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
Photographer Sabina Lanier writes:
This painted rock is next to a path around Drepung Monastery, outside of Lhasa, Tibet. The little girl just happened to be there. . . . I have photographed off and on my whole life and built my first darkroom about fifteen years ago. I am old fashioned and see working in the darkroom as part of the creative process. I like to wrestle with an image. I am not interested in a perfect rendition but photograph what moves me and try to reproduce that feeling, working with qualities of light and shape.
Lanier lives and works in Berkeley, California.
For budgetary reasons, we’ve focused on archiving Inquiring Mind’s original articles, interviews and poetry. For the most part, we’ve left out anything that was adapted or excerpted from a book or other publication.
“Buddhist Rites of Passage,” by Buddhist scholar Christopher Lamb, was adapted from “Rites of Passage” in Buddhism, edited by Peter Harvey (Continuum International Publishing Company, 2001)
“Language of the Heart” was adapted from The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield (Bantam Books, 2008)