Rules and rituals

Dear Erik et al.,

I looked up ritual in the dictionary, and I’m pretty much going by the dictionary definition. That definition uses “rite” quite a bit, so let’s start there:


  1. a formal ceremony or procedure prescribed or customary in religious or other solemn use.

  2. a particular form of system of religious or ceremonial practice.

[3 and 4 are specific to Christianity.]

  1. any customary observance or practice.

I suppose we also need to address the bugaboo word “religion” here. Clearly, it doesn’t necessarily refer to something about “churches” or a blind belief in a traffic-directing creator God, although some people may well define their religion by these things.


  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe,…

  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.

[3, 4, 5 are not used in the above context and sense]

  1. something a person believes in and follows devotedly.


1(a). an established procedure for a religious or other rite.
( a system of such rites.

  1. observance of set forms in public worship.

  2. a book of rites or ceremonies.

  3. prescribed, established or ceremonial acts or features collectively.

  4. any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner.

These are generic, all-purpose definitions, and I need to be clear about how I understand the term “ritual.” Let’s go with:

ritual — a prescribed practice or procedure that a person believes in and follows devotedly, esp. one that pertains to a fundamental set of beliefs concerning the cause and nature of the universe.

A few questions:

  1. Did Buddha teach ritual as the means or vehicle to liberation?

I don’t think so. In fact, he taught that adherence to ritual was a fetter to broken. Thus, it would seem strange to read Satipatthana sutta as a list of prescribed practices [rituals].

“…a monk having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down cross-legged, his body erect and his mindfulness alert. Just mindful he breates in…” — this is a description, Erik. A prescription would read more like this: “…to establish mindfulness, you should go to the forest, sit down cross-legged, and practice noting the breath.” There is a world of difference, and it is not at all subtle.

An aside… My meditation teachers have been firm believers in practice, practice, practice and suspicious of book reading. Despite the admonitions about books, I snuck a peek at the Satipatthana sutta after one of my first intensive meditation retreats (must have been 1988 or 1989). I creeped into the library and found Nyanaponika’s “Heart of Buddhist Meditation” and opened up to chapter 3 — The Four Objects of Mindfulness. Nyanaponika discusses the Satipatthana sutta as ‘instructions for practice.’ I thought, “Cool! A little more detail about what my teachers have been talking about! A little more elaborate than the austere explanations my teachers gave, but basically the same…” Then I read the sutta itself: “…a monk having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down cross-legged, his body erect and his mindfulness alert. Just mindful he breathes in…” At first I was incredulous that anyone could read this as instructions because the clear sense was descriptive without any imperative sense of “do this.” “Besides,” I thought, “It looks like his mindfulness was already alert when he sat down.” For a moment there was the thought that Nyanaponika and my teachers had to be misinterpreting the sutta because it didn’t look at all like an instruction manual to me. But my faith in my teachers was stronger than my intuition that there was a mismatch between the text and their interpretation, so I accepted their interpretation (“They must have special insight into Pali and ancient Indian culture to be able to see that this sutta is an instruction manual”) and ignored the sutta for many years because it was so difficult to square its plain meaning with the instruction manual interpretation. Besides, I had no idea where to go next or what to do if it wasn’t an instruction manual. After being back at practice, practice, practice for a few more years, a teacher recommended studying the Satipatthana sutta as an instruction manual. I gave it a shot, but it was quite daunting. I found it hard enough to master the one or two techniques I’d been working so hard on for so many years. “Now I’m confronted with dozens more practices to do! Ai-yo! It can’t be done!”

  1. Are some rituals helpful in the development of panya, while others are not?

I think rituals can be very beneficial in a number of ways, and that that is why they are so popular at the wats, churches, synagogues, mosques, meditation centers, etc. There is nothing wrong with mantra chanting, yoga, homage to “Buddha rupas”, noting the rise and fall of the abdomen while sitting quietly, walking at a snail’s pace, etc. Some of these practices were popular long before Buddha, some appeared at the same time, and some appeared only recently. They all yield benefits. Did Buddha offer nothing more than a rehashing of the ancient and ever-popular theme of perform-this-ritual-perfectly-and- you-will-be-saved? The Satipatthana sutta is not just a peculiar variant on that theme. It is a remarkable discourse on how the path of liberation is via satipatthana, not ritual. Satipatthana can arise in the most unusual, unritual-like moments — like walking, eating, speaking, obeying the calls of nature, passing through a charnel ground, etc. Instead of being an exhortation to turn our every action into a ritual, Dhamma liberates us from the view that ritual is the means to salvation. Ritual can be quite edifying, but we must be on guard against false estimation of its function and purpose.

Dan: (Would it be clearer to state that it is not a path of “do this [ritual], do that [ritual] — the act of doing these prescribed [rituals] will lead to understanding”?) Reading the suttas with this understanding, it becomes clear that the Buddha did not prescribe practices for attaining wisdom.

Erik: Right, “reading the suttas with that understanding” will lead to you find validation for that preconceived view, since it’s possible to take any text and reinterpret it in light of one’s own preconceptions.

** Dan: Certainly, there is a strong tendency for people to wildly twist others’ words to match their own preconceptions! [Is this tendency papañca?] But what I’m saying is that if you can open your mind to a different interpretation, you may just find that your own preconceptions may be shattered. At the very least, there is benefit in looking at things from different perspectives.**

(I’m experimenting with notation: The “->” is for old stuff; the “**” is for new.)

Erik (on FM): Evam me suttam (Nava Sutta): “Even though this wish may occur to a monk who dwells without devoting himself to development — ‘O that my mind might be released from effluents through lack of clinging!’ — still his mind is not released from the effluents through lack of clinging. Why is that? From lack of developing, it should be said. Lack of developing what? The four frames of reference, the four right exertions, the four bases of power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, the noble eightfold path.”

** Dan: These are certainly to be developed, with the utmost urgency and total effort. However, they must be developed in the context of the eightfold path, central to which is right view (4NT); otherwise, the development doesn’t go in the right direction, doesn’t lead to liberation. As an example, consider effort/energy/endeavour which is one of the components of each: the right exertions, the bases of power, the five faculties, the five strengths, the seven factors for Awakening, the noble eightfold path. We read from the Dhammasangani (376):

Katamam tasmim samaye viriyindriyam hoti? “What at that time is the faculty of effort/energy/endeavor?” “That which is mental endeavor (viriyarhambo), riddance of lethargy, exerting harder and harder, endeavoring higher and higher, striving, painstaking zeal, utmost exertion, steadfastness, resoluteness, unfaltering endeavor, having sustained desire (chanda) to strive, not relinquishing the task, discharging the task well, effort (viriya) as the faculty of effort, power of effort, wrong effort — this at that time is the faculty of endeavor.”

Wrong effort?! Everything sounded pretty good up to that point! This is a description of the viriya cetasika arising with lobha-mula- cittani. It is interesting to read how it differs from the viriya cetasika arising with the sense-sphere kusala cittas: [Dhs. 13] “What at that time is the faculty of effort/energy/endeavor? That which is mental endeavor (viriyarhambo), riddance of lethargy, exerting harder and harder, endeavoring higher and higher, striving, painstaking zeal, utmost exertion, steadfastness, resoluteness, unfaltering endeavor, having sustained desire (chanda) to strive, not relinquishing the task, discharging the task well, effort (viriya) as the faculty of effort, power of effort, right effort — this at that time is the faculty of endeavor.”

The only difference is the word “right” in the second paragraph contrasting with the “wrong” of the first. It’s fine and dandy to toss around lists of the five this’s and the four that’s, but it is critical to be able to discern clearly when they are “right” or “wrong” as they arise. This hinges on development of discernment and understanding. Is this done via ritual? I don’t think so.**

Dan: Understanding does not arise from ritual or from a recipe book.

Erik: Just like a meal doesn’t arise from a recipe book. It takes
the appropriate ingredients, cooked according to the recipe, to wind
up with a satisfying meal.

Dan: For delighting the senses, there is no substitute for a good recipe, followed correctly! For nourishing the body, there is no need for recipe books. Do we eat for nourishment or delighting the senses?

Erik: Here’s one dictionary definition for “descriptive”: “Involving or characterized by description; serving to describe.”

Here’s one of the definitions for “prescriptive:”

“Making or giving injunctions, directions, laws, or rules.”

Based on the definitions of the terms, is “there is the case where a monk develops…” descriptive or prescriptive? Does it describe what already is (descriptive)? or does it prescribe (sorry, can’t avoid using the word here) a course of action to be taken?

Dan: Unclear. If you were to say “There is the case where a monk develops satipatthana by doing such and such,” I’d say it sounded prescriptive. But I don’t recall having seen that format in the suttas. I have seen something like: “There is the case where a monk discerns such and such when doing such and such.” This is


Dan: Ritual can be so comforting… It takes great confidence in the Buddha and his Dhamma to abandon clinging to ritual.

Erik: And views even more so than ritual.

Dan: Hmmm… I look at them as parts of the same parcel of fetters to be broken at precisely the same moment, and precisely because they are so closely related. Could you elaborate on what you mean?



Nyanatiloka has an entry for silabbata-paramasa at:


“sílabbata-parámása and -upádána: ‘attachment (or clinging) to mere rules and ritual’, is the 3rd of the 10 fetters (samyojana, q.v.), and one of the 4 kinds of clinging (upádána, q.v.). It disappears on attaining to Stream-entry (sotápatti). For definition, s. upádána.”

In an entry for ‘upadana’, silabbat is mentioned as part of a larger
entry at:


“They are classified as 4 upadanani or four Graspings viz. kam°, ditth°, silabbat°, attavad° or the graspings arising from sense– desires, speculation, belief in rites, belief in the soul–theory D II.58; III.230; M I.51, 66; S II.3; V 59; Dhs 1213; Ps I.129; II.46, 47; Vbh 375; Nett 48; Vism 569.”


In India with my guide, he went to the Ganges river every morning to do his ritual washing. I asked him about it and he said it is so that he is reminded to be good etc. ect.- “oh yes it doesn’t matter I can be reminded anytime, I don’t have to do it” but still he seemed attached to me. Or a muslim friend who says bowing to mecca five times a day reminds him of his duties and purifies his mind. And they will all say that they don’t have to do such rituals but then … The most striking was speaking to a Sth American woman at Bodh Gaya who seemed thrilled to hear about the six doors but then apologised because she had to cut our conversation short to do her few thousand prostrations for the day. Here is a quote from a popular book by Venerable Gunaratana,Mindfulness in Plain English:

“One of the most difficult things to learn is that mindfulness is not dependent on any emotional or mental state… You don’t need to move at a snail’s pace to be mindful. You don’t even need to be calm. You can be mindful while solving problems in intensive calculus. You can be mindful in the middle of a football scrimmage. You can even be mindful in the midst of a raging fury. Mental and physical activities are no bar to mindfulness. If you find your mind extremely active, then simply observe the nature and degree of that activity. It is just a part of the passing show within…”endquote

I find so few people can see this. Anger is just as good an object as pleasant feeling, and yet so many seem to think that vipassana is about sitting quietly trying to be calm. Funnily enough they might also feel relaxed sitting in a hot bath or going for a jog but they wouldn’t equate that with vipassana.

This path is profound and not quick, it is cira-kala-bhavana (long time development). I wrote last week: Majjima Nikaya 64, we read: “An untaught, ordinary person … abides with a mind enslaved by adherence to rules and observances [silabbata-paramasa- pariyutthitena cetasa viharati].” Unknowingly, almost all efforts we make in the spiritual realm are tied in with this fetter. It is good to know this, because this knowing will condition dhamma-vicaya(investigation of Dhamma/dhammas) with sammaviriya (right energy) to learn what the right way is. So we live almost blind, drowning in an flood of concepts -and hardly realise it. This is avijja, ignorance. It gets worse if while trying to rise up out of this flood we struggle with subtle lobha and subtle selfview. Already there is avijja and when it allies with lobha there is no way out. Unless that is, the lobha and subtle selfview are seen as they are; and if that happens these enemies become friends becuase they show the way, the way of insighting realities, elements, as they are.

How subtle is it? Anguttara Nikaya (Tika-Nipata No. 128):

Venerable Anuruddha said to Venerable Sariputta, “Friend Sariputta, with the divine eye that is purified, transcending human ken, I can see the thousandfold world-system. Firm is my energy, unremitting; my mindfulness is alert and unconfused; the body is tranquil and unperturbed; my mind is concentrated and one-pointed. And yet my mind is not freed from cankers, not freed from clinging.” “Friend Anuruddha,” said the Venerable Sariputta, “that you think thus of your divine eye, this is conceit in you. That you think thus of your firm energy, your alert mindfulness, your unperturbed body and your concentrated mind, this is restlessness in you. That you think of your mind not being freed from the cankers, this is worrying in you.”

And Venerable Anuruddha had genuine jhana, he had mastery of jhana.