Excerpts from Zen Ritual
Long before Buddhism arrived in China, ritual practices and theory of ritual were well developed in the native Confucian tradition. The Confucian moral, political, and social orders were grounded in a sophisticated conception of ritual as the basis of civilization. The early Chinese character li, often translated as ritual, or ceremonial propriety, stood at the very center of the Confucian conception of a harmonious and civilized society. From this point of view, what regulates the desires, habits, and actions of the members
of a social order is ritual activity in the sense of the patterns of proper interaction between all participants in a social hierarchy. In the Confucian worldview, the Way (Dao/Tao) was a ritual order, constructed by the ancient Sage Kings and modeled after the patterns of Heaven. This order was based on a naturalistic conception of the cosmos and was largely nontheistic. Ritual practice was not primarily intended to praise or influence the gods. Instead, it was understood as the model for both collective political organizing and individual self-fashioning. For Hsu¨n-tzu, the most theoretically sophisticated early Confucian on this issue, ritual was the most effective way for human beings to understand and correct their uncultivated ‘‘original nature.’’ Although Hsu¨n-tzu argued for an innately evil tendency in human nature, he also recognized that human beings are inherently social and that natural human intelligence allowed for self-correction through the processes of ritual self-cultivation. Confucian ritualists took the behavior and movements of the sages as the model for ritual practice and sought to encourage all members of the society to shape themselves to some extent in their image.
No dimension of human activity and culture was thought to be exempt from the impact of ritual; ritual was understood to inform the human mind in every activity from social engagements to private reflection. For the Confucian ritualists, as for later Zen Buddhists, ritual practice ranged in quality and depth from introductory levels to the most profound, and these differences were thought to be evident in the difference between an ordinary human being and the great sages. At the outset, they assumed that ritual practice would entail discipline. It would restrain the wayward inclinations of ordinary,
undisciplined minds. In this sense, ritual acted as an external constraint or pressure on the natural desires and uncultivated habits of those who had not yet been shaped by this order. Confucians realized, however, that as ritual practitioners matured, they would internalize these constraints, altering the ways they understood themselves and the ways they lived in the world. For the sages dwelling at the most humane level, Mencius claimed, ritual practice effects a profound joy, one that accords with the deepest nature of human beings. In this sense, ritual was the Confucian means for transformation and
enlightenment, both of individuals in a culture and the culture as a whole.