The Language of Ritual

Now that I am no longer at Zen Center, I start to miss some of the ceremonies I have participated in over the years. I think it is natural for human beings to crave and respond to rituals marking particular stages of life – and death – and there was always something comforting for me about being immersed in so many different ritual events.

If you are reading the blog regularly, you may have noticed that I have been starting the week with a story from Transmitting the Light, and, without wishing to suggest that there are no more good stories to use from the book, I thought of beginning a different Monday series, with phrases from various ceremonies, some of which pop up in my head on occasion.

People often ask me about having my head shaved, the main question being whether it a requirement for a priest. I had a buzz cut for several years before I started practising, but shaving it completely is a different thing altogether. Mine has been shaved for almost seven years now, and I expect to keep it that way, though I wouldn’t make any promises around that. When people ask why it is done, I think of a line from the shukke tokudo (home-leaving ordination):

Cutting off the hair is cutting the root of clinging.
As soon as the root of clinging is cut, your original body appears.

There is another verse that stuck with me when I was first ordained, the one we were asked to contemplate while an older dharma brother shaved our heads – all except the patch that was left for the ceremonial shaving – the evening before the ordination. It was the ‘all’ in the second line that underlined the deep purpose of our practice as priests:

Shaving off the hair,
Dedicated to all beings,
Dropping off all worldly desires,
Completely entering Nirvana.

2 thoughts on “The Language of Ritual

  1. I survived growing up with six-brothers and I always admired their ritual of going to the barber and getting their hair cut close buzz cut. I, on the other hand, had to endure and was totally traumatized by the hot-comb; straightening of my naturally tight curly hair. My first step toward a sense of freedom was to cut all my hair off. I love the exposure! I love how you can actually see more of the essence of an individual when the hair is not there. So, when the head is already shaved, how would the ceremony differ? And, Is it possible to ‘Drop off all worldly desires’? I learn much from your Zen; play it as it happen for you and I’ll listen to your rhythm.


  2. Different moments bring different instructions about dropping off desires. Mostly we need to keep checking in what our relationship is to them, and letting them go is a good starting point to having them around.


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