Because mind itself doesn’t take up the good or give up the bad,
A shrewd moral practice acts as an added pollutant.
The forms of dualistic fixation distort what is not two.
Ritual tantra seeks to attain a state where there is nothing to attain.
How elegant you are, you followers of ritual philosophy!
In both mahamudra and dzogchen instruction, a distinction is made between mind and mind itself. The former refers to how we ordinarily experience life, filtered and distorted by reactive patterns. The latter refers to knowing that is free from distortions and projections.
To experience that knowing, you need to be able rest with a level of attention that has two qualities. First, you are not disturbed by the coming and going of thoughts and emotions. Second, you experience thoughts and emotions as clouds forming and dissolving in the space of mind and know that they are nothing in and of themselves. You are the sky and you are the thoughts. This is not the same as observing the coming and going of thoughts, i.e., the experience of the watcher.
Some people are able to generate that level of attention naturally. Others have to work long and hard before they can rest and see. They work at interrupting the arising of projections, interrupting their manifestation, interrupting the worlds they project and interrupting the feedback loops that give them momentum. In doing so, they open up the possibility of just knowing.
Once you can do this, there is nothing more to be done. Anything else is extra.
In particular, the careful calculations we tend to make as to what is right or wrong in any given situation dissipate energy. Ordinary thinking reasserts itself, along with strong emotional reactions based on our moral identity and reputation. We fall into a quagmire of pattern-based experience with remarkable ease.
Ritual is one way of interrupting the self-reinforcing cycle of pattern-based experience. The attention required to perform the steps of a ritual has the potential to transform energy, raising the level of energy in you so that you are able to connect with a higher level of attention. Ritual also creates a space in which habituated patterns of behavior have no function and start to fall away. When you let them go, you break the spell of habituated behavior and cut its momentum. The symbols and movements of the ritual also cut through the operation of the conceptual mind, creating the possibility of a direct experience of the mystery that the ritual expresses.
These elements are present in all bona fide rituals — the Japanese tea ceremony, for example, or the Catholic mass, or the purity practices associated with kriya tantra (ritual washing, water offerings, preparation of ritual spaces and implements, etc.).
But here is the catch. We cannot approach these rituals with the conceptual mind and understanding. To do so is to stand apart from the ritual as a detached observer. In Western culture, many people find it difficult to let the ritual act on them. Often the only way they can do so is to regress psychologically and become as a child, letting go of their mature intelligence and reverting to magical thinking and naive belief. Practiced this way, the ritual does not transform energy into higher levels of attention and may well simply reinforce childhood belief systems.
When attachment to the ritual itself forms, things go awry in other ways. We become obsessed with doing the ritual perfectly. The need for perfection impedes the letting go of the conceptual mind. We are constantly observing, judging and criticizing our own performance. We become the focus of our attention, not the ritual. The same holds when we are concerned with the role we play and the status of our role. All these prevent the suspension of emotional reactions that enables the ritual to transform experience.
We may perform the ritual to perfection with beauty, grace and elegance beyond belief. Everyone else is in awe. And we know how well we performed the ritual. We take pride in the elegance and grace of our movements. Alas, if we are acting out of habituated patterns, the ritual may transform others, but it only reinforces those patterns in us.
We have to enter the ritual itself, committing to its performance without any attempt to control how it works to transform us or our experience of the world. In other words, we have to trust the ritual and let it work its magic on us. We do not get to say how that happens. Only when we just do the ritual, not out of any sense of gain, achievement or even purpose, does the ritual become a doorway into the utter groundlessness of experience.
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