Secular Practice with Images and Rituals

| April 30, 2018 | 4 Comments

Many of us have questions about including images or rituals in secular Buddhist practice. We may find the idea congenial, on the other hand we may have an aversion to traditional forms of practice, or indeed we may come from a different religious background altogether. In this video we will consider adding chants, bells, incense, images, and other similar trappings of more traditional practice to our repertoire.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (4)

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  1. m.miller says:

    I’ve watched the recent videos on rituals/images/clothing and certainly appreciate the approach of thinking about aversion and clinging in regards to our decisions whether to use these or not. I personally generally avoid all the “trappings” of traditional Buddhism in my own practice and part of that may be due to my aversion to organized, formalized, dogmatic religion. I recognize that issue and can work on that. However, another big thing that prevents me from using these rituals/images/clothing is not wanting to commit cultural appropriation – that is, taking and using cultural symbols without “permission”. In other words, I have not been trained in a Zen school, so don’t feel comfortable taking on the trappings of Zen practice. I have no training in Tibetan Buddhism, so have no business using Tibetan cultural symbols.

    As a person raised in a different religious tradition, I am already a bit uneasy in adopting Buddhist philosophies in the informal way I have. However, I’m trying my best to deeply consider those philosophies. I feel that if I were able to speak with the Buddha about my conceptualizations of his teachings, his response would be something akin to “Is that approach reducing suffering? If so, keep practicing and growing. If not, try something else. Either way, try to make as much progress as you can towards reducing clinging and thereby reducing unnecessary suffering. Maybe you get there in this lifetime – maybe not – just keep practicing.”

    I’m not familiar with any part of the Buddha’s teaching as represented in the Tipitaka as prescribing the use of bells, incense, or ritualistic bowing. It’s actually recorded that on his deathbed the Buddha said, “Those who made offerings of flowers, scents and incense to me are not really paying me homage. Only those who practice the Dhamma are the ones who truly pay homage to me” (Dhammapada Verse 364). Given that, I feel comfortable not practicing the ritualistic bowing, burning of incense, or clothing that are likely more cultural constructs than anything else. If I ever go to a shrine and someone invites me to bow in the way they do, I will likely take them up on their offer as a sign of respect but I doubt I will make it a normal part of my personal practice.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      I know the definition of cultural appropriation morphs depending on who is using it. In my understanding, however, what characterizes CA is using a cultural symbol without regard or respect for its cultural context. So having a Buddha image where you practice is OK — using one as an alternative garden gnome is not. Wearing a rakusu while meditating — ok. Wearing it as a fashion statement, not. Many of the gowns at the recent Met Gala were cultural appropriation of the most disturbing kind, even though many of those participating were of European descent. But if I don’t think we can say that you can never wear, eat, or practice something that didn’t arise in your culture — how impoverished our world would be! Buddhism was brought to the West by Asian teachers, and they did so in a form they thought Westerners would be attracted to. At some point, we have to accept that Japanese culture is my birthright for the same reason American culture is the birthright of a Japanese person — because we are all human, and what unites us as human is far more fundamental and important than what differentiates us, as important as that may be.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      I’ll second what Mark says here, our world would be immeasurably impoverished without cultural borrowings. Indeed, such borrowings have always existed throughout history and they are what bring us together as people. The only problem I see with cultural appropriation is when it is done without true appreciation, to denigrate or satirize the other. If it is done with a sincere appreciation of the form, even without much deep understanding, I personally don’t see a problem.

      That said, there is certainly no need to borrow something just to borrow it, or to feel we “have” to put on some pretense of ritual behavior in order to practice. If it doesn’t feel right, look elsewhere.

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I’ll third what Mark and Doug have said about cultural appropriation. I think one test (though not definitive)is whether the group referenced by the alleged appropriation take genuine offense, feel genuinely disrespected. Much more than this might force me to stop wearing pants, which were originally an Iranian fashion.

    Intention, as Mark suggests, is clearly important. What’s required is being mindful about the effects of borrowing things from other cultures. This is not a trite appeal to mindfulness. It’s too easy to unintentionally offend, as perhaps The Simpsons did by creating an Indo-American stereotype, but not every stereotype is necessarily objectionable. I’m of Scottish heritage, but not offended when accused of stinginess. On the other hand, I think the verbs derived from jew and gypsy are offensive. Context and history make all the difference.

    Satirizing cultural or racial groups is almost always objectionable, but even here there may be exceptions. For example I reserve the right to satirize fundamentalist creationists (tough not by appropriating their beliefs!), though I think that I should be careful doing so, to be sure I’m just taking a cheap shot that will do as much harm as good.

    However, I have trouble with the notion of appropriation of ideas. Ideas have always cross-bred and cross-fertilized. I don’t think Gotama would have accused a non-Indian auditor of cultural appropriation. I’m at least not entirely convinced that we’d have been better off if St. Paul hadn’t encouraged Greeks and Romans to appropriate Christianity, and I’m certainly not upset that western notions of liberal democracy have been appropriated by some (too few perhaps) others.

    Not always easy to draw lines, for sure.

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