and in Tibet

By Bentor, Yael | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2000 | Go to article overview

Interiorized Fire Rituals in India and in Tibet


Bentor, Yael, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The term "interiorization of ritual" bears a multitude of meanings. It may pertain to a mental performance of the ritual; to the replacement of the ritual with a continuous process of life, such as breathing or eating; to a particular way of life, such as renunciation; to an actual performance with an inner interpretation; to the replacement of the external ritual with an internal one, and so forth (following Bodewitz). This paper analyzes different forms of the interiorized ritual par excellence--the fire ritual--as it has existed in Tibetan culture, against the background of Indian precedents. Among the practices discussed here are inner heat (tapas and gtum-mo), breathing (prana) and the subtle body (risa-lung), sexual yoga, food yoga, mental fire offerings and the fire offering of enlightened wisdom. The paper concludes with an examination of the interrelationships of the various interiorized fire offerings as they are seen in Tibetan writings. Since most major Tibetan practices are presented in this con text in terms of the fire ritual, this examination elucidates the relative status of these practices from a theoretical point of view. It also sheds light on how diverse and autonomous practices come to be synthesized into a unified path to enlightenment.

FIRE OFFERINGS

IN DIGHANIKAYA 1.5 THE BUDDHA 15 said to have declared that the optimal form of fire sacrifice is the Buddhist path to the attainment of nirvana. [1] In a typical heuristic strategy frequently encountered in Indian Buddhist texts, the Buddhist path is contrasted to non-Buddhist brahmanical practices in order to emphasize the superiority of the former. This is yet another facet of an ongoing inter-religious dialogue, however one-sided it may at times appear to be, between Buddhism and Brahmanism in India. [2] The presentation of new practices as higher or truer forms of older ones is, however, more commonly not an inter- but rather an intra-religious phenomenon. In spite of the profound alternations affecting vedic religion as it evolved into Brahmanism and what falls generally under the rubric of "Hinduism," the post-vedic traditions often continued to communicate the new by employing the old vedic terms. The Vedas and their rituals lent an orthodox and canonical justification to a wide number of innovations (B. Smith 1989: 202-16). The special status of vedic rituals in India is well demonstrated by the fact that even the heterodox traditions [3] at times found it advantageous to claim some sort of relationship with vedic practices, as occurs, for example, in our passage from the Dighanikaya. Fire rituals, in particular, seem to have been so popular in ancient India that the heterodox traditions could hardly afford to ignore them. This would explain how, over the course of time, and despite the positions taken in early Buddhist scriptures such as the Dighanikaya, the fire rituals of vedic origin were nevertheless eventually appropriated by Buddhism as one of many different means that might be employed on the path to nirvana--a phenomenon not unique to fire rituals. In an attempt to underline superiority of a certain practice, it was contrasted with another popular ritual, which in some way resembled it. Thanks to this resemblance the contrasted practices eventually merged together. This is common within the Bud dhist religion, and even more so in Tibetan Buddhism, with its strong tendencies toward synthesis. [4] Words of the Buddha that strongly criticized or rejected brahmanical practices were subsequently taken as charters for buddhicized forms of those very practices.

At the time Buddhism adapted them, [5] Hindu fire rituals already included not only external rituals in which libations were poured into a fire, but also internalized forms of these rituals. In presenting their new practices in terms of the vedic sacrifice, the renunciation movements characterized the classical vedic ritualists by the word devayajin, 'sacrificer[s] to the gods', while calling their own practitioners atmayajin, 'sacrificer[s] to one's self'. …

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