In August 1996 the Dalai Lama visited South Africa. I was twenty-two years old at the time, studying for my honours in physics. When I heard that he would be speaking at a local university – then called the University of Durban-Westville – I knew I couldn’t miss it. Buddhism had intrigued me since the age of 14, and I felt compelled to hear him speak first hand. It was, as it turned out, an opportunity of a lifetime; one that has never happened again.
The lecture hall was packed to the rafters. He entered, dressed in maroon and yellow robes, accompanied by a small entourage of monks and organisers. He looked healthy, his skin shone, and when he spoke we were all captivated. He was very pragmatic in his speech, and nothing he spoke of seemed far-fetched or esoteric. His magnetism was undeniable; one could sense his clarity and essential good-heartedness. He laughed easily and possessed a cheerful disposition.
Earlier, the master of ceremonies – a monk – had asked the audience to write down any questions they may have for the Dalai Lama. These would be collected, and some would be selected for the Dalai Lama to answer. I had a burning question; one that I had been contemplating for a relatively long time in my short life. It was a simple question, but I did not know the answer. I wrote it down and sent it along with all the others. The question was,
“What is the role of ritual in religion?”
When the question-and-answer session arrived I listened closely, hoping that my question would be fished out of the lot somewhere along the way, but it was not to be. The question was never asked, and my 21 year younger self didn’t enjoy the good fortune of having his burning question answered by a luminary whose opinion could be trusted and respected.
Yet, all these years later, I am coming to an understanding of what the answer to my years-old question is. And it has surprised me, as it seems the answer was there all along. I just didn’t have the lived experience to discern it. The answer, it appears, lies in understanding the nature of practice. It is an ironic discovery, as it is in my nature to take to disciplined practice with relish. When I enjoy something, and get drawn into it, practice comes without much effort. When I establish a routine it generally sticks. I may waver from it occasionally, but I inevitably return to it.
I have practiced martial arts since I was a child. I’ve always loved it. I enjoy the movement, the strengthening of spirit, and the clarity of mind I acquire through practicing martial arts. I’ve changed what and how I practice, moving from Karate in my early years, to full contact Kung Fu for the majority of my teens and early twenties, to boxing, to Tai Chi and Chi Gung in my later years.
About twelve years ago I began running long distances. I was never a good long distance runner, but after I began to understand it better I became hooked. I still run, and although I vary the distances I run, I still run pretty regularly. Between 2005 and 2010 I threw myself into Tai Chi and Chi Gung training, but I have to admit that I found it very challenging. I had to undo a lot of the external martial arts training that I had worked so hard over the years to programme into my neural system and psychology.
Tai Chi, in particular, required a sensitivity that just did not exist in the hard martial arts realm in which I had been trained. It went against all my previous training; in Tai Chi one had to engage in push-hands without trying to win ... suspending that will to win proved very difficult for me. I had been trained to think that the psychology of winning was critical for victory in the martial arts. Now I was being asked to let go of that and it proved very difficult for me to get my head around.
To add to this, I discovered, while studying Tai Chi, that despite my ability to generate powerful and speedy strikes, with both my hands and legs – both of which I thought required extremely good balance – that my understanding of balance and movement in Tai Chi was that of a novice. I felt hopelessly ill-equipped; and I could tell that my master could sense how much I was straining to find the movements and perform them effortlessly, so that they flowed from me.
I fared better at Chi Gung, and I could feel that I took to it more naturally. I had not had any previous experience of being trained at meditation, so I embraced it without any preconceptions. As a result, my Chi Gung training proceeded a lot better than my Tai Chi training. I felt the benefits of both, although I have to admit that I felt a bit inadequate in my Tai Chi training; as though I would never really understand it properly.
After five years of training I quit classes to focus on completing my PhD studies. I continued with my Chi Gung meditations at home, but my Tai Chi training was on and off. I would train every now and again, usually over holidays, to remind myself of the Tai Chi short form, and would abandon it for long periods. Nonetheless, I would return to it occasionally; something about the practice of it had made it a part of me.
My master was – and is – an exceptional individual. He is the only true martial arts master (i.e. in all senses of the word) that I have had the pleasure of training under. He would tell us not to worry about how good or bad we were; but just to keep training. One day, if we were lucky, all the training would sink in. One day if we trained hard enough the “chi” would “come”. It can take 10 or 15 years, he would tell us. He was asking us to put our faith in practice; that mastering Tai Chi was a matter of doing, not of thinking or understanding.
My uncle is a jazz musician. Since I was young he would compare my martial arts training to that of a musician’s. “You have to practice your chops,” he would say. You learn one move – or chord – then you learn another, you practice them over and over, then you string them together – practice that over and over – and what emerges is a song. Harmony is not just a matter of chance; it is a matter of practice.
My grandfather turned 90 recently. He has been a South Indian classical musician since he was a teenager. His instrument is the clarinet. About a decade ago I bumped into him by chance at an airport. He had just returned from a trip to Australia to visit my uncle. We had an amazing conversation. He told me that after many decades of playing the clarinet his playing had gone to a new level. I cannot do justice to what he was describing; but he was essentially saying that he could now move fluidly between the masculine and the feminine; that there was a continuity and harmony between the voices he played – alto and soprano – that he had now mastered after many years of playing.
This conversation with my grandfather gave me the strength to continue writing; at the time I was writing a lot but I was struggling to break through a find my own voice as a writer. This chat with my grandfather was, in retrospect, an early indication of the value of practice. That devoting oneself to practice is the key to unlocking one’s own voice.
It is only recently however, that I’ve come to a new understanding of the value of practice, and how intimately tied practice is to ritual. Indeed, practice – in order to be regular – becomes ritualised to some degree. Whether I think of long-distance running, martial arts, music, art or writing, regular practice becomes ritualistic in nature. Ritualising an activity makes its practice more entrenched, a part of everyday life; you begin to live with your practice instead of trying to figure it out.
In June last year I suffered a terrible shock. A long-term work relationship that I had thought was beyond question became very questionable very quickly, and it became very clear to me that I was not valued in the manner I thought I was. Accepting this was difficult. Letting go was even harder. My anxieties arose and I automatically began to train Tai Chi every morning. It helped a great deal. It lifted my spirits and gave me a sense of clarity. It strengthened my spirit. I needed no further justification to engage in regular practice; every morning I awoke and after a cup of tea or coffee, I would immerse myself in the Tai Chi short form.
My Tai Chi practice became a ritual. The more I practiced the more I reaped its benefits. For the first time in my training I began to feel rooted and my movements became effortless. Each movement emerged of its own accord. There was no forcing it. One movement flowed into the next without effort. There was a natural line of movement that the body takes through the form that I had not been able to find for years. Now – seemingly all of a sudden – I had found that line and it made all the difference. No matter how I felt before training, after thirty minutes of training I would begin to feel the natural flow of the movements of the form. After training my body felt released from all the middle-aged aches and pains it carries, my body felt light and my mind was calm but focused.
The act of ritualising my Tai Chi practice transferred into my other daily activities. Everything from the way I cooked, to the way I worked and drove around the city changed. Daily practice of this kind allowed for an awareness to emerge; one that enabled me to navigate the anxiety and uncertainty of change in a manner that I had been unable to before. Whenever I felt the walls closing in or my thoughts running astray I immersed myself in the ritual of Tai Chi practice and emerged level headed, released from reliving the senseless chatter of the mind.
So I’m finally beginning to understand why so many religions embrace ritual. I wasn’t able to understand it before because I was focused on the symbolic acts of ritual and their meaning, and not what their practice entailed. I thought ritual was just mind-numbing, symbolic devotional routine. I failed to understand that ritual entrenches practice. It is about doing; embedding oneself in practice and not philosophising about it. Ritualising activities takes one deeper into practice and yields a deeper awareness. This enables meaning to emerge from practice; meaning that goes far beyond the symbolism of ritual. Rather, meaning emerges from devotion to practice, taking the form of a new awareness; a way of being in and with the world that is not a product of the agitated mental gymnastics of philosophical introspection but a product of letting go of thought and immersing oneself in doing.