Ritualism: The tumour in Buddhism



Ceremonies, such as setting up trays of sweets and fruit as offerings to the Buddha in the same way as alms food is offered to a monk just do not fit in with Buddhist principles. Yet some groups consider this to be genuine Buddhist practice, teaching it as such and
keeping to it very strictly.

Rites and ceremonies of this kind have become so numerous that they now completely obscure the real Buddhism and its original purpose. Take for example the procedure of becoming ordained a monk. There has come into existence the ceremony of making gifts to the newly ordained bhikkhu. Guests are invited to bring food and to watch proceedings, and as a result, there is much drunkenness and noise. Ceremonies are
performed both at the temple and in the home.

The new bhikkhu later leaves the Order again only a few days after having been ordained, and may become an even stronger temple-hater than he was before. It must be borne in mind that there was none of this at the time of the Buddha. It is a later development. Ordination at the time of the Buddha meant simply, that some individual, who had obtained his parent’s consent, renounced home and family. He was a person who was able to close accounts at home and go off to join the Buddha and the Order of bhikkhus.

On some convenient occasion he would go and be ordained, and perhaps not see his parents or family again for the rest of his life. Though some bhikkhus might go back to visit their parents again on suitable occasions, this was rare.

There does exist a rule permitting a bhikkhu to go home when there is a good reason for doing so, but at the time of the Buddha this was not the done thing. Bhikkhus did not receive ordination with their parents in attendance nor did they celebrate the event as a great occasion, only to leave the Sangha again after just a few days, no better off than at first, as commonly happens in the present day.

All this presenting of gifts to newly ordained bhikkhus, this performing of ceremonies, including all sorts of celebration – this we are foolish enough to call Buddhism! Furthermore we choose to make much of it, thinking nothing of spending all our own money, or other people’s on account of it. This “Neo-Buddhism” is so widespread as to be almost universal.

The Dhamma, the genuine teaching that once was paramount has become so overlaid by ceremonial that the whole objective of Buddhism has been obscured, falsified and changed. Ordination, for instance, has become a face-saving gambit for young men whom people have been pointing at for never having been ordained, or a prerequisite to finding a wife (as having been a monk is considered a sign of maturity), or is done with some other kind of ulterior motive. In some places an ordination is regarded as an opportunity for collecting money, for which job there are always people on hand to help. It is one way of getting rich. Even this they call Buddhism! And anyone who goes and criticizes this is considered to be ignorant of Buddhism or opposed to it.

Another example is the presentation of kathina cloth. The Buddha’s original intention was to have cloth for robes given to all the bhikkhus simultaneously so that they could sew it together themselves with a minimum loss of time. If there was only one robe, it was allocated to some bhikkhu, not necessarily the most senior one, whom the group considered worthy of using that robe or in need of it, and was presented to him in the name of the entire order.

The Buddha’s intention was to avoid any bhikkhu’s having a high opinion of himself. On that day everyone, regardless of rank, had to humble himself and be one of the crowd. Everyone had to lend a hand cutting and sewing the cloth, boiling tree pith to make the dye, and whatever else was involved in getting the robes ready and finished the same day. Making the cloth into robes was a co-operative effort.

That is how the Buddha intended it to be, an event not necessarily involving lay people at all. But nowadays it has become an affair involving ceremony, fun and games, loud laughter and money seeking. It is just a picnic and is devoid of all the desirable results originally intended.

This sort of thing is a tumour which has developed in Buddhism and thrived. The tumour takes hundreds of different forms too numerous to name. It is a dangerous, malignant growth which by degrees has completely overlaid and obscured the good material, the real pith of Buddhism, and quite disfigured it.

One result of this has been the arising of many sects, some large, some insignificant, as off-shoots from the original religion. Some sects have even become involved in sensuality.

It is essential that we always discriminate in order to recognize what is the real, original Buddhism. We must not foolishly grasp at the outer shell, or become so attached to the various rituals and ceremonies that the real objective becomes quite lost to view.

The real practice of Buddhism is based on purification of conduct by way of body and speech, followed by purification of the mind, which in its turn leads to insight and right understanding. Don’t go thinking that such and such is Buddhism just because everyone says it is. The tumour has been spreading constantly since the day the Buddha died, expanding in all directions right up to the present day, so that it is now quite sizeable. The tumour in Buddhism must not be misidentified as Buddhism itself.

– Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu (1906-1993)


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