This week marked a central event in the Christian calendar – Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. This date signals a preparation for the celebration of Easter (approximately 40 days later, April 3), and all that it represents. Ash Wednesday and Lent are times of ritual purification and preparation, in advance of a Holy Day.
This is a unique artifact of religious ritual in our secularised world which has so thoroughly erased any attention to religious symbols and the enacting of any religious acts. Admittedly, Lent and Ash Wednesday are softened versions of themselves. We joke about what we might “give up for Lent” in terms of doing something which we might have intended to do in our collapsed New Year’s resolutions – no chocolate, more exercise. The emphasis is on how we could find the self-discipline to refrain from doing something, rather than the refinement or preparation of our spirituality or inner lives. In our shallow materialistic lives, Lent is usually an equally shallow statement that we would be better off with a little short-term restraint instead of our usual expectation of unending self-indulgence.
This is nothing unique to Christian practice, Buddhists, in our own way can be as shallow. One only needs to observe how practices like meditation are reduced to “stress-reduction”, rather than one of the essential cogs in the wheel of the Eight Steps to Satisfaction taught by Shakyamuni. Many Buddhists, most noticeably Western ones, firmly believe that there is no necessity for symbolic or ritual activity. We can dispense with bowing to Buddhas, making offerings and creating practice spaces which have spiritual power, as long as we live good lives, don’t harm anyone and do some meditation when we can fit it in to our schedules. Ritual events like Lent, or for us, Nehan, Vesak or Segaki-e, remind us that this material realm remains the Saha realm, one of ceaseless dukkha. Ritual acts are how we prepare ourselves to transcend this dukkha.
in the Dharma,