This summer I had the privilege of leading a memorial ceremony with my dear friend Daniel, in honor of his mother’s life. A small group of family and friends gathered at the ocean, forming a circle of bare feet in the sand. Daniel began our ceremony in the tenor of Buddhist teacher, inviting us to close our eyes and arrive at the beach—notice the beat of the sun, listen for the crash of waves, taste the salt in the wind. Although few in the group were familiar with Buddhist practice, the gravitas of the pause was palpable as the decades of Daniel’s practice grounded the moment, granting us all the authentic gift of attention.
This issue of Inquiring Mind explores many such rituals of passage, following a loose (though certainly not guaranteed) trajectory of birth, coming of age, marriage/ordination, aging and death. The word ritual comes from the Latin ritus, “to fit together.” Like poetry, art and theater, ritual joins deep levels of the psyche with tangible symbols and action. This coming together can arouse the kind of human expression that cultivates compassion and enables healing. The creative form of ritual transmits wisdom that dwells deeper than words, becoming a universal language of “meaning-making” here in the temporal world.
In planning this issue, we consulted with diverse teachers and students of Buddhism. Theravada teacher and scholar Gil Fronsdal reminded us that a crucial function of Buddhist rituals of passage is to strengthen our connection to Dharmic intention. Western Buddhists have often seen rituals as superficial and a distraction from the “real” work of practice, overlooking how ritual itself is a practice as much as meditation. It can deepen our sense of meaning, of community and of the sacred dimensions of the Dharma. For many Buddhists, both historically and in the present, ritual practices have served as a primary means of inner transformation.
At the close of our memorial ceremony on the beach, Daniel passed around a most cherished bowl of his mother’s shell collection—small white pieces gathered along the shoreline of her favorite beach in Mexico. Each of us held our chosen shell in silence, remembering and imbuing the precious object in our hands with well-wishes for a peaceful journey. The shells were then returned to the bowl, and Daniel, along with his father and sister, walked to the water’s edge, where they offered each token to the ocean, saying their private good-byes.
As a grief counselor and chaplain, I have found that formally marking the passages of our lives gives voice to the mysteries of living and dying and connects us to the essence of that which we hold most dear. All things that come into being, whether they spontaneously arise or gradually emerge, follow the process of inception, gestation, birth, life and death. This arc is ubiquitous—at least here in samsara. Round and round we go, looping from one life to another, from emptiness to form to emptiness, from one breath to the next. The shells matter—we can hold them in our hands, we feel them pass through our fingers. This taking up and letting go is at the heart of practice, where every moment is a passage.
— Martha Kay Nelson, Guest Editor
Tibetan nun-turned-wife-mother-Buddhist teacher, Lama Tsultrim Allione brings ritual and symbols into all aspects of life—from sending her daughter on a mountain trek to practicing with traditional clay tsatsas made from the ground bones of her recently deceased husband.
Buddhist Rites of Passage
How does religion that radically denies the existence of the self as an ontological category mark the stages of life? Buddhist scholar Christopher Lamb considers the question.
Not Busy Being Born Is Busy Dying
Midwife and longtime mindfulness practitioner Nancy Bardacke helps parents-to-be and health practitioners find expanding awareness through the birthing process.
Birthing a Spiritual Life
Panicked and on the verge of defeat from the excruciating pain of labor, writer Christine Schoefer realizes, “The work of birthing, once begun, must be finished.”
Zen teacher Yvonne Rand describes a grief ceremony for babies who have died.
Facin’ In, Growin’ Up, Gettin’ Real
Vinny Ferraro recalls his days as a teen drug user and dealer, getting clean, finally facing his pain over his mother’s death—and now working with today’s teens to get real with their pain too.
Language of the Heart
Following a weekend retreat offering rituals of initiation to inner-city gang members, Jack Kornfield describes a ritual return to the home neighborhood, providing healing for the whole community.
Finding a Way Forward
Should she or shouldn’t she? Ajahn Thanasanti Bhikkhuni tries to unravel the complicated factors impacting her decision on whether or not to become a fully ordained Buddhist nun.
Going to the Zendo and We’re Gonna Get Married
Even the Buddhist Rev. Sumi Loundon Kim finds herself becoming a “Bridezilla” as she plans her wedding—to a former monk from Korea, no less.
Marriage As a Precept
Evan Kavanagh, one of a pioneering group of trained ritual ministers, helps couples figure out what they truly believe and value as they create “authentic” Buddhist-inspired weddings.
Filmmaker Nancee Sobonya finds ways to transform the suffering of loss into the “gifts of grief.”
Being with Dying and Death
Yvonne Rand practices breathing with the dying and washing the body.
Ring of Fire
As Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s normally cool and quiet meditation hall unexpectedly bursts aflame with wailing and dancing, Martha Kay Nelson undergoes a ritual healing of the lingering pain from a friend’s untimely death.
On the Path to Leake’s Pond
Barbara Gates is surprised by what unfolds—and dissolves—on a visit to her childhood hometown.
Practice: Going for Refuge
Ajahn Sumedho and Bhikkhu Bodhi lead us through this most fundamental of all Buddhist rituals.
The Dharma & The Drama
Wes Nisker joins fellow “spiritual tourists” Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield and Catherine Ingram to reflect on their lives and work over the past four decades.