Monday, January 16, 2012

Ritual Behavior

 Ritual, as you understand it, is a ceremony in which words and actions are presented according to a particular formula in order to secure a specific result.  You have seen a wide variety of religious rituals, including your own participation some few years back when you performed a set of actions, using words, song, and gestures from the culture into which you were born, marking your own rite of passage to the status of manhood or, if that plateau were still not of your abilities, at least recognition that you could now join the minyan or group of men entitled to read from and celebrate accordingly the Torah or ark of the covenant between your culture and its rendition of the creator.

Since that time, you also attended the first communion of the children of Catholic friends, regarding the event as one of parallel significance to the culture of your birth.  You have attended the Hopi Snake Dance as well as numerous of their dances of the Kachina Clan, wherein men were momentarily supposed to be inhabited by the essential being of the mystical forces the humans represent.

There was a Navajo Blessingway Ritual, at least two Russian Orthodox Easter services, several celebrations of a Buddhist festival in honor of Buddha’s birthday, The Day of the Dead ceremony in Mexico, and a wide variety of funeral rituals reflecting the varied rituals of the deceased.  You were surprised to attend the funeral mass for your friend, the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, since you’d thought him to be Buddhist, but then, none of us are what we seem.

You attended a particular ritual yesterday that you’d experienced more times than you can recall, sometimes with a boredom or lack of interest that led you to a light drowse.  The ritual involved the evocation of Agni, the Hindu god of fire.  Hindus have a shrewd understanding of ritual, from the point of view of the god or personality being ritualized and from the point of view of the participants.

Most ceremonies in which the presence of some of the aspects of the divinity are evoked involve offerings of food, flowers, water, and ghee candles which, when lit, become representations of fire.  Things that have been offered to the godhead in such ceremonies become Prasad.  Taking some liberties with Sanskrit and Hinduism, you venture to describe Prasad as food offered to the divinity, which has first whack at it before it becomes a potluck lunch for the civilians.  You have no way of knowing how the godhead felt about yesterday’s cuisine, but you were grooving on the fish, the chicken, the rice, dal, and cucumber yogurt, and indeed the nun who was on the serving line saw to it that you had a particularly large chunk of fish.

You were not bored yesterday because during the time you’d have been meditating on some godhead aspect or another, you were putting together a reading list for a forthcoming class in narrative technique.  You nearly responded aloud with your decision to include Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior as required reading, but although you were excited about the inclusion of D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, you’d not been surprised by the appearance because it seemed so appropriate.  As the notion of the next title appeared in your mind, the part of the ritual you were more or less tuning out on involved the Sanskrit equivalent of bel canto singing, call it chanting.  Thus your aha moment discovery that you were going to require Harry Frankfurt’s splendid small work, On Bullshit, blended with the chanting.  If anyone were particularly aware of your voice, it would have been in the context of surprise that you were a speaker of Sanskrit.

Vedanta, the form of modern Hinduism that develops its parameters from the ancient scriptures, The Vedas, is in its way amazingly like the culture into which you were born.  Indeed, at least two of the monastics you known from your association with Vedanta, are from the same culture.  It is a remarkable atmosphere in which you are allowed to attend rituals, eat enormous amounts of Prasad, and believe or not believe as you wish, according to your own tamping down of the turf in preparation to plant what you will.

You do not consider yourself a religious person by any means, thus the occasional Vedanta ritual more often than not puts you in some relationship with yourself and some of those about you where you roam about in a state of being up for or open to surprises via the collision of orbiting ideas.

Even were you meditating on such things during the ritual yesterday, you’d not gain Brownie points nor would you lose any for not, which is one of the reasons you went yesterday.  Had you not, you’d have gone to your favorite coffee shop, using such crowd as was or was not there as the background noise you’d have to focus in over to indulge your own rituals.

Writing is a ceremony of evoking the presence of feelings, then trying to make sense of them in some coherent way that leads the writer and the reader from a sense of the ordinary to a sense of surprise and engagement.

One of the Sanskrit chants you heard yesterday translates in its opening lines to:

From the unreal,
Lead us to the real,
From darkness,
Lead us to light…

You could say the same thing about the ritual of writing.

And you believe you will.


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