“Since prehistoric times, ritual has been perhaps the most important human activity. Throughout the world there has existed an ancient and ongoing tradition of sacred action performed with the aim of improving not only our condition in the universe, but the condition of the universe itself.”
– David Frawley
“The power of language remains, first and foremost, a way of singing oneself into contact with others and the cosmos – a way of bridging the silence between oneself and another person, or a startled black bear, or the crescent moon soaring like a billowed sail above the roof. Whether sounded on the tongue, printed on the page, or shimmering on the screen, language’s primary gift is not to re-present the world around us, but to call ourselves into the vital presence of that world – and into deep and attentive presence with one another.”
– David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous
“The chanting we performed was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before and it was one of the most wonderful and enlightening experiences I’ve ever experienced. While we were chanting I focused hard on being in the moment and found that I wasn’t distracted at all and my mind was focused clearly and only on the music that surrounded me. Everyone around me and distracting thoughts seemed to melt/seep away . . . . My body felt like it was shaking in the inside, my heart beat was racing, and my body immediately shut together . . . . I just wanted to thank you for bringing us on this experience and I felt that it was very important and I’m so happy that I came. Because of this experience, in the future, I would love to learn more about beliefs and understandings of the soul, and the body/spirituality and practices like meditation, and what we did today.”
– Grade 9 student after a visit to a Hari Krishna temple
Five years ago when I finished my dissertation on social conscience education, there was this undeniable tug “to the right,” to borrow Jill Bollte Taylor‘s phrase from her famous TED talk. Taylor describes how her literal and figurative “stroke of insight” helped her to understand that in our modern left-brained culture of logic, cause and effect, and analysis, the greatest joys of life are oftentimes missed, for they come not from standing at some critical distance from reality, but participating in its lived moment. Even though the spotlight of my research was on holistic transformation, the act of writing itself was primarily an exercise in rationality. There was a conscious desire, as I reached the end of the writing process, to search for joy, beauty, and equanimity beyond discursive thought. Step to the right, Taylor advises.
Yet this stepping to the right seems to be a much idealized but rarely experienced reality. Where in modern life do we even glimpse this possibility? The ancients knew of this drift towards disorder as well, and their main solution was ritual, collective actions that seek to re-shape, like a potter with clay, the fragmentation of life into a more integral whole. Visiting the Buddhist Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan with a group of 14 students this past summer, I had a series of experiences that helped me to understand the power of ritual to create such coherence.
Following a day of lectures on Bhutan’s vision for Gross National Happiness as well as its Buddhist faith, our class was invited to join university students from the Institute of Culture and Language in Trongsa in a large temple on the school grounds. Our bus emptied us in front of a massive, ornate, and apparently newly constructed Buddhist temple. Entering onto a thick carpet, we were greeted by the enchanting presence of 21 Green Taras on a mural to the far left. On the opposite end stood a simple drum and microphone with a group of 60 students facing each other in a line. We were asked to join them, and I encouraged our students to scatter ourselves among their university counterparts. Yet I feared that our students, after a long day of sitting and listening to lectures, might soon tire of sitting on the floor next to strangers who would chant monotonously in a foreign tongue.
And so it began – one student chanting in the mike along with another beating the drum. Instantly I learned something that had escaped my understanding as a religion teacher up to this point. The surround sound and vibration of these racing Tibetan sutras was palpable. It was not like a field of energy; rather, it was a field of energy, requiring no fervent faith or active imagination.To our ears, these were unintelligible Buddhist sutras, yet in some other, non-linguistic way they spoke coherently on various physical, psychic, and energetic levels. One simply experienced a saturation of being that aligned the self with moral, natural and social harmonies.
One of my students, Miyona (in the red jacket), also sensed the power of the experience, commenting in her final essay about the importance of this moment in making sense of the whole course, “In Bhutan, when I got out of my head and into my mind and body, the general atmosphere helped me feel what it really meant to be a part of the world. It made me realize that analyzing and understanding is only part of solving the problem, but you must also feel and it needs to be understood at a deeper level within you. The chanting at the ILCS took me to this deeper level where I really felt like a part of something larger. I felt connected and interdependent on everything else around me and everything around me was connected and interdependent on me.”
Twenty-five minutes later, and to my disappointment, the chanting came to an end. We broke into small groups with students from vastly different cultures and upbringings and easily shared about our lives and interests. What remained for me in the weeks and months since, however, was how easily we were brought into sympathetic resonance with ancient ritual action.
I finally had experienced what Cynthia Bourgeault writes in The Wisdom Way of Knowing:
“Chanting is at the heart of all sacred traditions worldwide, and for very good reasons. What meditation accomplishes in silence, chanting accomplishes in sound: it wakes up the emotional center and sets it vibrating to the frequency of love and adoration while feeding the body with that mysterious higher “being food” of divine life. Sacred chanting is an extremely powerful way of awakening and purifying the heart because it allows us to experience, beyond the distortions of our own personal passions, the power and profundity of the divine passion itself.”
Indeed, my heart did feel alive, awake, energized, as if we had suddenly stepped into an invisible, ever-present, and always available rushing stream. How can we incorporate this collective chanting of sacred words and enable modern students to experience such fullness? Perhaps stepping to the right through chanting could provide some respite from modernity’s alienation.
Our group was staying in the high central Bhutanese valley of Phobjikha, reputed to be the most beautiful in the country and famed for its migrating black cranes in winter. Following a walk through of the stately 17th century Gangteng Gomba monastery on a peak overlooking the valley, we began a leisurely descent along a trail that alternated between grassy openings and verdant forest walks along a stream. Sensing the moment, I gathered the class in a circle and asked them to practice a mountain meditation, drawing upon Jon Kabat-Zinn’s reflection, “Picture the most beautiful mountain you know of or can imagine, one whose form speaks personally to you. As you focus on the image or the feeling of the mountain in your mind’s eye, notice its overall shape, the lofty peak, the base rooted in the rock of the earth’s crust, the steep or gently sloping sides . . . . Invite yourself to become a breathing mountain, unwavering in your stillness, completely what you are – beyond words and thought, a centered, rooted, unmoving presence” (136-137). Completing our meditation, we took a group picture in the playful late afternoon dance of sun and clouds.
Walking out from the forest onto a wide, undulating marshy plain, I noticed for the first time the wind-blown, towering white cumulus clouds ringing the valley so characteristic of Tibetan Buddhist paintings. It was to be a short walk across this idyllic green to a local temple; however, the water-logged sod turned a leisurely stroll into a two-hour hike that required a retreat to a higher forested trail.
Late afternoon sunshine turned to dusk as we entered a 13th century local temple called Kweywang Monastery in the middle of a small Bhutanese village nestled on the edge of the plain. Moving from the brilliant glory of a Himalayan afternoon to the darkened tenderness of Kweywang heightened my anticipation of the night’s event. Crossing the temple threshold, I realized the singularity of the moment: in the middle of the Himalayas, a 12-hour drive along windy roads from the only capital in the world without a stoplight, participating in a sacred vestment ceremony with a local Bhutanese priest and a group of ten teenaged monks. We took turns bowing to the Buddha three times and then in the direction of a smiling, generously-mannered middle-aged monk who presided over the ceremony. We were then ushered to the floor or to seats on the right side of the hall opposite of the monks stationed in front of their instruments.
To begin, all of us were served more than one round of sweet milk tea and various rice snacks, which were especially welcome after our longer-than-expected hike from Gangteng. Rituals continued with lighting of butter lamps, sprinkling of holy water, and blessing of vestments. Then the priest gave the signal, and the young monks began to play their instruments . . . and in that first moment of horns and drums across a vibratory spectrum, I gained something new. I can only describe this brief, but powerful experience in this way: in some manner my internal bodily organs seemed to jump to attention. The modernist prejudice that I had subconsciously held – that quaint Tibetan music forms would die out once they discovered the exquisite beauty of the violin or piano – were dispensed with immediately, as I literally felt in my body the physical sensation of the different instruments. It was not the ear so much as the torso that recorded the powerful vibrations from this small band of boys, which, in their urgent call spoke: awake to the sacredness of this time and space! Awake!
Then an adult and practicing Buddhist in our group, Luby, and I were motioned to come forward to complete the purpose of the evening’s service. We picked up white and saffron orange silk raiments that had been consecrated at the altar and carried them to the three stone buddhas that sat regally, three times our size, in the most sacred part of the temple. We handed over the fabrics to a monk standing on the statues who removed the old pieces and clothed the statues with newly sanctified garments. Luby and I stood between the “congregation” and these ancient Buddhas, having participated in providing clothing for this community’s most holy objects. What had we done to deserve such an honored intermediary role? No, the power of ritual blindly and gracefully declared us worthy, as if with a wink, for we knew the power was received by us rather than given. We were both ennobled and humbled to be guest conduits in a centuries-old ceremony.
Returning towards the capital of Thimbu for our last two nights of our trip, we approached the top of a mountain overlooking a river valley. The view was commanding. A steep decline into a fertile valley ending in a river on one side of the hill was balanced by a gently sliding slope into another branch of the river on the left. An imposing, greyish-white Nepali style pagoda – with the characteristic beguiling eyes at the top – loomed at the very top of the hillock, a consistent wind extending Tibetan prayer flags back towards the central Kuan Yin temple shrine.
Trailing behind the students, Luby and I both sensed the specialness of the nunnery. Approaching the Kuan Yin temple grounds with raw grey-white clouds not far from this mountain peak, we suddenly became aware of a sharp feminine voice piercing the breeze with Buddhist chanting. Having been to our fair share of Buddhist temples in Asia, we enjoyed the heartfelt song, which lent an air of sacredness to the already charged atmosphere. Curious, I looked around for the sound system, yet as we walked closer to the temple, the chanting grew. Following the sound, I approached a hedge, and behind it was a falling grassy slope with a full-folliaged tree near the top. Peering through the brush, I discovered the origin of the chants: a novice nun dressed in red swathes of robing sitting beneath the tree, belting out sutras from ancient parchments resting on a narrow wooden stand. Never again would piped in music at a temple provide anything but a modicum of this young nun’s solemnity, boldness, and joy. In the middle of powerful elemental images – wind, mountain, cloud, flag, pagoda, and eyes – a young woman’s chanting animated this holy hill with nobility. All belonged and contributed, creating a fullness in the moment.
These three experiences were without a doubt the highlight of my Bhutan trip, and they have prompted me to consider anew the power of ritual. Dr. David Frawley (also known as Vamadeva), a Western-born Hindu scholar, reflects on the role of ritual in maintaining personal and social well-being:
“One of the great problems in the modern world is that we no longer have spiritually meaningful collective rituals. Our collective rituals have become negative rituals of drama and sensation, sex and violence, or political action aimed at defeating an enemy. Our mass media generally projects a negative psychic field because it is the product of inorganic forces and of commercial and political motivations. TV, radio, and other media devices also emit vibrations that tend to lower the energy of our psychic field. Unless we counter these influences with positive rituals, the state of the world cannot improve.*
Rituals are of special importance for young people, who need not only social bonding but bonding with the world of nature and spiritual reality in order to discover who they really are. Otherwise, young people feel alienated and out of harmony with life. Lack of meaningful ritual is surely a factor in the high rate of crime, depression, and suicide among the young.
To restore the science of ritual is thus a spiritual and psychological endeavor of the highest order. It is one of the challenges of the coming millennia. Ritual creates the structure that sustains our personal and collective lives.”
Is it any wonder, as Frawley argues, that young people, without community ritual and who are thrust into a high stakes educational culture, slip into anxiety and even depression? Certainly my experience in Bhutan supports Frawley’s beliefs about the power of ritual. Even as a visitor of another culture and religion, I was warmly welcomed into powerful Buddhist rites that left their energetic imprint upon me. The feeling was one of unmerited grace, belonging and relatedness to community and cosmos, and a generous sense of fullness.
Five years ago when I completed my dissertation on social conscience, the key word in my vocabulary was “justice,” indicative of the binary in which I viewed the world – seeing the horizontal flow of events in time, and calling out those blatant injustices through my teaching and my service work. Over the last five years in my own step to the right, my attention has turned towards including the sacred vertical dimension. This has led me to a fascination with ritual knowledge, the ancient technology of transporting the soul to those things of greatest ultimate value.
Coming to Bhutan gave me a chance to experience another culture’s practice of ritual. While I have stepped to the right through own my practice of Centering Prayer, my unambiguous experiences in Bhutan challenge me to consider how to bring appropriate ritual, in a multicultural and generally secular school culture, to students who, as Frawley rightly points out, “feel alienated and out of harmony with life.” In order to create truly balanced students who can create both a world of justice and harmony, we need to find ritual action that graces students with an abiding sense of relatedness in a living cosmos.
Abrams, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Vintage.
Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Frawley, D. “The culture of ritual and the quest for enlightenment.” Accessed October 1, 2015 at http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-AN/an141159.pdf
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hatchette.
Taylor, J. B. (2008). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. New York: Viking.
* Frawley adds: [Religious] ritual has been rejected by the modern mind as irrational, superstitious, or primitive . . . . However, twentieth century science has revealed a universe consisting of interrelated energy fields and transcending ordinary time/space limitations. This is a world view that runs counter to ordinary sensory ideas of physical reality, but is not so different from the ritualistic view of a universe as an organic intelligence in which human beings play an integral part and purpose.”
I wrote another blog entry about meeting a Bhutanese monk in my family’s trip to the country in 2014.