I’m a Zen Buddhist, but I go to a nonsectarian Vajrayana Buddhist temple.
I also go to Pagan camp once a year, and I want to tell you about rituals. This is where Vajrayana Buddhism and Paganism have a lot in common.
We like to think that Zen doesn’t have the same kind of strange rituals and it’s true to an extent. It doesn’t have as many, but there is the wearing of robes, chanting of things in foreign languages, bowing, initiations and secret meetings with the teacher, etc.
These things are definitely rituals.
In Vajrayana Buddhism things are more extreme. Practitioners bow to sacred objects, they do lots and lots of chanting, spiritual empowerment, and practice something very similar to prayer—asking spiritual beings to help us.
At Pagan camp I saw pagan rituals and they were striking, although I expected to see a lot more and was a little disappointed. Rituals include things like: dancing naked in the moonlight (my favorite), calling down energy from the moon or from the four directions and entering a sweat lodge (which I did). I’ve heard initiation ceremonies are important in paganism, but I’ve been to pagan camp twice and I didn’t see or hear about any of those. But then, maybe those are secret.
I go to our Tibetan Buddhist temple regularly for something called a Dakini Tsok.
This is a practice in which food offerings are “given” to a female spiritual being called a Dakini that is said to watch over us. As far as I know this practice was created in Tibet, but it’s really not all that different than some Hindu devotional practices. It’s said that this practice generates a lot of merit, or good karma, and that’s why we do it. We all bring some food (or in my case beer), place it on a shrine and offer it to the Dakini. We sing some chants and do some meditation. And then we eat the food ourselves and spend time together talking.
Now, I want to make an argument here, that might be controversial.
I think there’s a different reason why we do these kinds of rituals—a secret purpose that has probably been a part of spirituality from the beginning.
Community building, strengthening the bonds of the community and fostering spiritual friendship is so important. I don’t go to the Buddhist temple to accumulate merit. I go to the Buddhist temple to spend time with other Buddhists.
Although I’m an outsider, I suspect this is even more true at Pagan camp. Many of the people I met there didn’t even identify themselves as Pagans. They were just there to celebrate a spiritual community that’s wild and free in a way that most communities are not.
And community building is probably more important for those of us in ‘alternative’ spiritual traditions like Buddhism and Paganism. Any Christian can spend time with other Christians any time they want in this country. They’re everywhere.
And we are not.
It’s human nature to seek community and fellowship.
I don’t make offerings because I think Dakinis exist and appreciate them. I make offerings because I appreciate the opportunity to make them.