Ritual is a powerful way to evoke the mystery, awe and holiness of the
divine presence. However, ritual has sometimes been misused to cover
hypocrisy. Overly relied upon, it may imbue an aura of sanctity which is
not matched by wisdom or deeds. Ritual is no substitute for inward piety,
love of one's neighbor, and personal realization of God. And whenever
ritual is practiced, it should be done mindfully and with a proper att-
itude; indeed one purpose of ritual is to cultivate a heart that is sin-
cere and devoted. Nearly every religion has its own internal critique of
ritualism. Even when, as in some of these passages (the scripture of) one
religion is apparently criticizing the ritualism of another religion, the
critique is essentially a teaching for its own people.
In Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, the ultimate goal--unity with
Brahman or the peace of Nirvana--cannot be gained through ritual or merit-
orious work. Offerings and ritual are fruitful only for gaining the temp-
orary bliss of heaven; but life in heaven is temporary. Soon enough, the
soul returns to a body and to suffering in the world. Rather, the
Upanishads and sutras teach that the path to the ultimate goal requires
the inner discipline and realization that comes through meditation.
Then there is the question of what to do when a request for charity
conflicts with ritual taboos. The question was put to Jesus, "Is it law-
ful to heal on the Sabbath?" Mencius was asked whether a man can stretch
out his hand to save a drowning woman even though ritually men and women
should not touch each other. A Shinto passage praises hospitality to
strangers even when it means breaking ritual abstinence.
Finally, there is a general tendency in all religions to see in acts
of devotion, study, and charity the essence of the formal rituals required
by scripture. The Talmud which describes how Judaism spiritualized ritual
once ritual practice had become impossible, when the Temple in Jerusalem,
the only proper place for offering sacrifices and burnt offerings, was in
ruins. Thus an act of charity to one's neighbor is regarded as the equiv-
alent of sacrificing a lamb as a sin offering. In a similar vein, the
Buddha criticizes animal sacrifice as creating evil karma by killing life,
and instead teaches a spiritual meaning of sacrifice as fulfilled in
honoring parents, caring for family, and charity to the monks.
The Master said, "A man who is not humane, what can he have to do with
Confucianism. Analects 3.3
Not by sacred water is one pure, although many folk bathe in it.
In whom is truth and dhamma, he is pure; he is a brahmin.
Buddhism. Udana 6
Look, you brothers, who bathe in the holy waters,
Look, you monks, who bathe in the stream.
Give up, give up, your unholy thoughts;
Give up lustful thoughts for another man's wife,
Give up coveting after another man's wealth.
If you bathe in the waters without giving up these,
It is as if bathing in a stream that has run dry.
Hinduism. Basavanna, Vachana 642
What is Shinto? Not
In the shrines the worldly minded
Frequent for gifts
In vain, but in good deeds, pure
Of heart, lies real religion.
Udana 6: Cf. Var Suhiki, M.1, p. 490; Laws of Manu 5.109, p. 728. The
original sanction for bathing in the Ganges is given by such texts as Rig
Veda 10.9.8-9, p. 854. Vachana 642: Cf. Vachana 126, p. 721. Shinto
Poem: See Oracle of the Kami Hachiman, p. 728.
Hear and understand, not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what
comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.... Do you not see that what-
ever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But
what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a
man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornica-
tion, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man.
Christianity. Matthew 15.11-20
Abstaining from fish or flesh, nakedness, shaving of the head, wearing
the hair matted, smearing with ashes, wearing rough deerskins, attending
the sacrificial fire, all the various penances performed for immortality,
neither incantations, oblations, sacrifices, nor observing seasonal feasts
will cleanse a man who has not overcome his doubt.
Buddhism. Sutta Nipata 249
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an
unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the
Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the
cup. For any one who drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks
judgment upon himself.
Christianity. 1 Corinthians 11.27-29
Even three times a day to offer
Three hundred cooking pots of food
Does not match a portion of the merit
Acquired in one instant of love.
Buddhism. Nagarjuna, Precious Garland 283
With what shall I come before the Lord?
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Judaism and Christianity. Micah 6.6-8
Matthew 15.11-20: This saying was uttered in a dispute over the Jewish dietary
laws (see Deuteronomy 14.3-21, p. 855), yet it applies generally to any
ritualism that ascribes righteousness to certain material forms. The key to
purity is the intention of the heart. Cf. Tanhuma, Shemini 15b, p. 855; Var
Majh, M.1, p. 483. Sutta Nipata 249: Cf. Digha Nikaya i.167, p. 950. The same
verse is found in Dhammapada 141. 1 Corinthians 11.27-29: Cf. Kularnava Tantra
5, p. 468. Precious Garland 283: Cf. Itivuttaka 19, p. 969; 1 Corinthians 13,
p. 237; Oracle of the Kami of Kasuga, p. 969.
It is not piety that you turn your faces [in prayer] to the East and to
the West. True piety is this:
to believe in God, and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the
to give of one's substance, however cherished, to kinsmen, and or-
phans, the needy, the traveller, beggars, and to ransom the slave, to per-
form the prayer, to pay the alms.
And they who fulfil their covenant, when they have engaged in a
covenant, and endure with fortitude misfortune, hardship, and peril, these
are they who are true in their faith, these are the truly God-fearing.
Islam. Qur'an 2.177
Make your mosque of compassion, your prayer mat of sincerity;
Your Koran of honest and legitimate earning.
Be modesty your circumcision, noble conduct your Ramadan fast--
Thus shall you be a true Muslim.
Make good deeds your Kaaba; truth your preceptor;
Good action your Kalima and namaz.
Make your rosary of what pleases God:
Thus will you be honored at the last reckoning.
Sikhism. Adi Granth, Var Majh, M.1, p. 140
Finite and transient are the fruits of sacrificial rites. The deluded,
who regard them as the highest good, remain subject to birth and death.
Living in the abyss of ignorance, yet wise in their own conceit, the del-
uded go round and round [on the wheel of death and rebirth], like the
blind led by the blind.
Living in the abyss of ignorance, the deluded think themselves blessed.
Attached to works, they know not God. Works lead them only to heaven,
whence, to their sorrow, their rewards quickly exhausted, they are flung
back to earth.
Considering religion to be observance of rituals and performance of acts of
charity, the deluded remain ignorant of the highest good. Having enjoyed in
heaven the reward of their good works, they enter again into the world of
But the wise, self-controlled, and tranquil souls, who are contented in
spirit, and who practice austerity and meditation in solitude and silence,
are freed from all impurity, and attain by the path of liberation the
immortal, the truly existing, the changeless Self.
Hinduism. Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.7-11
Micah 6.6-8: Cf. 1 Samuel 15.22, p. 771; Amos 5.23-24, p. 288; Shabbat 31a, p.
1020; Japuji 1, M.1, p. 772; 1 Corinthians 13, p. 237; Oracle of the Kami of
Kasuga, p. 969. Qur'an 2.177: Cf. Digha Nikaya iii.185, pp. 242f.; Qur'an
107.4-7, p. 491. Var Majh, M.1: Cf. Gauri Sukhmani 12, M.5, p. 950; Var
Suhiki, M.1, p. 490; Var Majh, M.1, p. 483. It should be remembered that Guru
Nanak lived prior to the consolidation of Sikhism as a separate religion; he
lived as a Hindu among Hindus, and a Muslim among Muslims. He was critical of
superficial ritualism in both religions and taught devotion to the One God as
the true path of both religions.
People under delusion accumulate tainted merits but do not tread the Path.
They are under the impression that to accumulate merits and to tread the
Path are one and the same thing.
Though their merits for alms-giving and offerings are infinite
They do not realize that the ultimate source of sin lies in the three
poisons within their own mind.
They expect to expiate their sins by accumulating merit
Without knowing that felicities obtained in future lives have nothing to
do with the expiation of sins.
Why not get rid of the sin within our own mind,
For this is true repentance?
Buddhism. Sutra of Hui Neng 6
[Jesus] went on from there, and entered their synagogue. And behold,
there was a man with a withered hand. And they asked him, "Is it lawful
to heal on the sabbath?" so that they might accuse him. He said to them,
"What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the
sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value
is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath." Then
he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And the man stretched it
out, and it was restored, whole like the other. But the Pharisees went
out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him.
Christianity. Matthew 12.9-14
Ch'un-y K'un said, "Is it prescribed by the rites that, in giving and
receiving, man and woman should not touch each other?"
"It is," said Mencius.
"When one's sister-in-law is drowning, does one stretch out a hand to
"Not to help a sister-in-law who is drowning is to be a brute. It is
prescribed by the rites that, in giving and receiving, man and woman do
not touch each other, but in stretching out a helping hand to the drowning
sister-in-law one uses one's discretion."
Confucianism. Mencius IV.A.17
Mundaka Upanishad 1.2.7-11: See the following note; cf. Chandogya
Upanishad 7.22, p. 201. Hui Neng 6: Buddhist teaching, like that of the
Upanishads (above), regards offerings and ritual as effective only for
gaining the temporary bliss of heaven. Offerings made from a desire to
earn a place in heaven are tainted by selfishness; hence they still prod-
uce karma and cannot bring about liberation from bondage. Liberation
comes only through the internal gnosis of dependent origination and the
reality of Nothingness.
Of old, one of the ancestral gods was roaming through the land of his
descendant gods, and he came to Mount Fuji in the province of Suruga,
just as it was becoming evening, so he went to the home of the gods of
Mount Fuji and begged to be provided with a place to stay for the night.
The god of Mount Fuji, however, replied, "Unfortunately, today is the day
that the first fruits are being offered to the gods, and all of my family
are under taboos of purification and abstinence. As a result, it would
not be fitting for us to put up an unknown stranger. On this day of all
days, please excuse me from being more courteous to you."
With this, the other deity was filled with resentment, and said, "I am
your ancestor! Even so, will you not put me up? For this I will make it
snow both winter and summer on this very mountain in which you live, cover
it with mist and cold the year long, so that no person may climb it to
give you offerings!"
And with these words, he ascended instead Mount Tsukuba in the pro-
vince of Hitachi, and begged there for a place to stay the night. The god
of Tsukuba replied, "Tonight we are keeping the abstinence of the first
fruits, but we cannot refuse your request." And so he respectfully provi-
ded the visiting deity with food and a place to stay.
Thereupon, the ancestor deity was filled with joy, and said, "How
dear, my child, you are to me, and how majestic your shrine. Here, may
you prosper forever with the heavens and earth, with the sun and moon, and
may people gather here forever to present you with food offerings, so that
your generations continue in ease without end."
As a result, Mount Fuji became covered with snow year-round so that it
could not be climbed. Mount Tsukuba, on the other hand, is a gathering
place for many people, who enjoy themselves with singing and dancing to
Shinto. Hitachi Fudoki
Hitachi Fudoki: The Fudoki are gazeteers first prepared at the order of Empress
Genmei (c. 715
Once, when the Exalted One dwelt near Savatthi in Anathapindika's
Park at Jeta Grove, a great sacrifice was being prepared for brahmin
Uggatasarira: five hundred bulls, five hundred steers, and as many
heifers, goats, and rams were brought to the post for sacrifice. Now
brahmin Uggatasarira went and visited the Exalted One, greeted him, ex-
changed the usual polite talk and sat down at one side. He said, "I have
heard that the laying of the fire and the setting up of the pillar are
very fruitful, very advantageous.... I am indeed anxious, Master Gotama,
to lay the fire, to set up the pillar; let Master Gotama counsel and inst-
ruct me for my happiness and welfare for many a day."
"Brahmin, even before the sacrifice, a man who lays the fire, who sets
up the pillar, sets up three swords, evil, ill in yield, ill in fruit.
Even before the sacrifice, a man laying a fire, setting up a pillar,
causes to rise such thoughts as, 'Let there be slain for the sacrifice so
many bulls, steers, heifers, goats, rams!' Thinking to make merit, he
makes demerit; thinking to do good, he does evil; thinking he seeks a way
of happy going, he seeks a way of ill going. He sets up firstly this
thought-sword, which is evil, ill in yield, ill in fruit. Again, brahmin,
even before the sacrifice... he speaks such words as, 'Let there be slain
so many bulls, steers, heifers, goats, rams!' Thinking to make merit, he
makes demerit... he sets up secondly this word-sword.... Moreover,
brahmin, even before the sacrifice, he himself first sets foot on the
business, saying, 'Let them slay.'... he sets up thirdly this deed-
"Brahmin, these three fires, when esteemed, revered, venerated, resp-
ected, must bring best happiness. What three? The fires of the vener-
able, the householder, the gift-worthy. And what is the fire of the
venerable? Consider the man who honors his father and mother--this is
called the fire of the venerable.... And what is the fire of the house-
holder? Consider, brahmin, the man who honors his sons, womenfolk,
slaves, messengers, workmen--this is called the fire of the householder...
And what is the fire of the gift-worthy? Consider, brahmin, those rec-
luses and godly men who abstain from pride and indolence, who bear things
patiently and meekly, each taming self, each calming self, each cooling
self--this is called the fire of the gift-worthy.... These three fires,
when esteemed, revered, venerated, respected, must bring the best happi-
Buddhism. Anguttara Nikaya iv.41-45:
The Great Sacrifice
There are five great sacrifices, namely, the great ritual services: the
sacrifice to all beings, sacrifice to men, sacrifice to the ancestors,
sacrifice to the gods, sacrifice to Brahman. Day by day a man offers
sustenance to creatures; that is the sacrifice to beings. Day by day a
man gives hospitality to guests, including a glass of water; that is the
sacrifice to men. Day by day a man makes funerary offerings, including a
glass of water; that is the sacrifice to the ancestors. Day by day a man
makes offerings to the gods, including wood for burning; that is the sacr-
ifice to the Gods. And the sacrifice to Brahman? The sacrifice to
Brahman consists of sacred study.
Hinduism. Satapatha Brahmana 22.214.171.124-3
Anguttara Nikaya iv.41-45: Zoroastrianism and Jainism similarly opposed the
ritual slaughter of animals as practiced by the vedic Aryans. See Yasna
49.1-9, pp. 319f. Satapatha Brahmana 126.96.36.199-3: This text shows a
spiritualization of sacrifice in Hinduism. Since Brahman is higher than the
gods, the sacrifice to Brahman, namely study and realization of truth, is more
essential to religion than offerings of fire and animals to the gods.
Similarly, feeding animals and acts of charity which are done daily in ordinary
life are regarded as holy sacrifices. See the following passage.
"And in every place offerings are burnt and presented unto My name"
[Malachi 1.11]. "'In every place!' Is this possible?" Rabbi Samuel ben
Nahmai said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan, "This refers to the scholars
who devote themselves to the study of the Torah in whatever place they
are: [God says], 'I account it to them as though they burned and present-
ed offerings to My name.'..."
"Bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand in the house
of the Lord in the night seasons" [Psalm 134.1]. "What is the meaning of
'in the night seasons'?" Rabbi Johanan said, "This refers to the scholars
who devote themselves to the study of the Torah at nights: Holy Writ acc-
ounts it to them as though they were occupied with the Temple service...."
Rabbi Isaac said, "What is the significance of the verses, 'This is
the law of the sin offering' [Leviticus 6.18] and 'This is the law of the
guilt offering' [Leviticus 7.1]? They teach that whosoever occupies him-
self with the study of the laws of the sin offering is as though he were
offering the sin offering, and whosoever occupies himself with the study
of the laws of the guilt offering is as though he were offering a guilt
Judaism. Talmud, Menahot 110a
Menahot 110a: Judaism regards the fruit of study of the Torah as a holi-
ness equivalent to the fruit of sacrifice in the Temple, which had become
impossible after its destruction in 70