There are rituals of impermanence – the Sand Mandala, the practice of burning resolutions made during a New Year’s service, and more – and there are impermanent rituals – rituals that do not last forever, rituals that come to an end. Both help us to let go of attachment…but not let go of the act! And by letting go of attachment (and not the act), we experience the act, the ritual, without residue.
Seeing the impermanence of our rituals is essential to spiritual liberation. The ceremonies we come to love and cherish, the temples and spaces we call home, the people we practice with, all impermanent rituals, all coming and going. And when they go, what is it…that frees, that sings awakening? The feelings of loss, the tears at things coming apart, the sadness, the attachment even, all are part of the practice of impermanent rituals. It’s not about not feeling. But feeling deeply and without attachment. So the process unfolds, and we unfold as part of the process, and there is no getting stuck.
Zen Master So Sahn wrote in section 74 of the Mirror of Zen:
If in the hour of your death you make even the slightest distinction between the enlightened and unenlightened, holy or unholy people, you will be inexorably pulled into your next rebirth through the womb of a donkey or a horse, or stuffed into an iron furnace raging in hell, or become an ant or a mosquito.1
When we get attached to ritual – whether spiritual or mundane – we make distinctions. We carve the world into rituals and non-rituals, into spiritual and non-spiritual. And with attachment to ritual follows movements of mind and feeling that pull us through the “womb of a donkey or a horse.” If we don’t practice the impermanence of rituals now, in this very moment, then in the moment of our passing we will see the end as final and as a loss…and we may just find ourselves reborn as an “ant or a mosquito.”
But if we practice the impermanence of rituals now, if we learn to let go and be completely free by, paradoxically, being completely with each and every thing as it unfolds, then there is no distinction between holy and unholy, no distinction between spiritual and mundane.
The red mountain sings awakening.
The broken cup shouts wake up.
From the crack in a wall
Runs icy water.
1. Excerpt From: Boep Joeng. “The Mirror of Zen.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-mirror-of-zen/id1161759809?mt=11