Why do we engage in ritual? Isn’t it enough just to be a kind and good human being?

Student – Why do we need ritual, meditation and all that stuff? Isn’t it enough just to develop good qualities and be a kind and a good person

Master – It’s a common perception that Buddhist practice aims to create nice, gentle people who are vegetarian and donate to the poor, and even the term ‘a good Buddhist’ conjures up a mental picture of a kind and softly spoken person. However, this is a misconception. 

Of course, Buddhism is not opposed to developing positive worldly qualities, but these are just a side product of a much vaster goal and vision, which is to awaken people to the truth. As this is an important point that is often misunderstood, I’ll repeat it. The aim of Buddhism is to awaken us to the truth, not to become a good human being. 

If developing positive qualities is not the aim of Buddhism, does this mean that Buddhists ignore the plight of others in favour of working on personal liberation? No, quite the contrary, Mahayana Buddhism, which is practised here in Bhutan, as well as in Taiwan, Japan, and China, is rooted in bodhichitta. In other words, the goal of practice is to be instrumental in leading all sentient beings to awaken to the truth, which results in them severing the roots of suffering entirely. It is not undertaken for personal liberation.

Without bodhichitta at its root, practice will lack the necessary ingredients to achieve the highest state of awakening – Buddhahood. Why is this the case? Well, working towards personal gain means that we are clinging to the idea of an independent and inherently existing self, which is a wrong view. Not only is it a wrong view, but it is the root cause of us floating aimlessly in the realms of samsara. Therefore, to cling to this idea is totally counter to the goals of practice, which is to destroy the false idea of an independent and inherently existing self and other.   

Does this mean, then, that a Buddhist practitioner focuses only on awakening to the truth while ignoring worldly suffering? No, Buddhism talks of combing the two truths – relative and ultimate. 

Practically, what does this mean? Imagine a mother looking over her weak son who is struggling in a nightmare. Now, the boy’s mother knows that her son’s experiences are unreal and that the monsters will disappear once he wakes up. However, due to his weakness, she cannot risk waking him suddenly, and so she uses a technique where she communicates with him as he sleeps. She uses soft words and even advises him how to avoid the monsters. Why does she do this even though she knows the events unfolding in her son’s dream are unreal? She does so because he believes they truly exist and so at that moment is suffering. Ultimately, she aims to wake him up, but, at the same time, she is not blind to his illusory pain. This is not a great example, but hopefully it conveys how a person on the bodhisattva path combines the relative and ultimate truths.

Returning to your question, we need to recognize that in the same way that wetness is inherent to water, so pure and unstained Buddha nature is an innate quality of all sentient beings. In contrast, good qualities are developed, and so are comparable to a band aid stuck on a wound. Put in another way, as the qualities of the former are discovered, they are permanent, whereas the latter, being created, are temporary and will eventually fall apart.  

Rather than trying to be nice, smiley people, Buddhism instead sets out a pragmatic path that removes the ignorance that obstructs Buddha nature and, in this way, allows the pure and unstained qualities to shine through.

Think of the sun and clouds as respectively representing Buddha nature and ignorance. Now, no matter how thick the clouds, they never diminish the brightness of the sun, and once they dissipate the light shines through. So, while positive qualities may be developed as a means to counter the attachments created by ignorance, they are no more than, say, a breeze used to blow away clouds. They are not a substitute for the sun. 

So, looking at the situation in reverse, it is ignorance that causes us to do negative things, not a lack of positive qualities. What is ignorance? As stated above, it is the belief that there is a permanent and inherently existing self and other. Once this illusion has been destroyed, then what would be the point of cheating others? If there is no truly existing person, then who would gain from misdeeds?

So, although the connection may not be immediately obvious, ‘the ritual, meditation and all that stuff’ that you mention are an expedient means to awaken us to the truth, and, in the context of your question, that means to become ‘a kind and a good person’. However, as I mentioned above, this is a side effect of practice, not its goal. 

Furthermore, a bodhisattva may not appear kind and good in the conventional sense – i.e. gentle, softly spoken and helping the destitute – but could be wrathful and manifest as a prostitute or a crazy man, as was the case with many of the mahasiddhas. The ultimate aim of a bodhisattva is to awaken people to the truth and liberate them from suffering, and to achieve this goal he or she may employ any method and take on any guise. 

How does the natural compassion of a bodhisattva compare to constructed altruism of an ordinary person? It is like the light of the sun compared to that of a firefly. For ordinary people like us, compassion is very much result-orientated and so is unstable and unsustainable. As an example, think of someone who helps a drug addict. If the addict quits drugs and does well, the person may continue to assist him. In contrast, if he relapses or is unappreciative of the assistance, the person will likely stop helping him. Why? Because he was not getting a sense of satisfaction from the interaction. Basically, his idea of an independent-self caused the altruistic act to be tainted and twisted with personal desires and needs. Instead of pouring forth like, say, the light and heat of the sun – with no agenda and unconditionally – the altruism was just a personal trip, a means to feel good about himself.

To recap, when the clouds of ignorance have been removed, the purity of Buddha nature shines through. And, as an awakened being free of a dualistic mindset, he could no more hurt others than our right hand would assault our left one, and he acts only for the benefit of others. This is the aim of practice, not to develop temporary and unsustainable so-called good qualities. 

How do we achieve this goal? We do so by engaging in such things as ritual, meditation, lighting of butter lamps, or going on pilgrimage, which are all expedient means that nudge us to awakening to the truth. I hope that you can see the connection between the two and understand the benefits of practice. I wish you a safe trip.

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