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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era