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Honest and Unadorned

photo by Oleg Vernagorov, Odessa, Ukraine

photo by Oleg Vernagorov, Odessa, Ukraine

COLUMN: Living Shambhala Culture

This series of articles is brought to you by the Shambhala Office of Culture and Decorum. We hope that these offerings will bring fresh perspectives on living our principles, invoking drala and enriching culture in our homes, centers and communities. If you have any suggestions or contributions, please feel free to contact Wendy Friedman, Director of the Shambhala Office of Culture and Decorum: [email protected]

On Ceremony and Ritual
by Aaron Snyder, Boulder, CO

A number of classical musicians are taking up Nichiren Buddhism. According to the young music major I overhead in the Bear’s Lair last Tuesday morning, they like the chanting; being musicians, they can relate to it. My informant, however, was not among the converts. Nichiren, he said, has too much ceremony, too many trappings. He preferred Zen because it is honest and unadorned, free from any self-aggrandizing hoopla.

Honest and unadorned. His booth mate, on hearing his views, nodded her agreement. As they continued their running evaluation of various foreign ceremonies, they judged each by this rule: whatever is spontaneous or formless is therefore honest and good; anything prescribed or ritualized is phony.

It was pleasant eavesdropping: exotic religions was a near-perfect topic for the kind of conversation the students were performing. The young lady let the young man set the tempo. Her agreement signs were sincere, yet never fawning. Her challenges were frisky and smart, but not threatening. It was a first-serious-conversation kind of conversation: lots of deeply held beliefs but no intimate personal history. It was the kind of conversation that can end with a brief touch on the arm and a look in the eyes before one runs off to class, the kind that warrants a phone call that evening if her number is listed and one has a plausible excuse.

The couple’s extended put-down of formality was not exactly a ritual, but it was, I would say, a ceremony, a courtship ceremony not much more original than a minuet, and executed with some of the elegance that I associate with that dance. It was also sincere, so sincere that I probably should not have been listening. I wondered, at the time, at the contrast between what was said and what was done. How, in the midst of such a delightful and genuine ceremony could two people believe that traditional ritual trappings are by definition empty?

In the sixties, Fritz Perls, the psychotherapist, was a powerful proponent of spontaneity, a righteous voice raised against phoniness. After he died, some of his students decided that our traditional greeting ceremonies, minimal as they are, were phony. They quit saying “hello,” because it is just bullshit. They quit saying, “how are you?” because they did not want to know. They started making fun of people who said these things. They were like a criminal I read about somewhere who mutilated his fingertips so the police could not get his prints. The Perlsians’ mutilated ceremony of silence was no less ceremonial than “hello,” and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

It is clear that Perls’ students jumped to fundamentally cockeyed conclusions about the way in which ceremonial formulations have meaning, yet I think their first premise is a common one, as old as the American tradition of informality, maybe as old as the Reformation. These people merely took to its logical conclusion the idea that every gesture should refer literally to something else. This is an interesting ideal, but not the way things work nor, particularly, the way they should work.

The conversation in the Bear’s Lair was important to those two students not because of their exchange of information on foreign religions, but because of their gestures of response to one another. All the prescriptions of how close to sit, what to talk about, when to interrupt, where to look and where not to look, did not hide their affection; rather, it gave them a way to express it more fully. Those little structures are magic; they give us a language to speak.

When we become aware of such formalities we often become self-conscious, and in our self-consciousness we feel distant from the forms. It is this stepping back from our own performance that creates phoniness. It is not the insincerity of formality that we reject, but its possibilities for sincerity, the intimidating chance that formality gives us for subtle and unambiguous communication. Those little structures give us a language.

And, at their best, actual rituals — Nichiren chanting ceremonies or coronations — are poems in that language, compositions in the language of everyday decorum that exploit the full depth and extent of its magic. Flags and icons do not make ritual, any more than regular meter makes poetry: what makes ritual (and poetry) is a sense of the sacred, pregnant nature of communication, and a willingness to give in to it.

For example, consider one of the few real rituals that most of us still perform wholeheartedly: the formal incantation, “I love you.” This little sentence does not carry its meaning in the same way that the sentence, “your sister called,” does. It does not really refer to something outside itself; its meaning is that one is saying it. One cannot paraphrase or elaborate on “I love you” because it is not information; it is ritual.

And so it is with midnight mass, or with checking into a motel, or phoning mother. In the texture and flow of the gestures themselves, an experience, a frame of mind, is created that could not occur in any other way. We deal in magic. It is with the formalities of language and decorum that we make our world what it is.

~~
Aaron Snyder, Rupon
became a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974 and a Kasung in 1976. He is the commander of the Dorje Kasung Training Group and physician to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Snyder, Rupon lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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3 responses to “ Honest and Unadorned ”
  1. Daniel Hessey
    Feb 17, 2014
    Reply

    Great article!
    Thanks for the good writing and great insight
    Dan

  2. Dawa Lhatso
    Sep 25, 2013
    Reply

    To read and re-read…very helpful and insightful! Thank you.

  3. Mark Turnoy
    Sep 25, 2013
    Reply

    Actually, this is just a personal comment for Aaron, if possible to pass it along that way. I didn’t see his email address posted, so am hoping someone won’t mind passing this along.

    I enjoyed reading your column here, Aaron. (At first I thought you were another Snyder – Gary, maybe? that I used to know in Boulder. (I’ve been living in Korea now for 13 years.)) I’m rereading “The Shambhala Principle” now and just re-read SMR’s chapter, “Just You and Me,” tonight, as a matter of fact, which I really enjoyed and appreciated more deeply the second time through. Here in Korea almost no one eats by themselves – it’s sort of a cultural taboo. If you do it (and I do it often, as an ‘ignorant foreigner’), when people hear that you’ve done it, they look at you with pity. I still don’t understand it. But it’s this kind of mystery – culture, its nuances, communication – that’s interesting to me.
    Your article seemed like a great complement to “Just You and Me”, tonight. I hope you and your wife (I can’t remember her name, but remember her face and the rest of her – ah, Kimiko, no?) and I believe you had at least one son, are well, after the flooding.
    Best wishes,
    and keep writing! (I’m finally starting to read the online Shambhala Times, after resenting and being sad about the loss of the hard-copy “Dot” several years ago – inspired partly by the Sakyong’s comments on the importance of communication between people.)

    Mark Turnoy

    P.S. I learned about the Shambhala Principle discussion groups through a friend in Portland, OR, but haven’t tried to join any, because of the difficulties of the time change of where I live. If you happen to hear of any discussion groups related to the book in east Asia, I’d love to hear about that. (Maybe I should write to Shambhala Int’l with my question.)


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