The Meaning of Rituals

ritualsThere is a question about rituals that comes up from time to time: “Why do we need to practice any rituals at all? Aren’t rituals all about dogma? And isn’t dogma the opposite of the Tao, which is all about freedom?”

This is an idea that makes sense to those caught in the trap of kong tan (empty talk), but fails the reality check. If we really don’t need rituals, then what about weddings and funerals? Do these rituals not have a special power in and of themselves? Why is it that every group of people throughout history has its own highly specific customs for such special occasions?

Those who speak against rituals may not be aware that they themselves practice small, personal rituals as they go about their daily activities. The truth is that rituals have their integral place in the human psyche. We can say that it is the way of human beings to have rituals. Rituals are an inextricable part of the human experience, part of the Tao of humanity.


It is a misconception to say that the Tao is all about freedom. Freedom and discipline are two sides of the same coin. They complement each other in yin-and-yang interactions and dynamics. The Tao is about the totality, not just one side of it.

It is possible to practice discipline to excess, which the principle of moderation informs us is at odds with the Tao. Discipline by itself is a neutral quantity. It represents the middle road between imposing impossible demands on yourself and letting yourself do whatever your whims dictate. Therefore, discipline is completely congruent with the principle of moderation, and thus the Tao.

It is a general rule in the world that your achievements will usually correspond to the extent to which you impose discipline on yourself, up to but not exceeding the optimum point. The same is true in cultivation. Discipline leads to spiritual progress, which in turn leads to improvements in every aspect of life. This is why we regard rituals as being very important – they are a reliable, proven way of practicing consistent self-discipline.


A ritual of the Tao is a form of moving meditation. This is unlike sitting mediation, where the body is kept as still as possible. In the Tao, we recognize that everything in the world is constantly changing, and yet it is still possible to maintain peace of mind no matter what is happening around us. The design of the ritual reflects this wisdom. The body may go through continuous movements, but the mind settles down, like muddy water gradually becoming clear. This allows us to access a fundamental state of tranquility and clarity – a state that is unaffected by any chaotic external conditions.


The rituals of the Tao are not transactions with deities where you ask for blessings, health, prosperity or protection in exchange for promises of good behavior on your part. Those who cultivate correctly will automatically enjoy such benefits as a natural consequence of cultivation. Therefore, in rituals we do not request the good things in life. Instead, we connect with a profound sense of appreciation for all the good things that have already come into our lives. When we do that, the power of gratitude elevates us to an entirely new level of spirituality.


Rituals of the Tao are also not a form of therapy where you confess your sins and beg for forgiveness. This does not mean we disregard the bad things we have done. Rituals are a time for deep contemplation when we reflect upon the past in order to learn from it. What has occurred? What exactly did I do? Have I been able to follow the Tao in both actions and words? Have I done others wrong? What can I do differently, or better?

The divine beings in a Tao ritual play an important role in this process of reflection. They represent virtues we can cultivate and they set examples for us to follow. As we pay respects to each deity, we are also asking ourselves specific questions: Have I acted toward others honorably, as Guan Gong would? Have I treated people with the generosity of the Maitreya Buddha? Have I been able to come to someone’s rescue, mirroring the great compassion of Guan Yin Bodhisattva?


In addition to reviewing the past, we also need to focus on the present when we practice rituals. By centering ourselves, we can bring our fragmented mind back together into a coherent whole. We can then direct our attention to the here and now. We notice not only what is happening at this very moment, but also the goodness, power and joy inherent in it. When we are completely present in this manner, we can bring ourselves into alignment with the Tao.


Finally, rituals are a crucial practice in humility. We can all agree that being humble is a defining characteristic of a great cultivator. We often talk about the danger of arrogance and the necessity of managing the ego. We pay much lip service to the virtue of humility, and yet the questions still remain: Can we actually be humble? Can our actions match our words?

A ritual can be seen as a microcosm of life. It’s a practical, real-world application of the Tao. It represents the point where the rubber meets the road. What happens to your ideal of humility when you have to actually put it into action? When it comes right down to it, are you capable of lowering yourself, or will your ego prevent you from doing so? Are you able to recognize not just your specialness, but also your insignificance?

Rituals are a critical test for every cultivator of spirituality. Those who consider themselves knowledgeable in the Tao, and yet look down on rituals – they don’t really know much about the Tao at all. They are destined to fail this critical test. How about you? Can you pass this test with flying colors?