Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The healing heart of at-home rituals

I went to the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) conference this past October and the keynote speaker was Paula Arai.  She is the author of several books - Women Living Zen and her latest book, Bringing Zen Home – the Healing Heart of Japanese Buddhist Women’s Rituals.  Her message of the importance of rituals in home and lay life and the use of creativity in making them, really impressed me.  It was support for the creative, personal rituals which Clouds has already been encouraging.

She was a very feminine speaker.  Mostly the SZBA has had male Buddhist scholars give the keynote speech.  It was a breath of fresh air to hear a speaker at this type of conference talk about: women practicing at home, healing rituals in zen, nurturing the self and so forth.  These topics are often passed over in the more austere aspects of Zen Practice.  Paula Arai has all the credentials of a scholar and yet her approach was very warm, funny and coming from the heart.

Both of her books have shared with the West, the deep practice of women lay practitioners in Japan.  Partially this aspect of Buddhist practice has been overlooked because these practices do not come from monastic practice or scholarship which has been a main focus for so many years.  But these predecessors and examples for rituals in lay life can be very helpful for the Western Buddhist world where many, if not most, are lay practitioners with families, mortgages, full-time jobs etc.

You can have a strong Buddhist life that is not based solely on zazen. This might surprise some of us.  That’s not what we have previously learned.  I have always seen this in Tomoe Katagiri’s life and practice.  Although she does not do a lot of meditation practice or sesshins, when I’m with her, her life practices, her daily life, her sewing, her treatment of objects in her house, always teach me Zen.

 I also saw these devotional practices when I went to Japan.  There were many practices that people did every day in their homes and on the street that were quite different than Western practice.  Some examples that I saw were:  keeping the altars on street corners cleaned and fresh with flowers.  These altars carefully prepared, were ready for people who stop in their hurry to work, for a moment of connection with the universal energies.  Sometimes they light a candle or pour water over a Buddha statue's head.  There were also many Temples where people went to pray or light a candle or whirl a wheel on their lunch breaks. 

I came home and made a pagoda in my back yard where my family, friends and I could simply walk out into the woods and light a candle sending energy to people and situations that we were worried about.

Paula Arai’s emphasized the power of establishing a sacred space in your home.  One of the ways to do this was to have an active home altar.  A lot can happen around a home altar with your family and with your children if we are creative and attentive to what is needed.  These are homespun rites woven into our daily life. 

For example, I have a small ritual I do everyday at home.  It began when my last child went off to college.  I worry about my two boys in the world and away from me.  So I began to light candles for my two sons, my husband, myself, Clouds in Water and the last candle, for people I know in distress, sick or past on.  It’s a small thing.  Putting new candles in six holders, lighting them, and doing a little metta for each one but it has held my attention, helped to relieve my anxiety for nearly two years.  Now it seems so natural to do, that I don’t even notice it as “something extra.”

Paula Arai emphasized the aspect of warmth and healing that is sometimes absent in the way we perceive Zen.  She named quite a few aspects of a Healing ritual that were a heart opening and confirmation for me:  A ritual shows us
·      The importance of connecting with interdependence
·      Expressing that our body and minds are one
·      Connects us with the larger meaning of life and a larger sense of ourselves.
·      Self-nurturing
·      Increases or emphasizes the enjoyment of life
·      Our ability to create beauty in all our activity, not just art, but in the way we arrange the objects in our life.
·      Cultivating our gratitude
·      Accepting reality as it is
·      Expanding our perspective
·      And embodying compassion

What I really felt affirmed by was her saying that the more personal a ritual was the deeper it affected us.  In that sense she supported us in being creative with ritual and using our knowledge of Buddhist principles as a supporting structure for making them.  We shouldn’t be afraid to create rituals that fit our family, our person, our particular sangha or our society.  Otherwise, we will miss out on the deep practice of home-based prayer and ceremony.


We are coming up to Jukai or Buddhist initiation at Clouds, which is an ancient ritual and done formally in front of the community.  I see how much this deep ritual affects and encourages practitioners.  This same sense of ceremony can be taken into our daily life and our homes with a little bit of ingenuity.