The Importance of Ritual and Tradition in Nyingma
The question is sometimes asked, why is it important to preserve the ritual and tradition of Buddhism? Buddhism, in this case the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, originated in an Asian culture that is very foreign to Western ways. So why is it important to preserve the traditions and rituals that developed in that culture? What is their significance?
That is a very important question to answer, but it is not so easy to answer. For one thing, Buddhism adapted to whatever culture it came to. One only has to compare the look of Buddhism practiced in different Asian countries, such as Tibet, Japan, Thailand or Sri Lanka, to see that Buddhism has taken many forms since the Dharma was originally taught by Lord Buddha some 2,500 years ago. Now that Buddhism has come to the West in its many different forms, surely its practice will change and adapt to Western needs and values. Indeed, such changes have already begun. But it is important to understand that one must not throw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak.
The rituals and traditions of the Nyingma School are fundamental to the practice of Buddhism in this lineage. The same is true of other Buddhist lineages. There are some things that cannot be changed without fundamentally altering the teachings and thus destroying the validity of the lineage. They might be termed the core values of the lineage. So while the outward forms may appear different in some cases, as long as the core values are maintained, the heart of the lineage remains pure and unchanged. This is vital to the survival of Buddhism in the West because without pure lineage there is no path and no attainment.
It is through ritual that we are able to stimulate the latent seed of enlightenment in our mindstream. It is through tradition that we are able to keep the lineage pure and uncorrupted. It should be remembered that these rituals and traditions come directly from the mind of enlightenment for the benefit of sentient beings. Many of the rituals and traditions of the Nyingma school that are now being practiced in the West are from termas which were hidden by Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal specifically for the times in which we now live. They are not relics of some dusty, half-forgotten tradition half a world away.
The Buddha laid out the basics of proper conduct in the Eightfold Path. These are also important to understand and to observe when one enters the path. They form the basis for moral conduct that is vital to staying on the path and to avoiding the creation of negative karma that would create obstacles on the path. The basic moral dictum of Buddhism is to do no harm. This is the foundation of the Eightfold Path and a good test of whether one’s behavior is in accord with it. Without moral integrity, there is no merit, and without merit, there is no path, and this morality must extend to all areas of one’s life.
There are some in the West who question the core values of Buddhism and who fail to practice moral integrity in their lives but who still claim to be Buddhists. This is like the infamous flying pig. Of course, no Buddhist practitioner is perfect in his or her morality. We are sentient beings and thus imperfect. The difference is in realizing when one has made an error and confessing it rather than delighting in one’s errors and being prideful of them.
One of the greatest tests of morality on the path in the West is working in the business world, where Buddhist principles of morality and behavior are rarely observed nor rewarded. It is important for the practitioner to find work in a business that does not violate the basic Buddhist precepts, such as not killing and not lying, and it is important to treat both coworkers and customers with integrity and honesty. A Buddhist physician who is more interested in the bottom line than the welfare of his patients is a dysfunctional Buddhist as he is putting greed over the welfare of others. A Buddhist journalist who fails to follow the practices of journalistic integrity is a dysfunctional Buddhist as he is guilty, essentially, of lying. A Buddhist who works for an arms dealer is a dysfunctional Buddhist as his business contributes to the killing of humans. Such situations are to be avoided.
Adapting Buddhism to the West will be a lengthy process that will take lifetimes. It is essential to guard against those who place more value in their own limited vision and moral poisons than in the tried and true teachings of enlightened masters. To paraphrase an old saying, eternal vigilance is the price of liberation!