We (modern people) have a way of often trying to go straight to the meat of the matter. If we start something new we tend to want to get right to the complicated stuff thinking that it is somehow more important or significant than the simpler things. In Martial arts new students want to learn the flashy complicated movements and are easily bored with the idea of learning simple stances and the like. We are used to this world where everything is available at the push of a button. We get what we want right now and do not have to wait. When I got my first computer (a Commodore Vic 20, yes I am dating myself) it didn’t even have a hard drive. If you wanted to run a program you had to load it from a tape! This process would take 30 to 45 minutes to complete! If there were any errors you would have to start all over again! Now we complain when we click on an icon and have to wait no more than a few seconds for the program to start. This is the same when people are new to Buddhism. They tend to want to get straight to the meditation and visualization. When learning Buddhist teachings we find that we are drawn to the complex topics instead of what seems to be the more simple ones. We equate importance with complexity.
The problem with this way of thinking is that with spiritual things the profound is often cloaked in simplicity. As with learning the stances in the Martial arts, everything that follows (the flashy stuff) is rooted in a good understanding of the simple basics. One area that is similar is the basic Buddhist rituals that we perform at the altar and the altar itself. One thing that is important to learn in the beginning is that in Buddhist practice there are teachings in everything you see, hear, smell, or touch. These teachings are learned both consciously and sub-consciously. Westerners for some reason tend to not value ritual or see it as a somewhat superstitious practice. This could be left over baggage from the Christian views of paganism or witchcraft.
Since I mentioned witchcraft I will say that I believe that there are some parallels between it and some of the Esoteric Buddhist practices. Most people think that the ritual instruments used in witchcraft are supposed to have some inherent power in and of themselves. If you look at it with a scientific mind that would seem to not be the case. Well then what would the purpose of the various ritual instruments and spells be then? I believe that ritual objects all have symbolic meaning. They are there to communicate some aspect of the philosophy behind the religion being practiced. So while the ritual is being performed you are both consciously and sub-consciously being taught something. At the same time ritual as its name implies is a repetitive practice. Ritual is repetitive by design. I think that the power comes when you use these symbolic instruments and chant a spell in a repetitive fashion it causes a focusing of the mind (consciousness). So a crystal ball for example has no special power in and of itself but when the practitioners mind is in a highly focused state on it (due to the ritual) it can see things in the crystal by accessing some ability of consciousness itself. The crystal is a focal point. If we agree that consciousness is in everything, than it is not a far stretch to believe that if we can access this “Universal Consciousness” directly we may be able to influence the universe that we live in.
Sorry that at times I am prone to deviate, so now back to Buddhist practice. Let’s consider a basic Buddhist altar with a Buddha image, candles, incense, and flowers since altars from all Buddhist traditions contain these things. When we sit or kneel in front of an altar what are we doing and what does it all mean? These simple objects contain profound teachings.
The flowers on the altar are a symbol of the Buddhist teaching of Impermanence (Anicca). Everyone knows that flowers wilt and die very quickly. If fact we are so sure of this that we do not give it any thought at all. There is an old Asian saying “When a flower dies, no one cries”. The meaning of this saying is very important to all Buddhists. We go through life never wanting to consider death even for a moment. But with the flower we just accept that its demise is just its nature, the way that it is. The flowers Impermanence is readily apparent. So there is no need to cry or be upset because it is the natural order of things. But when someone we know or care about dies we feel that it is unexpected, and unnatural. Why is this happening, we ask ourselves? This notion not to accept that with life comes death, causes us much pain and suffering. We all will experience it, there is no way out. So doesn’t it make sense that we should spend some time and come to terms with this thing called death? If we can understand that like the flower it is the natural order of things for us as well, and that death is not permanent, not an ending, it will help take away the fear. Very often in Asia the flower will be a Lotus. This has the further connotation that the Lotus grows up through the mud but when it opens it is a pure white flower and is not stained by the mud that it grew out of.
The candle is symbolic of the Buddhist teaching of Not-self (Anatta) and interdependence (Pratityasamutpada). When you light the match you have a flame. When you touch the wick of the candle the flame goes from the match to the candle. Is it the same flame or a different flame? Well it is neither the same or different. The flame on the candle is conditioned by the flame on the match. If it weren’t for the flame on the match existing the flame on the candle would not exist. The flame on the match, came into being dependent on the conditions needed for it to exist, it existed, and then it was extinguished. When the flame of the match extinguishes it goes back to all the things that made it possible to be, heat, ash, smoke…etc. but the flame on the candle is still burning. This is all symbolic of our existence and this thing we incorrectly identify as the “self”. We are the flame. Is it our “self” that passes on to our next existence or is it different? It is neither the same nor is it different. The Buddha taught that there is “not an abiding or permanent self”. That “self” refers not only to people, but to all conditioned things.
Traditionally incense is said to be symbolic of the Dharma. When we light the incense it spreads around the room and permeates everything. As the Dharma permeates all things. But I personally think of it representing consciousness. As the smoke and fragrance of the incense permeates all things in the room it is symbolic of consciousness, as also shown in the Six Level Pagoda. The Six Level Pagoda is made up of the 5 elements that either individually or in combination make up all things in the universe. The sixth which is not visually represented because it permeates all 5 of the other is consciousness. I have my own ritual when lighting the incense. I light three sticks, one for the Buddha, one for the Dharma, and one for the Sangha. When I light them I have all three together and the flame passes from the candle to the three sticks of incense but it is one flame. Then I separate the three and now there are three separate sticks each with their own flame. Then with a wave of my other hand I extinguish the flames and now there is three streams of smoke. Lastly I put the three sticks back together and there is one stream of smoke. In my mind this is another version of the match and the candle and the teaching of Not-self. To me it illustrates the continuous cycle of Interdependence and Impermanence. It also further demonstrates that consciousness is not necessarily a one for one exchange.
Lastly there is the image of the Buddha. This represents what we are all striving for. He is in a meditative pose which shows the importance of meditation and mindfulness. His hand touches the ground in the Bhumi-sparsha (Earth touching) mudra. When the Buddha reached Enlightenment he was alone so he touched the ground so that the earth would be his witness. The mudra also symbolizes the union of skillful means (Upaya), symbolized by the right hand touching the earth, and wisdom (Prajna), symbolized by the left hand on the lap in a meditation position. He is the image of what we aspire to obtain, Nirvana.
The practice of putting our hands together comes from the Indian tradition of Anjali. Anjali is very similar in purpose to the salute. It is used as a greeting and to show respect and reverence to the one that you are intending it for. When the early Christian missionaries saw Buddhist monks doing this they thought that they were praying. Of course they then assumed that Buddhism was a form of idolatry and that the monks thought of the Buddha as a god.
So realize that in Buddhist practice there is symbolism and meaning behind everything. Don’t overlook the simple things, there may be a profound meaning behind them. So next time you sit down in front of an alter give all of these teachings that are represented some thought as you go through the ritual.