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.
This vow nourishes our compassion, as a practice. Is life blindly random? Massaging our heart and opening our eyes to our interconnectedness also deepens our awareness of a compassionate core to our experience, and at the heart of all things. Buddhists (and others) recognize the universe (life) as compassionate. We can easily lose sight of this. In fact, the materialism and cynicism of our culture can seem to erase it completely. So it's good to have rites (means) with which to reunite ourselves with compassion, in which we're luminously, joyously, and creatively intertwingled. (Is that a word? If not, I made it up. Making up words isn't a Buddhist rite, but recognizing the limitations of language is.)
Buddhism isn't about chopsticks in curry to go
In the West, we're learning the vital sources behind rites of Buddhism. In so doing, practitioners often consider what latitude we might have interpreting them. A wonderful challenge is in adapting such spirit to our own Western culture. Finding appropriate means. Bringing it all back home.
It could take centuries to pan out. This is still work-in-progress. One pioneering Zen monastery tried adopting Western monastic robes, rather than Japanese. Indeed, many practitioners eventually come to discover to what degree they've really been learning a particular culture (east Asian or Himalayan, say) in learning Buddhism. And in so doing they hopefully learn to avoid pitfalls of Orientalism.
We might end, provisionally, where we began, with Shunryu Suzuki coming to the West to see how Zen's cherry blossoms might graft onto America's hickory. At the time, there were still more Buddhas seated behind glass cases in museums than living Buddhas teaching the timeless law for today. For many of his students, what they learned most wasn't necessarily the ability to quote what Dogen said, or to recite the exact and full meaning of the Highest Wisdom, or any of that. Rather, as with singular teachers from any spiritual tradition, his very life was a teaching. As such, every moment of his life was a rite. Continual devotion. All of a piece.
From the Patheos library:
Buddhism Rites and Ceremonies
Questions for further study/discussion:
If a rite of another path seems strange to you, can you consider it from the inside? What rites make the divine real for you? How do you bring Presence into the present moment? Do you also let go of these practices? Do you see your life itself as a rite?