We gather up rituals and beliefs around our holiest inclinations, adorning our spirits just as our temples and churches are adorned. We wrap our egos in them as in blankets, misusing our spirits as ego-endeavors instead of using our egos as spirit-endeavors. Whatever your altar, whatever your mantra, whatever your practices and religious artifacts, never forget that the living faith is itself the meaning – the forms are irrelevant.
The story of Ben of Kongpo helps us to remember.
“Did I ever tell you that beautiful story about Ben of Kongpo? He was a very simple man, with immense faith, who came from Kongpo, a province in southeastern Tibet. He had heard a lot about the Jowo Rinpoche, the ‘Precious Lord,’ a beautiful statue of Buddha as a prince at the age of twelve that is kept in the central cathedral in Lhasa. It is said to have been made while the Buddha was alive, and is the most holy statue in the whole of Tibet. Ben could not make out whether it was a buddha or a human being, and he was determined to go and visit the Jowo Rinpoche to see what all the talk was about. So he put on his boots and walked, week after week, to get to Lhasa in central Tibet.
“He was hungry when he arrived, and when he entered the cathedral, he saw the great statue of Buddha, and in front of it a row of butter-lamps and special cakes made as offerings to the shrine. He assumed at one that these cakes were what the Jowo Rinpoche ate: ‘The cakes,’ he said to himself, ‘must be for dipping into the butter in the lamps, and the lamps must be kept alight to stop the butter from going hard. I’d better do what Jowo Rinpoche does.’ So he dipped one into the butter and ate it, looking up at the statue, which seemed to be smiling down benignly just at him.
“‘What a nice Lama you are,’ he said. ‘The dogs come in and steal the food people offer you, and all you do is smile. The wind blows out the lamps, and still you keep on smiling… Anyway, I am going to walk all around the temple in prayer, to show my respect. Would you mind looking after my boots till I get back?’ Taking off his dirty old boots, he placed them on the altar in front of the statue, and left.
“While Ben was walking around the huge temple, the caretaker returned and saw to his horror that someone had been eating the offerings and had left a filthy pair of boots on the altar. He was outraged, and furiously seized the boots to throw them outside, when a voice came from the statue, saying: ‘Stop! Put those boots back. I’m watching them for Ben of Kongpo.'”
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
The story goes on. The statue spoke a second time and promised to visit Ben of Kongpo the next year, and two new places of pilgrimage were created around Ben’s house when the Jowo Rinpoche did just that.
Do not be offended or worry about sacrilege in others’ practices. The forms are meaningless, it is the heart and pure devotion in them that is everything. Attend to your center, not the forms and diversity.
Know that only deep faith is worship.