A reader once commented that he had been exploring Buddhism for about five years but could not relate to Buddhist rituals. He loved the "spiritual" side of Buddhism, he said, but hated the ritualistic side.
The rituals made Buddhism "just another religion." This was my answer:
"Regarding the rituals — without knowing what tradition you’re working with I can’t comment specifically. Most of my experience is with Zen rituals. But it’s all skillful means.
The power in Buddhism is found in giving yourself to it.
"Remember, it’s all about realizing the ephemeral nature of ego.
As Dogen said, 'To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion.
That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.' In ritual, quiet yourself and let the myriad things experience themselves. It can be very powerful.
"If you’re standing apart from it and judging it, it’s not helping you much. But perhaps Buddhism is not the right practice for you."
The reader didn't care for this answer.
It proved to him that "Buddhism, like all other religions, has its rigid robots who know everything about their religion’s ritual and nothing about its heart."
Since my answer was unskillful, I want to try again.
It's often said that you have to practice Buddhism to understand Buddhism.
Through the experience of Buddhist practice you come to appreciate why it is the way it is, including the rituals.
The power of the rituals manifests when you engage in them fully and give yourself to them completely, with your entire heart and mind.
When you are fully mindful of a ritual, the "I" and "other" disappear and the heart-mind opens.
But if you hold back, judging what you like and don't like about the ritual, there's no power. There's just you, cut off, closed up.
The many schools and sects and traditions of Buddhism have diverse rituals, and there are also diverse explanations for the rituals. You might be told that repeating a certain chant or offering flowers and incense gains you merit, for example.
That particular explanation isn't compelling to me, although it works for some people.
Whatever explanation you may be given for a particular ritual, however, the ultimate purpose of all Buddhist rituals is the realization of enlightenment.
There's no magic power in lighting a candle or bowing to an altar. If you perform a ritual no force outside yourself will come to your aid and give you enlightenment.
Indeed, enlightenment is not a quality that can be possessed, so no one can give it to you.
In Buddhism, enlightenment (bodhi) is awakening from one's delusions, especially the delusions of the ego and of a separate self.
For more on the realization of enlightenment, see "The Four Noble Truths" and "What Is the Self?"
Rituals in Buddhism are a upaya, which is Sanskrit for "skillful means." Rituals are performed because they are helpful for those who participate.
Of course, if you are new to Buddhism you may feel awkward and self-conscious as you try to mimic what others around you are doing. Feeling awkward and self-conscious means you are bumping into your delusional ideas about yourself.
Acknowledging those feelings and getting beyond them is vital spiritual practice.
We all come into practice with issues and buttons and tender spots that hurt when something pushes them. Usually we go through our lives wrapped in ego armor to protect the tender spots.
But the ego armor causes its own pain, because it cuts us off from ourselves and everyone else.
Much Buddhist practice, including ritual, is about peeling off the armor. Usually this is a gradual and gentle process that you do at your own pace, but you will be challenged to step out of your comfort zone at times.
Allow Yourself to Be Touched
I highly recommend reading this talk on Zen and ritual given by Zen teacher James Ishmael Ford, Roshi.
The Roshi acknowledged that people are often disappointed when they come to Zen centers.
"After reading all those popular books on Zen, people visiting an actual Zen center or sangha, are often confused or even shocked by what they find," he said. Instead of, you know, cool Zen stuff, visitors find rituals, bowing, chanting, and lots of silent meditation.
We come to Buddhism looking for remedies for our pain and fear, but we bring with us our many issues and suspicions. We find ourselves in a place that is foreign and uncomfortable, and we wrap ourselves tighter in our armor.
"For most of us as we come into this room, things are encountered with some distance.
We place ourselves, frequently, just beyond where we might be touched," the Roshi said.
"We must allow ourselves the possibility of being touched," he continued.
"This is, after all, about life and death, about our most intimate questions. So, we need just a little openness to the possibilities of being moved, to turn in new directions.
Here, during this talk, I would ask a minimum suspension of disbelief, allowing the possibility there are methods to the madness."
Suspending disbelief doesn't mean taking up belief. Neither believe nor disbelieve; just be open. Rituals can be transformative if you are open to them. And you never know, going forward, which particular ritual or chant or other pracitce might open the bodhi door.
Something that you find pointless and annoying at first might be of infinite value to you someday.
Long ago a professor visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The master served tea. When the visitor's cup was full, the master kept pouring. Tea spilled out of the cup and over the table.
"The cup is full!" said the professor. "No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," said the master, "You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
The Heart of Buddhism
The power in Buddhism is found in giving yourself to it.
Certainly there is more to Buddhism than ritual. But rituals are both training and teaching.
They are your life practice, intensified. Learning to be open and completely present in ritual is learning to to be open and completely present in your life.
And that's where you find the heart of Buddhism.