Buddhism - ceremonies and statues

How rituals cannot be seen route to a holy pay-off in the future

Part of the Buddhist tradition in the East is to support the monastic community. In Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma and Southeast Asia, for instance, people will line the sides of the roads every morning where monks are likely to pass in order to place food into their bowls, and this in itself is regarded as a holy act. The monk does not openly ask, but merely passes silently with his eyes cast down, and those making the offerings will bow as an indication to the monk that they wish to put food into his bowl. It is carried out in silence and is not meant as one person giving food to another, but more as a form of veneration and support for those who are living the holy life and for the teachings themselves.

Special ceremonies are also held throughout the year in temples when food is offered for the storerooms as well as candles, incense, medicines and other requisites. One ceremonial day is specifically for the formal offering of robes to the monks, for example, but by far the most important and the biggest Buddhist ceremony of the year is to commemorate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing, all of which are commemorated on the one day. These special days will be attended usually by the whole family. There will be chanting and talks on Buddhism and it is generally a happy and joyful occasion.

There is much bowing in Buddhism. In its truest sense, however, when bowing to a monastic this is not bowing to a human being but to the robe, to the high principles by which that person lives. The same is true of bowing to Buddha-images. The image represents the wisdom and compassion that the Buddha discovered and lived by. Bowing, therefore, is not an act of supplication or worship but of deep reverence and gratitude for the teachings which are meaningful in one’s own life. Indeed, for many hundreds of years after his demise, the Buddha was represented merely by an empty space, a footprint, a lotus flower, or an eight-spoked wheel, because it was the truth of the teachings that were being represented, not a person, as such. The very earliest Buddha-images, in fact, are generally believed to have been influenced by the Greeks and made in Gandhara, an ancient Indian kingdom.

Western Buddhists rarely take on board the ceremonial side of Buddhism, apart from any chanting and bowing which might be integrated into their meditation practices. Also many will have shrines and sit on the floor to meditate finding these things of great benefit.

The Buddha was always clear that putting one’s faith in rites and rituals was a hindrance to awakening. Saying a mantra, for example, is practised as a form of meditation, the same with using malas (like a Christian rosary). The key always in Buddhism is to find wisdom and compassion and liberation from suffering, all of which are readily available in everyone’s mind and heart. To pay respects for something noble, to sincerely revere something out of gratitude, is spiritually wholesome and nourishing as well as being an antidote to arrogance and self-righteousness. That is the attitude encouraged in Buddhism towards ceremonies and anything regarded as religious. So, to mindlessly go through ceremonies or feel that performing specific rituals will lead to some holy pay-off in the future, is something the Buddha warned against. Buddhist practices are not meant to be ritualistic.

The point is to find awakening (enlightenment or buddhahood) within one’s life in any and all circumstances.

Diana St Ruth has been a practising Buddhist since the early 1960s. A director of the Buddhist Publishing Group since 1983, she lived in a Buddhist Community in Devon from 1989-1993 and is the editor of Buddhism Now. She is also the author of several books on Buddhism.
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What Labour MPs who want to elect the shadow cabinet are forgetting

The idea is to push Jeremy Corbyn to build an ideologically broad team, but it distracts from the real hurdle – management.

Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn are pushing to vote for shadow cabinet members – rather than having all the posts appointed by the leader.

Most of the parliamentary Labour party who are not Corbyn loyalists believe this should be the “olive branch” he offers them, in order to put his recent words about “unity” and “wiping the slate clean” into action.

Corbyn and his allies have refused to consider such an idea outside of a “wider” democratisation of the party – saying that Labour members should also get a say in who’s on the frontbench. It’s also thought Corbyn is reluctant due to the shadow cabinet having three representatives on the National Executive Committee. He wouldn’t want his opponents voting for those, tipping the balance of the Committee back towards centrists.

Shadow cabinet elections were a longstanding convention for Labour in opposition until Ed Miliband urged the party to vote against them in 2011. Labour MPs on different wings of the party believe a return to the system would avoid Labour’s frontbench being populated solely by Corbyn’s ideological wing.

But there is a complication here (aside from the idea of a party leader having to run an effective opposition with their opponents in key shadow cabinet positions).

Proponents of shadow cabinet elections say they would help to make Labour a broad church. But really they could put those in the “make-it-work” camp who initially helped form Corbyn’s team in a difficult position. Initially conciliatory MPs like Thangam Debonnaire and Heidi Alexander have since left their posts, revealing frustration more at Corbyn’s management style than policy direction. Chi Onwurah MP, who remains a shadow minister, has also expressed such concerns.

One senior Labour MP points out that the problem with shadow cabinet elections lies in those who left Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but had wanted to cooperate – not in bringing ideological opponents into the fold.

“There were lots of people on his team who actually liked Jeremy, and wanted to make policy with him,” they tell me. “And many of them eventually felt they had to leave because of how difficult it was to work with him. They wanted to stay but couldn’t. If people like that couldn’t stay, will they go back? It will be much harder for him to show them he can work differently.”

One of the “make-it-work” faction voices their concern about returning to the shadow cabinet via elections for this reason. “A lot of us [who left] are still really interested in our policy areas and would be happy to help if they asked,” they say. “But it was too difficult to be taken seriously when you were actually in those shadow cabinet meetings.”

My source describes a non-collegiate approach in meetings around the shadow cabinet table, where Corbyn would read out pre-written opening statements and responses when they delivered their ideas. “It was like he wasn’t really listening.”

The plan to reintroduce shadow cabinet elections barely left the ground in a meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee on Saturday night, on the eve of Labour conference.

This is in spite of Labour MPs urging the NEC to make a decision on the matter soon. Jon Ashworth, an NEC member and shadow minister, told me shortly after Corbyn’s victory speech that this would be “a good way of bringing people back” in to the team, and was determined to “get some resolution on the issue” soon.

It doesn’t look like we’ll get that yet. But for some who have already tried serving on the frontbench, it’s a distraction from what is for them a management – rather than an ideological – problem.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.