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Meditation and ritual in Zen Buddhism
André van der Braak
As the transmission of Buddhism to the West matures, it becomes possible to differentiate
more clearly between the various Buddhist traditions in their historical development, and
come to a cross-cultural hermeneutical understanding of them that takes into account local
and historical conditions and contexts. Such an understanding is not only sensitive to the
differences between past historical manifestations of Asian Buddhist traditions, but also to the
differences between Asian and Western connotations of certain key terms within those
In an earlier publication I investigated the genealogy of the term “enlightenment” in its
Asian and Western contexts.1 Now I want to extend this investigation to the notion of
meditation practice and its relationship to ritual in the Buddhist Zen tradition.2 I want to show
how early Buddhist soteriology, as documented in the Pali Canon, with its emphasis on
meditation as an efficacious means to the end of enlightenment, was reconceptualized when
Buddhism moved from India into China, from China into Japan, and from Japan into the
Zen as an anti-ritual meditation tradition
Whereas nineteenth-century Western thinkers were fascinated with early Buddhism and
considered Mahayana Buddhism to be a later degeneration and vulgarization of the Buddhist
teachings, in the beginning of the twentieth century the Zen Buddhist tradition was presented
to the West, especially through the writings of the Japanese scholar D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966).
Suzuki did much to rehabilitate Mahayana Buddhism and especially Zen. In his writings, he
cast Zen as an East Asian and particularly Japanese form of philosophy, psychology,
aesthetics, or direct mystical experience – anything but a religion encumbered by unscientific
beliefs and nonsensical rituals.
Suzuki claimed that Zen was, more than any other form of Buddhism, all about
meditation rather than ritual, and therefore perfectly relevant to the modern age.3 Zen
meditation offered direct access to the mystical kernel of all religions, without the detour of
culture-specific ritual. Suzuki and other Zen apologists to the West, such as the philosopher
Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) and other members of the Kyoto School, appropriated William
James’s notion of “pure experience”, and sided with the Western phenomenological tradition
in its critique of Cartesianism. Zen became popular in the West as a way to let go of Cartesian
thinking and realize a direct, spiritual insight into reality: satori or enlightenment.
However, scholars now appreciate that this view of Zen is historically misleading. In a
critical article, the American Zen scholar Griffith Foulk notes how such a description of an
“idealized” Zen is at odds with what has always been practiced, and still is being practiced, in
Japan and China. Westerners interested in Zen are often attracted to meditation practice in
order to realize enlightenment, but are uncomfortable with the “rituals” of offerings, prayers
and prostrations made before images on altars. In Japan, however, serious meditation practice
is not that common. It mainly occurs in the special Zen training monasteries (sōdō). And what
is often overseen, Foulk notes, is that the primary function of such training monasteries is to
prepare the monks for a career as specialist in mortuary rituals.4 Moreover, there are only
1 van der Braak 2008.
2 The term “Zen” throughout this article includes both the Chinese Buddhist Chan school and the Japanese Zen
tradition (Zen is the Japanese transliteration of Chan).
3 The Zen school literally means “the meditation school”, zen being the Japanese form of the Chinese character
chan, which is a transliteration of the Sanskrit term dhyana, meditation.
4 Foulk 2008 38.
about sixty Zen training monasteries in Japan and more than twenty-one thousand ordinary
The reason that Zen has been presented to the West as an anti-ritual meditation
tradition was that it was mediated through sectarian Japanese (Rinzai) Zen scholars.5 As Foulk
points out, when Japan opened up to Western influences early in the Meiji era (1868-1912),
Buddhism came under attack for its superstitious beliefs and unscientific views of the world,
and was even in danger of being entirely eradicated. This led to the need for modernization,
i.e., bringing Buddhism into accord with Western science and philosophy. Leaders of the Zen
tradition attempted to rationalize their faith and practice, and dissociate it from merely
popular Buddhist beliefs.
Japanese Zen historians (often the sons of Zen parish priests) conceived the idea that
the spiritual geniuses of the “golden age” of Zen in the Chinese Tang dynasty (618-907) had
been iconoclastic reformers who rejected all forms of ritual. They claimed that Zen had
deteriorated in China afterwards, and had disappeared altogether in the Qing dynasty (1644-
1912). Only in Japan, the true spirit of Zen, with its emphasis on meditation, had managed to
survive. In order to be in line with Western sensibilities, meditation practice was presented as
leading up to the inner subjective experience of enlightenment, conceived as a going beyond a
limited Cartesian subject-object relationship.
The realization that the presentation of Zen as an anti-ritual meditation tradition has
little to do with the actual situation “on the ground” in Japan and China, now and in the past,
has led to an impasse in Zen studies, and has called for a re-evaluation of the place in Zen of
such notions as meditation, ritual and enlightenment. Steven Heine has distinguished two
factions within the contemporary scholarly debate on Zen. One the one hand, there are
traditionalists, who continue to articulate and reinforce a view on Zen that Heine calls “the
traditional Zen narrative”. They argue that the essence of Zen is an ineffable enlightenment
experience that transcends contingent institutional and ritual forms. Such an experience can
only be realized by means of a “special transmission outside the teachings” (jiaowai
biechuan), undertaken “without relying on words and letters” (buli wenzi). On the other hand,
Zen scholars who engage in historical and cultural criticism claim that the iconoclastic notion
of Zen enlightenment has traditionally functioned as a rhetorical tool, used by religious
factions in order to maintain institutional legitimacy and power.6
The recently published collection of essays Zen Ritual makes a start in correcting the
neglect of the study of ritual in the Zen tradition.7 But the problem lies even deeper. Even to
state that Zen attaches great importance not only to meditation practice but also to ritual can
be a misleading way of framing it. The very distinction between meditation and ritual is a
Western one, and fundamentally alien to the East-Asian tradition. As Foulk notes:
The East Asian Buddhist tradition itself has no words for discriminating what Westerners
are apt to call “ritual” as opposed to “practice”. The Japanese term that comes closest in
semantic range to “ritual” is gyōji, which I translate as “observances”, but that term
encompasses a very broad range of activities that Zen clergy engage in, some of which
we might prefer to call “ceremonies”, “procedures”, etiquette”, “training”, “study”,
“meditation”, “work”, or the “ritual sacralization of everyday activities” (such as eating,
sleeping, and bathing).8
Both the supporters of the traditional Zen narrative, with its emphasis on meditation
and enlightenment, and the supporters of historical and cultural criticism with their emphasis
on ritual and power politics, still operate within the very Western distinction of meditation and
5 For more on how Zen was presented through this lens, see Welter 2008.
6 Heine 2008; See also van der Braak 2008.
7 Heine and Wright 2008.
8 Foulk 2008 23f.
ritual. According to Zen scholar Robert Sharf, “both positions remain wedded to the very
distinctions they attempt to resolve – the dichotomies of inner versus outer, subjective versus
objective, form versus content”.9 Both strands of Zen thought are still caught in Western
oppositions. The traditional Zen narrative privileges inner meditative experience over outer
ritual. Historical and cultural criticism reduces accounts of inner experience to historical,
cultural and political factors.10 A third approach is therefore necessary, that re-examines our
notions not only of Zen, but also of meditation, ritual and enlightenment.
As Heidegger and Gadamer have pointed out, our understanding of a tradition always
progresses according to a hermeneutic circle: a better understanding of the horizon of a
tradition can lead to a more sophisticated interpretation of its texts; only the ever-expanding
totality of known texts that a tradition comprises can constitute that larger horizon.11 Through
a greater awareness of the hermeneutic complexities involved in encountering a Buddhist
tradition that has traveled across four cultural traditions, each with their own horizons, we can
become more aware of our own preconceptions, and come to a more sophisticated
interpretation of Zen texts. Let us therefore examine some aspects of the horizons of these
traditions, starting with some preconceptions in Western modernity that have influenced the
reception of Zen, and followed by aspects of Indian and Chinese horizons that have effected
Buddhist ideas about meditation and ritual.
The opposition of meditation and ritual
The Western dichotomy between meditation and ritual corresponds to other Cartesian
dichotomies, such as inner/outer, subjective/objective, and mind/body. In the West, meditation
is seen as a spiritual practice aimed at an inner spiritual transformation, culminating in a
religious experience of enlightenment that allows the individual to transcend the prevailing
social norms and attitudes. As Sharf points out, such a view of meditation makes it appear to
be the very antithesis of ritual, which is often seen as precisely instilling those very same
prevailing social norms and attitudes by means of outward scripted and stylized activity.12 As
Sharf puts it:
Some scholars have argued that ritual is inherently conservative; it serves to maintain
legitimize, and reproduce the dominant social and political order by reference to an
unchanging and/or transcendent source […]. In other words, ritual legitimizes local
norms and values by casting them as an integral part of the natural order of things.13
In the West, ritual has long been seen as a research topic of not much interest, but
since the 1970s, the field of ritual studies has greatly developed.14 Although one usually
recognizes a ritual when one sees it, it is hard to define what counts as a ritual and what not.
According to sociologist Emile Durkheim, a ritual is the communal means through which a
culture’s beliefs and ideals are communicated to individual members of the society. However,
to some scholars, such an approach places too much emphasis on cognition. They argue that
ritual does much more than communicate beliefs and ideals. It causes its participants to
perceive the world and understand themselves through the patterns impressed upon them by
the repeated action of ritual on their body and mind. A ritual effects fundamental change in a
person’s perception of self and world, primarily through its capacity to mold not so much the
mind but the body.
9 Sharf 2005 261.
10 In an earlier article, I have addressed this very problematic from a philosophical hermeneutic point of view
(van der Braak 2008).
11 See Garfield 2002 258.
12 Sharf 2005 260.
13 Ibid. 248.
14 See especially Bell 1997.
Some contemporary scholars have therefore advocated a performative approach to
ritual: a ritual is a performance that has a transformative effect on those that practice it. The
participants in the ritual are literally “attuned”. According to this approach, the question to ask
of a ritual is not so much “what does it mean?” but “how do the participants come to do what
they do?” The communicative and cognitive approach looks for the meaning of a ritual, and in
this way treats ritual as a text that is in need of interpretation. The performative approach
treats ritual more like music. To approach ritual as a text is like reducing music to its score, or
to reduce a territory to its map. Whereas the communicative interpretation emphasizes the
cognitive aspect of rituals, the performative interpretation focuses more on the aspect of
action: the social institutions and practical training through which ritual mastery is acquired.
Sharf notes however that, whereas the performative approach aims to overcome the
limitations of Western enlightenment thought, it still remains mired in it:
The so-called performative approaches to ritual offered to date, despite the avowed
intentions of their proponents, turn out to be predicated on the very dichotomies they
have tried to avoid: distinctions between thought and action, the subjective and the
objective, private and public, and inner and outer.15
In both approaches to ritual it would still be strictly separated from meditation,
maintaining the dichotomy between meditation (positively valued as an “inner”
transformative activity) and ritual (negatively valued as an “outer” empty shell). This article, a
prolegomenon for further research, aims to question this dichotomy through a genealogical
approach. We will therefore trace the transmission of Indian Buddhism to China, a complex
process that reveals important differences between Indian and Chinese cosmologies and
Indian Buddhist soteriology
In early Indian Buddhist soteriology, the notions of karma and rebirth play a crucial role. The
moral law of karma, intentional action, is a matter of cause and effect. All of one’s actions,
even one’s thoughts and intentions, have a causal effect on future life circumstances. Good
karma brings good effects for the doer, bad karma bad effects. These effects are explained by
analogy to agriculture. One sows a seed, and through a complex process of growth a plant
pops up which is harvested. In the same way, an intentional act leads to its fruit. The time
between the act and its fruit is unpredictable however. Either one’s actions bring one closer to
nirvana, or they entangle one further in samsara.
According to Richard Gombrich, the Buddha made belief in the law of karma the first
step of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to nirvana. The first step is called right view (sammā
ditthi), which Gombrich claims, refers to accepting the tenet of karma.16 The Buddha called
himself a kammavādin, someone who deals with karma and its transformation through
discourse and dialogue. Meditation practice was an effective means to attain enlightenment
because it was a technique to counteract karmic fruits from past actions. The right intention is
crucial in this process. Right intention is the second step of the Buddhist Eightfold Path, and
serves as a fundamental prerequisite for transformation in Indian Buddhism.17
The Indian Buddhist tradition stresses meditation practice over ritual. Gombrich
claims that, other than in the Vedic tradition where rituals serve to purify human beings of
impurities, in early Indian Buddhist thought ritual per se is considered soteriologically
15 Sharf 2005 252f.
16 Gombrich 2009 27.
17 Analogously, in the Western philosophical and spiritual tradition it is the notion of metanoia, a conversion or
fundamental change of heart, that is considered essential for attaining spiritual transformation.
irrelevant.18 He even, controversially, goes as far as to claim that “the Buddha declared ritual
to be useless or worse”.19 The most general word for meditation in Indian Buddhism is
bhāvanā, mental development. In the texts of the Buddhist Pali Canon, often two kinds are
distinguished: vipassanā, which leads to insight and awareness (sati), and samatha, which
leads to concentration (samadhi). The latter two are the seventh and eight components of the
Eightfold Path. Meditation practice is soteriologically effective in that it helps to burn up the
impurities (klesā) that obstruct clear seeing and liberation.
Regardless of what the texts of the Pali Canon might say, however, Indian Buddhism
“on the ground” was permeated with all kinds of ritual practices. Different schools of Chinese
Buddhism inherited these practices, and adapted them to fit the structures of Chinese
Chinese cosmology and self-cultivation
The transmission of Buddhism from India to China is a very complex process that took place
over many centuries. As research continues, it becomes apparent that conventional narratives,
such as a “Buddhist conquest of China” fall short of doing justice to the reciprocity of this
process.20 Buddhism not only changed Chinese culture when it was assimilated, it was also
changed by its indigenous values and soteriological models. Indian Buddhist notions of
meditation as soteriologically effective merged with Chinese cosmological notions, and with
Chinese notions of self-cultivation.
The Chinese cosmos is conceived as an ordered and patterned organic whole. And
whereas there seems to be an apparent congruity between Chinese and Indo-European
cosmology, there is an important difference. The Chinese cosmos is a natural process of
change and multiplicity. The universe is in a state of continual motion and flux, according to
the cyclic interactions of the five phases (wuxing) and the forces or vital energy (xi) of yin and
yang. Humans do not stand apart from this natural order but are part and parcel of it.
Everything moves to the beat of the same cosmic drummer. This organic unity is held together
not by invariant laws of nature, but by something called sympathetic resonance, or stimulus-
response (ganying).21 Just like a vibrating tuning fork sets the strings of a guitar in
sympathetic motion, and vice versa, all things in the world continually respond to each other,
even if there is no external contact. Localized phenomena affect the state of the whole, and the
state of the whole is reflected in local phenomena. They share a space of sympathetic
resonance in which all things are intimately entangled.22
In Chinese thought, ritual is about attuning oneself to the ever-changing cosmos that
one is a part of. For example, the potency of rain making rituals was understood in terms of
resonance between things of like kind.23 And the very need for rain making rituals was
explained by the notion that drought, like floods and other natural disasters, was a
consequence of the emperor’s moral failings.24 The emperor needed to maintain the state of
cosmic harmony by being virtuous, which meant to exhibit correct moral conduct and ritual
behavior. Virtue consisted in being literally in tune with the universe.25 One became virtuous
18 Gombrich 2009 34.
19 Ibid. 200.
20 See Sharf 2002 4-12.
21 See Le Blanc 1994 60: “Gan has as its semantic field the notion of affect, feeling, stimulus and may
syntactically function as a verb (to be affected, to be stimulated), a substantive (affect, stimulus), and adverb
(affectively, feelingly), or an adjective (affective, stimulating). […] The meaning of ying focuses upon the idea
of response, reaction, reflex, effect.”
22 Sharf 2002 82-84.
23 Ibid. 87.
24 Ibid. 88.
25 Ibid. 91.
by means of a practice of self-cultivation, which resulted in attaining perfect resonance
between oneself and others, oneself and nature, oneself and the cosmos.
Confucian virtue ethics emphasized personal self-cultivation by means of studying the
classics. For Confucius, ritual conduct (li) offers the opportunity to directly embody the
wisdom of the ancestors. This wisdom can then be applied to one’s own situation. Ritual
conduct attunes one to the cosmos, especially when properly executed with ren (mostly
translated with “true humanity”). A self-cultivated person is like a virtuoso pianist that gives
an inspired rendition of a Mozart sonata; others can play that sonata as well, but the virtuoso
can bring the music to life and deeply move his audience.26
Philosophical Daoism emphasized being in harmony with the natural patterning of
things (dao), not by means of rules and principles, but by letting go of all principles, and
allowing a natural spontaneity (ziran) to manifest itself. One needs no Confucian-style self-
cultivation; cultural conditionings are to be let go of so one can give oneself over to “free and
easy wandering” (xiaoyaoyou), as Zhuangzi calls it. If the Confucianist can be compared to a
virtuoso Mozart interpreter, the Daoist can be compared to a jazz musician, who responds
improvisationally with his solo to changes in the rhythm section of the combo. The jazz
musician possesses a virtuoso flexibility, his performance is an unhindered, adaptive
In the gradual process of Buddhist assimilation in China, Hershock distinguishes two
phases: accommodation and advocacy. During the first phase of accommodation, Buddhist
concepts and practices were incorporated into the indigenous cultural framework – in this
case, the Chinese traditions of self-cultivation, both the Confucian ritual cultivation of the li
and the Daoist spontaneous improvisation with regard to the dao. In the second phase of
advocacy, Buddhist concepts and practices were used to selectively supplement Chinese
soteriological resources. 28 The next section will show how the notion of karma was opened in
order to accommodate Chinese notions of sympathetic resonance. The section after that will
show how the notions of buddha nature and original enlightenment were used to creatively
reinterpret and thereby advocate Buddhist meditation practice.
Accommodation: from karma to sympathetic resonance
In the transmission of Buddhism from India to China, it underwent a change that transformed
its soteriological model. The notion of karma was foreign to Chinese thought. Although
Buddhist concepts such as non-self, impermanence, and emptiness could be related to
indigenous Chinese analogues, no such analogues existed for karma. Since Chinese thought is
primarily correlative, not causal, the Indian Buddhist notion of causality in general was
associated with sympathetic resonance (ganying).29 Karma was not interpreted as a form of
cosmic causality, but as a form of sympathetic resonance. Ganying was widely used in
Chinese Buddhist text to translate the Sanskrit term karma.30 In this way, karma acquired a
new meaning, and sympathetic resonance became the new soteriological mechanism.
The Chinese cosmos is not causally ordered through the law of karma or any other
law, but correlationally ordered through the connection with the natural elements, and one’s
ancestors. The Yijing describes natural patterns of change. In this conception of change,
however, intention is not considered fundamental. Rather than being the result of right
intention, transformation or enlightenment tends to be seen as spontaneously occurring, made
possible by harmonizing the human microcosm with the macrocosm (the Dao) through
26 Hershock 2005 40.
27 Ibid. 45.
28 Ibid. 27f.
29 Sharf 2002 130.
30 Le Blanc 1994 65.
personal self-cultivation.31 In a karmic cosmos, a change of heart is causally effective. In a
cosmos correlatively held together by ever-changing natural processes, karma became re-
interpreted as one’s interconnectedness with others. One’s own fate is inextricably linked to
the fate of others. The term used to translate “karma” into Chinese (ye) literally refers to one’s
entire personal and communal estate.32 The notion of karmic merit (beneficial future results
from one’s actions) is not interpreted individually but communally. The Lotus Sutra and the
Jataka Tales (accounts of the Buddha’s former lives) contain ensembles of characters
(“dharma families”) moving together through various incarnations, playing such roles as
father, mother, son, daughter, king, minister, teacher, student or friend. They shared their
karma, as well as their eventual liberation. This was deeply significant for Chinese Buddhists:
liberation from suffering is not something realized alone or only for oneself.33 As a matter of
fact, the Indian opposition between the early Buddhist aspiration to liberate oneself by
becoming an arhat, and the later Mahayana Buddhist aspiration to liberate all beings by taking
the bodhisattva vow, was simply nonsensical from a Chinese perspective. Seen from the
perspective of non-self and mutual interconnectedness, liberating oneself cannot be separated
from liberating all beings. Therefore, it was Mahayana Buddhism that resonated most with the
Chinese. The teaching of karma was interpreted as one’s karmic interconnectedness with all
others; therefore the bodhisattva vow of liberating all sentient beings was the root condition
for realizing any liberation at all.34
Another aspect of the Indian notion of karma was very problematic for Chinese
Buddhists. When the famous Chinese monk and pilgrim Xuanzang (602-664) went to India in
the seventh century, he came back with Indian Mahayana Buddhist texts that claimed that
some people have such bad karma that they cannot ever attain liberation. This was deeply
offensive to Chinese sensibilities.
Advocacy: buddha nature and original enlightenment
Perhaps it was for such reasons that Chinese Buddhist thought adopted a strand of Indian
Mahayana Buddhism, tathāgatagarbha thought, in which the practice of meditation is
reconceptualized as resulting in the realization of one’s buddha nature (foxing). Since all
beings are in possession of this buddha nature, they are all capable of realizing liberation.
There is, however, an ambiguity in the meaning of tathāgatagarbha. Tathāgata means
Buddha; the term garbha means both “embryo” and “womb.” Therefore, on the one hand,
tathāgatagarbha points to the fact that every sentient being possesses the germ to attain
buddhahood. On the other hand, it refers to the universal essence of buddhahood (also
expressed as buddha nature). Not only is everyone deep within a buddha, the entire world is
one great womb where buddhas are being produced. According to one interpretation, through
Buddhist practice one can realize one’s buddha nature (in the sense of actualizing it and
demonstrating it). According to another one, the Buddha’s enlightenment brought about the
enlightenment of the whole world. At the time of his enlightenment, the Buddha is said to
have declared that, together with his own enlightenment, mountains, rivers, grass, and trees
had all realized their intrinsic buddha nature. Such a notion of original enlightenment led to a
reconceptualization of the soteriological efficacy of meditation practice.
First of all, it leads to the question of ignorance, and how it arises. According to Indian
Buddhist theories of karma, ignorance has its source in the defiled seeds that one has
accumulated in one’s past incarnations. Only their purification through meditation practice
can transform and purify consciousness. The sixth-century treatise Awakening of Faith in the
31 Hershock 2005 55.
32 Ibid. 49.
33 Ibid. 57.
34 Ibid.
Mahayana (traditionally attributed to the Indian master Asvaghosa, but now generally thought
to be a Chinese apocryphon) represents part of a larger attempt on the part of Chinese
Buddhists to clarify the relationship between enlightenment, meditation practice and
ignorance. It explains that through meditation practice, one is able to realize that deluded and
ignorant thoughts have no real status; they are in essence none other than the pure, originally
enlightened mind. The process of cultivation by which one arrives at this realization is called
“acquired” or “actualized” enlightenment. When enlightenment is actualized, one realizes that
it is identical to original enlightenment, the undefiled buddha nature that one has possessed all
along.35 Meditation practice does not purify, but merely allows the natural purity of the mind
to manifest itself. In this way, it comes close to Daoist practices that allow the natural
spontaneity of ziran to manifest itself.
Chan: against cultivation
In Chan, the Indian Buddhist discourse on buddha nature was transposed into the Chinese
philosophical discourse of ti (substance or essence) and yong (function). Early Chan
conceived of realizing one’s buddha nature in terms of contemplating and seeing the essence
(ti) of the mind. Bodhidharma’s famous dictum was: “directly point to the human mind (zhi
zhi ren xin); see one’s nature and become a Buddha” (jian xing cheng fo).The later Zen master
Mazu Daoyi (709-788), however, stressed that buddha nature manifests in function (yong).
The essence of the mind is seen through its external functioning.36 Mazu advocated to simply
let the mind be free, and to follow along with the movements of all things or circumstances
(renyun). The ultimate realm of enlightenment manifests itself everywhere in human life. As
Jia describes it:
Daily activities of ordinary life, even those as seemingly trivial as the slightest
movements of the eye or finger, are equated with the ultimate reality of dharma-nature.
The ultimate realm of enlightenment manifests itself everywhere in human life, and
Buddha-nature functions in every aspect of daily experiences. Ordinary people are
liberated from their former karma in limitless kalpas; they spontaneously practice Chan in
daily life and attain personal and spiritual freedom.37
Mazu ultimately denied any kind of awakening, even the awakening of the ordinary
mind to itself, since the ordinary mind is already buddha nature. No meditation practice is
therefore necessary. In a famous Zen koan, Mazu’s teacher admonishes him that practicing
meditation in order to realize his buddha nature is like polishing a tile in order to make a
mirror. Therefore, Mazu states:
The path does not involve cultivation. If it is claimed that it is achieved through
cultivation, that cultivation results, in turn, in disaster. […] The sanctified mind is
originally free from stages and positions, causes and effects, steps and levels. It is a
mental presumption and misconception that one cultivates causes and realizes their
It seems like enlightenment is reconceptualized as not so much contemplating the
essence of the true mind, but the unhindered ongoing expression of its external functioning.
But in fact, the very notion of enlightenment as a soteriological goal seems to be denied by
Mazu and his successors, as expressed by Linji Yixuan (d. 860):
Bodhi and nirvāna are hitching posts for donkeys (puti niepan ru ji lu jue)39
35 Stone 1999 6.
36 Jia 2006 78.
37 Ibid. 76.
38 Record of Mazu, quoted in Buswell 1987 339.
39 Taishō 47.497c11; Watson 1993 26.
There’s no Buddha, no Dharma, no practice, no enlightenment ( wu fo wu fa wu xiu wu
There is no Buddha to be sought, no Way to be carried out, no Dharma to be gained (kuo
wu fo ke qiu wu dao ke cheng wu fa ke de)41
If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha (feng fo sha fo)42
The figure of Linji has been paradigmatic for the iconoclastic Zen master that rejects
all ritual. However, as Welter and van der Braak have shown, the creation of Linji as a major
Zen patriarch dates back to Song-dynasty China. It was a calculated political effort by the
eleventh-century Linji faction, a movement that sought validation through retrospective image
making. The myth was subsequently transmitted to Korea and Japan.43
Dogen: meditation as ritual
When Zen went from China to Japan, the tension between the Indian Buddhist soteriological
model (the need for meditation practice in order to attain enlightenment) and Chinese notions
of buddha nature and original enlightenment led to new conceptions of meditation that come
close to our modern Western notion of ritual. In medieval Japanese Buddhism, especially the
Tendai school, the notion of original enlightenment (hongaku) was paramount. As a young
Tendai monk, the Japanese Zen master Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) wrestled with the dilemma:
in light of original enlightenment, what is the need for the practice of zazen? 44 After he
practiced in China for several years and eventually realized the answer to his question, he
went back to Japan and taught his own form of Zen practice that formed the foundation of the
Japanese Sōtō school of Zen.
For Dōgen as well, the practice of zazen is not a means to the goal of enlightenment.
The path and the goal are one. Dōgen describes zazen as not a spiritual practice leading up to
the experience of enlightenment, rather, in a reversal of the order of cause and effect, zazen is
the practice-realization (shushō) of totally culminated awakening. It is a somatic practice in
which enlightened reality is embodied. 45 Zazen is not so much a discipline of the mind, aimed
at attaining spiritual insight, but a discipline of the body, in the larger context of ritual
embodiment. Zazen can be learned by putting one’s body into the meditation posture and sit.
The body learns what zazen is, and the mind follows the body. In this way, an embodied
understanding becomes possible.
According to Dōgen, zazen is practiced in a state of jijuyū zammai: playing in
samadhi. In the practice of zazen, the Buddha’s enlightenment literally plays itself out in the
practitioner – or better: between the practitioners. A buddha field arises between the
practitioners. By practicing zazen, a kind of cosmic resonance arises that Dōgen calls
bodaishin (the mind of awakening): a mind that is aimed at awakening, that longs for
awakening. In zazen, the longing for awakening grows. But for Dōgen this is not a personal
longing, but a resonance with the entire buddha naturing cosmos. Dōgen rereads the standard
Mahayana claim that “all sentient beings have the buddha nature” to mean that “entire
being/all beings is/are the buddha nature.” All of reality is a buddha naturing process. The
practitioner of zazen resonates with that process.
40 Taishō 47.500c4; Watson 1993 53.
41 Taishō 47.501c24; Watson 1993 62.
42 Taishō 47.500b22; Watson 1993 52.
43 Welter 2008; van der Braak 2010. For alternative images to the iconoclastic Zen master, see for example
Welter’s portrait of Yongming Yanshou (904-975), a much more mainstream and yet central Zen figure, who
makes “radical” Zen appear as an ill-conceived aberration (Welter 2010).
44 For more on Japanese hongaku thought, see Stone 1999. Stone shows, incidentally, that the story of Dōgen’s
dilemma, that appears in a hagiographical account, is unlikely to be historically accurate (Stone 1999 73).
45 See van der Braak 2009.
For Dōgen, zazen is an enactment ritual, a ritual enactment and expression of
awakened awareness. The physical posture of zazen is an expression of ultimate reality, and
by engaging in it, meditation practitioners are led to realization of that reality. The ritual
performance of zazen leads to an expressive and embodied realization that is not merely
cognitive or intellectual.46
Having traced the development of notions of meditation and ritual throughout the Zen
tradition, the question remains what kind of understanding of meditation, and of ritual, can be
gleaned from these developments. Hershock and Sharf have both tried to come to terms with
this question, Hershock from the perspective of meditation practice, and Sharf from the
perspective of ritual.
Hershock argues that, as Chan developed it increasingly left behind Indian Buddhist
soteriological formulations of enlightenment as a transformative inner experience (realizing
some kind of inner essence), and reconceptualized it in terms of optimal external functioning
(social virtuosity). Hershock notes that the major schools of Chinese Buddhism did not focus
on the psychologically rich commentarial Indian Buddhist literature, such as the voluminous
Abhidharma writings that extensively ranked levels and degrees of contemplative and
concentrative experience. They instead embraced texts, such as the Lotus Sutra and the
Vimalakirti Sutra, that practically ignored subjective experience in favor of extensive
examples of skilled conduct.47 This is in line with the fact that early Chinese meditative
traditions of self-cultivation did not aim at mystical experiences or intensely altered states of
consciousness. The meditative adept proved able to induce harmony in others without saying
a word.48 Likewise, Hershock claims, Chan practice is just demonstrating, moment by
moment, one’s readiness to perform everyday activities with improvisational virtuosity which
Hershock calls “liberating intimacy”.49 The function of meditation is not to promote any
experiential breakthrough, but “to do the bodhisattva work of changing the quality of
interdependence obtaining at any given moment, shifting it in the direction of truly liberating
intimacy.”50 As Hershock sees it, Indian Buddhist soteriology, with its emphasis on “inner”
mental purification, transformed into a Chinese Buddhist soteriology that focused on “outer”
optimal functioning, attaining situational virtuosity through a sympathetic resonance with all
things. In this way, meditation practice comes close to Chinese forms of ritual self-cultivation.
This is one way to close the conceptual gap between meditation and ritual.
Sharf takes another approach, starting with ritual. He uses the performative theories of
Gregory Bateson and Erving Goffman in order to approach ritual as a special form of adult
play.51 Religious rituals, he claims, blur the distinction between the map and the territory. In
ritual, as in play, the orientation to objects is altered. As Sharf puts it,
One partakes of the wafer as if it were the flesh of Christ; one hears the voice of the
shaman as if it were the voice of an ancestor; one worships the stone icon as if it were the
body of a god; one enters the ritual sanctuary as if one were entering a buddha land; one
sits in zazen (seated meditation) as if one were an enlightened buddha.52
According to such an interpretation, Zen practice makes effective use of the
imagination in order to foster change in its practitioners. They proceed in the ritual as if things
46 Leighton 2008 168.
47 Hershock 2005 143
48 Ibid. 144.
49 Ibid. 134.
50 Ibid. 145.
51 Sharf 2005.
52 Ibid. 256f.
were different than they seemed before entering the ritual. Zazen practitioners engage in zazen
as if they were enlightened buddhas, and in that act of imagination, something really changes.
Sharf points out that it does not matter whether one truly believes that the wafer is flesh, or
that one is an enlightened Buddha: “belief has little to do with it; one simply proceeds as if it
were the case.”53 This is similar to the playing child for whom a broom stick turns into a play
horse. In ritual, a transitional world is created that is neither inside the “mind” nor outside in
the “objective world”.54
Sharf approaches enlightenment and meditation practice not as an inner experience,
but as a form of ritual, understood as play. He adds that viewing enlightenment as constituted
in and through Zen ritual is not tantamount to a behaviorist reduction. The goal of Zen
monastic practice (whether meditation or otherwise), Sharf maintains, lies in “the practical
mastery of buddhahood – the ability to execute, day in and day out, a compelling rendition of
liberated action and speech, and to pass that mastery on to one’s disciples.”55 This does not
mean that Chan monastic practice is a sham, or a cheap imitation of “the real thing”. Sharf
argues that there is no such thing, whether conceived as some kind of subjective inner
enlightenment experience or otherwise, that can be qualified as “the real thing”. This
interpretation, Sharf maintains, is
consonant with the appreciation of the intrinsic emptiness of all dependently arisen
things. There is, in the end, no fixed or final referent to which terms like […] buddha or
enlightenment can obtain […]. Chan monastic life may be play, but without such play
there would be no transmission of the dharma.56
It seems like Sharf reduces Zen practice to empty posturing, but according to Sharf,
this is exactly the point. If everything is empty (sūnyatā), then also the Buddha is empty. He
quotes Dōgen, who writes in his commentary on the Japanese saying “a painted rice cake does
not satisfy hunger”:
All Buddhas are painted Buddhas; all painted Buddhas are Buddhas. […] Unsurpassed
enlightenment is a painting. The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are
nothing but a painting. […] Since this is so, the only way to satisfy hunger is with a
painted rice cake.57
The Zen masters teach us to practice zazen not so much from an inner state called
“right intention”, but from an attitude of no-mind. This may seem ironic, as an often-heard
complaint about rituals is that they are mindless or thoughtless, a pointless activity of “going
through the motions”. Becoming mindless seems exactly the point in practicing zazen! But
no-mind does not refer to a zombie-like state of mind where not thoughts are present at all.
According to Linji, “no-mind” is the condition of someone who has nothing to do, who has
transcended all purposes, especially the purpose of enlightenment:
The perspective on meditation practice as ritual (interpreted either as the cultivation of
situational virtuosity, or as liberating play) could have interesting repercussion for
philosophical thought. It forces us to rethink the distinction between thought and action.
Viewing zazen as a ritual brings together thought and action, and leaves behind the Western
tendency to privilege thought over action. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger
have stressed that our practical interaction with reality is always practical and embodied.
Thought and action are always connected. Thought is not something that sets action in
motion; thinking is itself a form of activity. And our actions contain knowledge, not knowing
that something is the case (“knowing-that”), but embodied knowledge (“knowing-how”),
53 Ibid. 257.
54 Ibid.
55 Ibid. 266.
56 Ibid. 267.
57 Shōbōgenzō, Gabyō. Quoted in Sharf 2005 259.
knowledge of how to live in such a way that one is attuned to people and nature around
oneself, based on an understanding of mutual interconnectedness. By seeing zazen as a ritual
embodiment and enactment of buddhahood itself, 58 new avenues of research are opened into
Buddhist soteriology, whether Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Western.59
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59 The author wants to thank the Stichting Pierson Filosofie for its support that made this article possible.
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