Are Zen Rituals Relics of the Past?

Photo: o2ma

Is there merit in holding onto the traditional Zen rituals–or should we ditch them? To find an answer it is important to understand what their function is and why rituals can be powerful agents of change.

What is the function of Zen rituals?

Most rituals in Zen mark liminal states. Limen is Latin for threshold. A threshold is a ‘betwixt and between’ state (read my article The Threshold).Some grand rituals of celebration, such as Jukai (taking the precepts) or a Transmission ceremony for a teacher are a rites of passage and a form of empowerment. Other daily Zen rituals, such as bowing when entering or leaving the zendo, mark the threshold between the mundane and the sacred.


Rituals in retreats have the function of being a safe and familiar ‘container’. This safe container allows people to explore inner areas that are unknown and therefore scary. Retreat rituals facilitate awakening.

Ancient rituals are empowered through use.

Most of the rituals used in Zen go back for hundreds of years. As generation after generation of practitioners use them, they gather mysterious power. At the same time, rituals undergo subtle changes. They evolve. That’s because each ritual expresses something about the culture it was created in. When a ritual is transferred to a new culture, it gradually take on a new shape and meaning. In Western Zen we still tend to use Japanese rituals– which indicates that we have not yet completely made Zen our own.


As Western Zen people we are faced with a delicate dilemma: which rituals are the baby and which ones are the bathwater? If we throw out everything willy-nilly, we may end up with a form of practice that hinders awakening. Maybe we need to allow our Zen form to evolve. In that way Zen will truly become a Western treasure– instead of remaining a Japanese clone.


What do you think?

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  1. Chris O'Connor says:

    Thanks for your writing Mary.
    My question is how much of the ritual in Japanese Zen was inherited from China, and how much of Zen ritual in China was inherited from Indian buddhist forms? And how much did early buddhist ritual borrow from the older Indian practices? And so on…

  2. Deb says:

    I certainly experience the rituals of sesshin as something like a life jacket – that holds me afloat in the day to day activities of sesshin – while I dive deep into the unknown.

    At the beginning of my first sesshin, I thought it was all crazy – dressed in black, walking in lines, bowing to a wooden idol simultaneously, total silence. And then about 3 days in, I started to feel liberated and free of the normal decisions of life – when do I eat, when do I speak, shall I do this or that? the routine and ritual gave me a spaciousness that is priceless.

  3. Mary Jaksch says:

    Chris – without thorough research it’s hard to know exactly how old each particular Zen ritual is. It may that some of it, for example putting palms together to signal greeting or gratitude goes right back to India where ‘namaste’, i.e. palm to palm, is still widely used in greeting. It seems that ritual surrounding the sutra service is quiet ancient. For example, I have experienced present-day Chinese Chan chant leaders starting a sutra recitation with three slow rings on a bell and marking time on a woodblock—just like we still do. This shows that these bits of ritual have been in place since before the 13. Century—if we take Dogen’s return to Japan as the time when Japanese Zen got established.

    Which aspects of Zen ritual came about in Japan is hard to say. For sure the way we set up our zendos in neat rectangular rows, black mats and cushions mirrors Japanese aesthetics. In Japanese Zen much was made of sectarian differences not only between the grand schools of Soto and Rinzai, but also of differences between lineages within the same school. Sectarian thinking promotes the belief that “We are the only ones who carry the true tradition”. After all sectarianism is a first cousin to nationalism. Unfortunately we have inherited a bit of that sectarian thinking in Western Zen.

    Dale S. Wright, who is one of the leading Zen scholars, told me that he is preparing a book on Zen ritual together with his co-editor Heine. It will be out next year. When it’s published, I’ll revisit the ‘ritual’ theme and report on what the newest research says.

    Deb – like you I found ritual weird at first. When I first started to practise Zen more than two decades ago I was affiliated with a lineage that favoured orioki (Japanese-style formal meals taking in meditation posture). At the time I just couldn’t get over how funny that ritual was. I used to lock myself into the bathroom and howl with laughter!

  4. Edward Blanco says:

    Zen rituals are a reduction of the universal Buddha Way. Diving into the depths of you true nature is nescessary to have everyday world stuff to hang on. Zen explains that form is emptiness, nevertheles we need som form to be able to get together in meaningful ways.
    Gassho all!

  5. Mary Jaksch says:

    @Edward Blanco
    Thank you for your comment, Edward. I like your idea that we need some form to get together in meaningful ways. That means that form creates meaning. In that case it’s important to check what kind of meaning a particular form creates.

  6. Youtube says:

    i wish you could explain more

  7. Thanks to the article, Now there is more reason to comment than ever before! Everyone should participate. I am incorporating what your wrote to our project!

  8. Steve Derrickson says:

    Orioki is alive and well in the Shambhala Buddhist Dathun, month long retreat. Appropriated by Chogyam Trungpa via his friend Suzuki Roshi in the 70’s it is regarded as an essential practice in long retreats. Cultivating mindfulness, precision, the appreciation of food and eating, serving Sangha. These virtues as the chant says are ‘inconceivable’. So in Shambhala orioki is a beloved and appreciated form, hardly a relic.

  9. Trent M. says:

    Well, I’m new to the idea of Zen and are therefore ignorant.
    But I do understand what you mean by keeping traditions or adapting them to our time.
    I believe that it depends on the tradition or ritual.
    Some may be flawed and have room for improvement while others should be left alone because they are the closest to perfect they can be.
    I know that people today still reach enlightenment. But most are probably monks or dedicated Buddhists.
    I bet that there were more people reaching enlightenment in the past when these practices were founded and new than there are now.
    Which means that I lean towards the thought that it would probably be best to keep things the “old fashioned way” and stick to already good and well working traditions, rituals, methods, and techniques.

  10. Eric Christopherson says:

    For myself, the simpler the better, but I respect the great benefit rituals and objects may have for others. Rituals bring happiness, security, meaning.. to some, but for others, all that’s really needed is now and nothing, that is all in all. Keep everything, and also open centers where there is also no ritual and no objects as well. You may be surprised at all you will find in the seemingly empty space.

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