Rites and Rituals
The Rite Stuff: Variations on the Theme of Ritual
(Bowing, in and of itself, may be universal: a ritual of becoming one with. Affirming the depth and grace of that unity. An interesting side note: Zen priest Norman Fischer noticed when he bowed to a Buddha, it would seem to bow back. So he chose a small statue for his daily reflection, because its smaller bow to him wouldn't seem as daunting.)
Buddhism is ultimately first person (only you know if it's hot or cold, so it's all up to you). So, too, is it also present tense. Real time. One doesn't perform a rite because it is so ("Simon says"). One does to make it so: discovering and actualizing its truth in the present moment of our lives. Each moment. Moment to moment.
So bowing, or wearing a ceremonial robe, or any rite can become a trap or be a door to liberation. It can be a form of sleep-walking, or an awakening. It's up to each of us, all the time.
The raft is not the shore; the path is the goal
Are rites means, not ends themselves? The Buddhist saying is, "The raft is not the shore." That is, when you reach the other shore, don't carry the raft along with you: tie the raft off at the shore before going on ahead. The raft was a vehicle.
Looking deeper, we can find advanced interpretations of the skillful use of expedient means (upaya, in Sanskrit). For instance, there's the idea that there are different means for different people, or different stages of reception. And, too, if we discover, in the end, that we're already on what seemed the other shore and have been so all along, then too we might appreciate the tools' awakened value, in and of themselves.
I don't mean to sell short the goal of enlightenment. It is the ultimate aim. But it's more useful to view enlightenment as a process, and a continual one at that, rather than as any substantial or essential thing. In this sense, rites themselves can become ends: the path becomes the goal. That is, with a taste of the aim (the basis for true faith), just being on the path is the goal, and sticking with it, with every new encounter that comes to us along the Way.
So it's not contradictory to state that the raft is not the shore, and that the path is the goal.
Rites defining motivation
To many, Buddhism involves varying rites of meditation. Yet it also includes rituals of conscious conduct (i.e., ethics). And it's embedded in and imbued with a wisdom tradition, which can have its rites, as we'll see next.
In this compressed article, we might note yet another important dimension of rites in their potential for grounding our steps upon the Path, from the very get-go. I'm referring not only to the expedient nature of various tools (recitation or concentration, say), but also spotlighting motivation. Intention.
It would, alas, prove quite counterproductive to go at Buddhism as if it were self-improvement, for example, when it's the very illusory nature of innate selfhood that it wishes to sidestep. Thus many schools offer a vow dedicating one's practice as being for the awakening of all beings (the Bodhisattva Vow). All beings? A seemingly impossible dream, perhaps, unless one considers the ultimate selfless nature of What Is.