prevalence of ritual

imagePOSTCARD#96: A village near Hat Yai: I’m at the wedding of my nephew in the South of Thailand, the only foreigner in the family… nothing for me to do in an event that’s complex and requires all kinds of engagement… mindfulness.  I just watch the proceedings, pleased with this sense of generosity in everybody just being here. I have M, my Thai niece with me and she corrects me if I get it wrong. We set off from the groom’s house in a long convoy of cars, a 20 minute drive, then stop on the highway and walk the last 200 yards along the path to the brides house. Musicians up front with Glong Yao drum, cymbals and reed pipe; an eerie, almost discordant kind of wailing song. I wonder how it must feel like for the bride, waiting in her childhood home, and here comes this haunting, archetypal sound of her future husband’s clan calling to her – getting nearer and nearer and louder and louder until it fills the small room she’s in. I’m thinking of tribal things, fertility rituals and magic that changes the course of karmic events. For me, there’s only this; the sense that the ceremony is heavy with meaning; perhaps too, something about belief I used to think was real a long time ago.

The sad truth is that in the West, divorce is about as common as marriage – religion got deconstructed; the story we believed in came to pieces. No myth to feel connected with, except perhaps the myth of no-myth. In a sense, we’re all married to the economy, worship the consumer god, seek refuge, gratification, fulfillment and consolation in the purchase of goods and services. What’s left over after that, in terms of ‘belief, we have to figure out any way we can.

It’s different here, divorce is rare, maybe it’s the prevalence of ritual that – come what may – locks the marriage into this unbreakable bond. The marriage date is selected by an astrologer, taking into account all of the every-day catastrophes and natural disasters, about which most Western folk are happily unaware. Any begrudged spirits are appeased so that a date can be selected which is completely surrounded by joyful blessings and good fortune – the belief that the spiritual world is real is what causes it to be so. I feel like I’m watching a different movie, maybe more meaningful than the cultural movie we watch in the West, maybe I’m drawn towards this version more, now that 30 years have gone by – or maybe it’s too restricting for me and I’m on the outside looking in. Maybe that’s okay too.

Lengthy ceremonies for many hours, Buddhist monks chanting, holy markings made by an elder’s fingertips dipped in special paste and pressed lightly on their forehead, and a sacred cord sai monkonor is placed on their heads [see below]. They kneel with their arms on a decorative pillow, palms together in the ‘wai’ position, and family members take turns to pour water over their hands.

It was a long day for me sitting outside the house under this huge pink canopy. My niece M came to join me later, and I was facing away from the main group so I make a face of bored weariness for her and she laughs. Do the face again Toong Ting and I try to do it again, but can’t get it right. Do same face you do before Toong Ting! She insists. So I try all kinds of grotesque weird faces, a whole anthology of faces that go on and on until I’m thinking I’m going slightly mad, and she laughs a lot, but obviously tired. Somebody had to take her home. It was a long day for the couple too, when I saw them eventually, they looked exhausted, although the bride was strangely wide-eyed and alert – I was astonished, something about a kind of awareness that takes place at the end of something endless….

‘The fact that we can never “fully know” reality is not a sign of the limitation of our knowledge, but the sign that reality itself is “incomplete,” open, an actualization of the underlying virtual process of Becoming.’ [Slavoj Zizek]


The title of this post is taken from an anthogy of Romare Bearden collage artworks

21 thoughts on “prevalence of ritual

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, heart, and reflections. I really felt touched by what you had to say. There is something lost in the lapse of ritual and ceremony. The culture and protocol develop over years and are a kind of safety net. They help a community be more cohesive and mutually cohesive.
    I wonder if these traditions are being lost because people are moving from one culture to the other and in the process are creating new combined rituals and ceremonies. at least from the commercial side in the US there’s a big push toward the new and letting go of the old. I know many foreign-born parents whose kids don’t want to learn their parent’s mother language, much less their traditions.
    The latest census shows that the number of intergenerational households has been dropping decade after decade. Only in the last few years has it increased slightly, mostly due to economic reasons. I wonder if this might spur deeper cultural connections within family groups.
    Thanks for your words.

    • I like the idea that in the process of moving between cultures ‘we are creating new combined rituals and ceremonies’. It would seem to be the natural evolving way societies grow according to causes and conditions. It depends on what people actually value, and the purely commercial, consumerist life style is not appealing in the long term; cannot really take the place of deep culture. Maybe it is something lost, as you say, or maybe it’s in the process of reforming? Thanks for your comment

      • Thanks for your thoughtful response. There’s likely been a natural evolution of cultures as they meet and mingle. While I wouldn’t suggest US divorce rates are due to consumerism per se, it’s likely a factor. The commercial chains seek to package and homogenize cultural experience, which doesn’t seem like the same natural progression.
        I admit I value uniqueness and integrity, and that doesn’t seem to be a shared value when considering the massive number of Americans choosing Wal-mart, McDonalds, and other similar chains. Similarly, choosing Coca-Cola’s version of Christmas doesn’t honor the previous rituals and ceremonies.
        Reading about your experience, I’m delighted to hear about it, even while I accept that these things, too, shall pass.

      • This is it, commercialism has pasted a pastel pink coating on it that hides the fact that most people don’t really know what to do with ritual and spirituality. The natural curiosity of the human experience is accommodated in a superficial way and subjective inquiry is not encouraged. My feeling is that the natural curiosity is still there, impossible for it not to be, we are aware of our incompleteness and it’s the consciousness of this that leads to the search for a greater understanding…

  2. No myth to feel connected with, except perhaps the myth of no-myth.

    A very concisely put insight. The myth of no-myth is indeed a prevalent feature of Western modernism.

    It’s perhaps most obvious in rationalist fundamentalists such as the New Atheists but you can see multiple brands of ideologues all convinced that their own belief system is simply an expression of obvious fact and apparently oblivious to the untestable axioms on which it rests and the limitations of the tools they use to assess and assemble knowledge. Even if they suspect their ancestors of 500 years ago were no more able to interrogate their own pre-Enlightenment worldview than are they that is more likely to confirm their own outlook via the myth of progress than cause them to question it.

    It’s different here, divorce is rare, maybe it’s the prevalence of ritual that – come what may – locks the marriage into this unbreakable bond.

    Maybe. Or maybe because Thais still see marriage more as a union between families than between individuals (as was the case in the West up until a little over a century ago) and so ending it is a much bigger issue.

    I’ve seen a few Thai marriages that are so unhappy they would almost certainly have ended in divorce in Australia. I suspect the main reason they didn’t is because Thais don’t subscribe to the Western romantic myth of a ‘happily ever after’ marriage and so are less likely to see it as broken when it doesn’t turn out that way.

    • Writing this at Departures, waiting for the BKK flight. The ‘myth of no-myth’ idea came from something written by David Loy that I can’t find right now.
      About the New Atheists thing, I don’t know anything about them – inclined to think if the deluded factor was removed, something like this actually makes sense… a bit of a stretch maybe, but Truth is an obvious fact when there is the quality of mindfulness, sati sampajanna. The sense of conviction placed in a wholesome context – it’s the sila quality we discussed before.
      About Thai marriage, thanks for pointing out that ‘Thais don’t subscribe to the Western romantic myth of a “happily ever after” marriage.’ This sounds correct to me, something I might follow up in a future post. Thanks for interesting comment…

      • About the New Atheists thing, I don’t know anything about them

        A particularly aggressive sub-cult of Scientism known primarily for its attacks on other religions, especially Islam. Its most prominent spokespeople are/were Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and Ayam Hirsi Ali.

        In their eyes other people have faith and beliefs – often delusional and dangerous ones. They are merely in possession of the facts. Naturally they’d take exception to New Atheism being called a religion but it certainly satisfies Ninian Smart’s “Seven Dimensions of Religiosity”.

      • Sounds fundamentalist, the taboo of subjectivity; belief in the integrity of the measuring device, not taking account of the contexts when science does not apply, ‘finger pointing to the moon…’

      • the taboo of subjectivity

        Another great throwaway phrase illuminating the religiousity lurking just below the surface of modernist secularism. You have a gift for saying a lot in very few words tiramit. Especially the unsayable (at least around here).

      • Thanks Cabrogal, but the phrase is taken from a book title by B. Allan Wallace. I should have had it in quotes. I’m trying to write in a kind of enhanced minimalism, as in text messaging. Sometimes delete too much in the editing process…

      • Thanks for putting me onto The Taboo of Subjectivity by B. Allan Wallace.

        I’m about a third of the way through and it’s a corker. It’s helped me clarify my own views of the demarcations between ontologies and how to deal with their different utilities and competing claims without becoming metaphysically fractured and incoherent.

        I think it’s pretty important to identify your own ontological axioms. The chief failure of many fundamentalists is that they don’t even recognise that they subscribe to a metaphysical system and believe their own ‘truths’ to be self-evident regardless of perspective. Scientific fundamentalists are among the worst these days.

      • Glad you found it helpful and sorry about the link that didn’t work – I got it fixed now I’m using my old laptop, back from the repair shop. You’re right about fundamentalists and their self-evident truths. They come in all shapes and sizes, pretty scary. For me the starting point is Theravadin – it’s in this fathom-long body, with its perceptions and thoughts etc., and keeping it grounded all through the evolving investigation. So good to find that there’s a friendly scientist like B. Allan Wallace…

      • For me the starting point is Theravadin – it’s in this fathom-long body, with its perceptions and thoughts etc., and keeping it grounded all through the evolving investigation.

        But you still would have been starting from unproved axioms. The Buddhists are up front in putting them in the four noble truths. You have to start by taking them on faith. That then forms the ‘grounding’ of the belief system which can then be reinforced by evidence gathered during the investigation but the evidence itself and how it fits together is skewed by the original axioms.

        As Wallace points out, the axioms of scientific materialism are objectivism, monism, universalism, reductionism, closed causation, and physicalism. Once you start with such axioms they reinforce themselves. Science is objective and universal so it will never discover evidence for unique subjective phenomena. It’s physicalist, it believes everything is ‘stuff’ (matter/energy). So if it discovers something new it will assume it is ‘stuff’ and will set about trying to discover what it’s made of. If it doesn’t seem to be made of ‘stuff’ then it can be dismissed as illusory, unreal, subjective. Not just beyond the realm of science but non-existent.

        That’s why you get pseudoscientists proposing things like ghosts made of ectoplasm or microtubules and/or quantum events that generate consciousness. They know their beliefs will only be ‘scientific’ if they can credibly claim they’re made of stuff.

        So axioms tend to reinforce themselves (if they are a carefully chosen set) and filter out aspects of ‘reality’ that are inconsistent with them. That’s why it’s so important to recognise your own.

      • Interesting, I’d like to be able to reach out and pick up the book but it’s in Delhi and I’m in Chiang Mai. Not completely sure I understand what you mean by ontological axioms, let’s continue this when I get back over there at the beginning of November…

  3. Humphrey Bogart once said that getting divorced should be easy but getting married should be hard. I think the US has it all wrong. There should be a place for civil unions by the state, then weddings and marriages within the religion of those who choose that path. That ritual should be a big deal. It has been reduced to an obscene show of wealth for so many that ritual is just lost. Thank you for taking your readers along to this wedding. -J.B. Good

    • Thanks for this, it confirms something I was thinking about but didn’t include in the post. In Thailand the wedding ceremony is a mystical event, all kinds of parts to it which carry meaning for the local people. It also takes a very long time, maybe 6 hours on the first day and related ceremonies go on for the next few days. It’s not all pretty and pink, I’m pretty sure it’s a bit of an ordeal at times. The couple have to make their way through the mystical rituals and emerge at the other end; heroes in a kind of rite of passage. I can’t imagine how we’d create this kind of truly focussed effort in our Western marriage ceremony – which is more like a joyful party that comes to an end eventually and then the divorce ritual comes along…

    • Revealing, isn’t it, how for most people in the West ‘ritual’ is associated with something pagan – they don’t consider that it’s like learning to do something; ride a bicycle or anything that involves practice, effort and focussed intention. That part of our culture is almost completely gone…

    • Thanks Val, could be that this ‘limited knowledge’ is a mind state resulting from the created effort to keep society functioning in a desired context. There’s usually a scientific reason for mysteries… we don’t feel we have to engage in these powerful rituals and experience that sense of empowerment. It’s up to the individual to find a way out of these imposed restrictions…

  4. Pingback: monuments to playfulness | dhamma footsteps

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.