There is a question about rituals
that comes up from time to time: "Why do we need to
practice any rituals at all? Aren't rituals all about
dogma? And isn't dogma the opposite of the Tao, which is
all about freedom?"
This is an idea that makes sense to those caught in the
trap of kong tan (empty talk), but fails the reality
check. If we really don't need rituals, then what about
weddings and funerals? Do these rituals not have a
special power in and of themselves? Why is it that every
group of people throughout history has its own highly
specific customs for such special occasions?
Those who speak against rituals may not be aware that
they themselves practice small, personal rituals as they
go about their daily activities. The truth is that
rituals have their integral place in the human psyche.
We can say that it is the way of human beings to have
rituals. Rituals are an inextricable part of the human
experience, part of the Tao of humanity.
It is a misconception to say that the Tao is all about
freedom. Freedom and discipline are two sides of the
same coin. They complement each other in yin-and-yang
interactions and dynamics. The Tao is about the
totality, not just one side of it.
It is possible to practice discipline to excess, which
the principle of moderation informs us is at odds with
the Tao. Discipline by itself is a neutral quantity. It
represents the middle road between imposing impossible
demands on yourself and letting yourself do whatever
your whims dictate. Therefore, discipline is completely
congruent with the principle of moderation, and thus the
It is a general rule in the world that your achievements
will usually correspond to the extent to which you
impose discipline on yourself, up to but not exceeding
the optimum point. The same is true in cultivation.
Discipline leads to spiritual progress, which in turn
leads to improvements in every aspect of life. This is
why we regard rituals as being very important - they are
a reliable, proven way of practicing consistent
A ritual of the Tao is a form of moving meditation. This
is unlike sitting mediation, where the body is kept as
still as possible. In the Tao, we recognize that
everything in the world is constantly changing, and yet
it is still possible to maintain peace of mind no matter
what is happening around us. The design of the ritual
reflects this wisdom. The body may go through continuous
movements, but the mind settles down, like muddy water
gradually becoming clear. This allows us to access a
fundamental state of tranquility and clarity - a state
that is unaffected by any chaotic external conditions.
The rituals of the Tao are not transactions with deities
where you ask for blessings, health, prosperity or
protection in exchange for promises of good behavior on
your part. Those who cultivate correctly will
automatically enjoy such benefits as a natural
consequence of cultivation. Therefore, in rituals we do
not request the good things in life. Instead, we connect
with a profound sense of appreciation for all the good
things that have already come into our lives. When we do
that, the power of gratitude elevates us to an entirely
new level of spirituality.
Rituals of the Tao are also not a form of therapy where
you confess your sins and beg for forgiveness. This does
not mean we disregard the bad things we have done.
Rituals are a time for deep contemplation when we
reflect upon the past in order to learn from it. What
has occurred? What exactly did I do? Have I been able to
follow the Tao in both actions and words? Have I done
others wrong? What can I do differently, or better?
The divine beings in a Tao ritual play an important role
in this process of reflection. They represent virtues we
can cultivate and they set examples for us to follow. As
we pay respects to each deity, we are also asking
ourselves specific questions: Have I acted toward others
honorably, as Guan Gong would? Have I treated people
with the generosity of the Maitreya Buddha? Have I been
able to come to someone's rescue, mirroring the great
compassion of Guan Yin Bodhisattva?
In addition to reviewing the past, we also need to focus
on the present when we practice rituals. By centering
ourselves, we can bring our fragmented mind back
together into a coherent whole. We can then direct our
attention to the here and now. We notice not only what
is happening at this very moment, but also the goodness,
power and joy inherent in it. When we are completely
present in this manner, we can bring ourselves into
alignment with the Tao.
Finally, rituals are a crucial practice in humility. We
can all agree that being humble is a defining
characteristic of a great cultivator. We often talk
about the danger of arrogance and the necessity of
managing the ego. We pay much lip service to the virtue
of humility, and yet the questions still remain: Can we
actually be humble? Can our actions match our words?
A ritual can be seen as a microcosm of life. It's a
practical, real-world application of the Tao. It
represents the point where the rubber meets the road.
What happens to your ideal of humility when you have to
actually put it into action? When it comes right down to
it, are you capable of lowering yourself, or will your
ego prevent you from doing so? Are you able to recognize
not just your specialness, but also your insignificance?
Rituals are a critical test for every cultivator of
spirituality. Those who consider themselves
knowledgeable in the Tao, and yet look down on rituals -
they don't really know much about the Tao at all. They
are destined to fail this critical test. How about you?
Can you pass this test with flying colors?