The Mahayana Buddhist scripture Vimalakirti Nirdesa, also known as the Vimalakirti Sutra, contains one of the most radical ascetic statements in any religion’s canonical texts. The main figure of the text, Vimalakirti, is feigning illness so that he can preach the dharma to people who come to visit him on his sickbed. To one assembly of such well-wishers, he declares, among other things:

Friends, this body is so impermanent, fragile, unworthy of confidence, and feeble. It is so insubstantial, perishable, short-lived, painful, filled with diseases, and subject to changes. Thus, my friends, as this body is only a vessel of many sicknesses, wise men do not rely on it. This body is like a ball of foam, unable to bear any pressure. It is like a water bubble, not remaining very long. It is like a mirage, born from the appetites of the passions. It is like the trunk of the plantain tree, having no core. Alas! This body is like a machine, a nexus of bones and tendons. It is like a magical illusion, consisting of falsifications. It is like a dream, being an unreal vision. It is like a reflection, being the image of former actions. It is like an echo, being dependent on conditioning. It is like a cloud, being characterized by turbulence and dissolution. It is like a flash of lightning, being unstable, and decaying every moment. The body is ownerless, being the product of a variety of conditions.

This body is inert, like the earth; selfless, like water; lifeless, like fire; impersonal, like the wind; and nonsubstantial, like space. This body is unreal, being a collocation of the four main elements. It is void, not existing as self or as self-possessed. It is inanimate, being like grass, trees, walls, clods of earth, and hallucinations. It is insensate, being driven like a windmill. It is filthy, being an agglomeration of pus and excrement. It is false, being fated to be broken and destroyed, in spite of being anointed and massaged. It is afflicted by the four hundred and four diseases. It is like an ancient well, constantly overwhelmed by old age. Its duration is never certain – certain only is its end in death. This body is a combination of aggregates, elements, and sense-media, which are comparable to murderers, poisonous snakes, and an empty town, respectively. Therefore, you should be revulsed by such a body. You should despair of it and should arouse your admiration for the body of the Tathagata.[1]

Much of this is self-explanatory. Many of Catholicism’s more extreme penitents and ascetics could have said similar things; indeed, some did. However, what I want to draw attention to here is the remark about “aggregates, elements, and sense-media,” Robert Thurman’s translations of the Sanskrit terms skandha, dhatava, and ayatana. The first and third terms are roughly synonymous; the idea is that there are six senses (the sixth is thought, not anything preternatural) and six types of phenomena perceived by the senses, and this makes up the idea of a self in the world. The second term extends these twelve entities to eighteen by adding the processes by which the senses attempt to make heads or tails of their objects. In Vimalakirti’s doctrine, which reflects the Buddhist orthodoxy of a relatively early period, these entities and processes are profoundly untrustworthy and plain and simple distractions from enlightenment.

So why am I bringing this up in an essay about the liturgy? Put simply, it’s because the Vimalakirti Nirdesa is not the final word on this in Buddhist thought. There are later Buddhist teachings on the senses that both elaborate on these ideas and move away from them. These later teachings can, I think, be put into fruitful dialogue with certain commonplace observations about Catholic liturgics.

In an extended description of Jewish liturgies of Jesus’ time in her book Has God Only One Blessing?, Mary C. Boys tells us that “Study of the rituals of sacrifice may open new horizons on dimensions of worship, particularly to those concerned about anemic, passionless liturgies. Sacrifice is, first of all, theater. People come to a sacred place with an offering, the stuff of their life—bread and corn, grains of incense, sheep or goats or bulls. All the senses are involved: sight, sound and smell, touch and taste.”[2] Similarly, the Oxford Movement in nineteenth-century Anglicanism sought to involve the senses in worship. Ben C. Blackwell and R.L. Hatchett write in Engaging Theology that “[h]igh church services are colloquially termed the ‘smells and bells’ model because all five senses are usually engaged in worship,”[3] and Xavier Seubert and Oleg Bychkov’s Aesthetic Theology in the Franciscan Tradition makes the same observation about the architecture of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.[4] This is in contrast to the Reformed model of worship that focuses on the Word and thus on hearing—listening to long homilies like Vimalakirti’s.

Many Japanese and Chinese Buddhist thinkers, somewhat similarly to St. Francis and St. Bonaventure, combine a distrust of physical pleasures with an appreciation for the edifying spiritual qualities of the natural world. East Asian Buddhist schools such as Zen and Tendai often have austere reputations in the West. To an extent these reputations are valid, but compared to the early orthodoxy that Vimalakirti sets forth, these schools are much more willing to declare that we can use the senses to figure out meaningful and religiously helpful things about the world and ourselves. Dōgen Zenji, a thirteenth-century Japanese Zen writer, declares, apparently quoting an earlier Chinese source, that “The sensory organs are a gate of dharma illumination, for we use them as we practice the authentic way.”[5] The Tendai school is commonly said to teach that “even grass and trees” have a “buddha-nature” that contains the capacity for enlightenment. It isn’t that these Japanese and Chinese thinkers have reversed the Vimalakirti teaching on the natural world. However, they have accepted that the natural world and the “sense gates,” as they call the means by which the aggregates and elements enter the body, are how we experience our religious journey whether we like it or not.

If we look at Christian worship through the idea of the sense gates, we see a whole gamut— beginning with low church Protestant liturgies that resolve almost solely to the ear and sound, continuing through the more artistically interesting or tactile liturgies of the mainline Protestant churches, and culminating with the Eastern Christian Divine Liturgy or Catholic Pontifical High Mass, in which all six sense gates are carpet-bombed for over an hour by incense, kneeling, a visually stunning rood screen or iconostasis, and so forth. In a recent conversation with a well-known Buddhist priest, my interlocutor observed that it’s also possible to imagine a liturgy that resolves almost solely to sight or some other sense, but sight is too potent and all the others perhaps not potent enough. From a logocentric perspective it really does have to be sound, so that the experience of worship can be controlled by the liturgical norms yet also transmit detailed and abstract teachings.

It’s a common traditionalist criticism of post-Vatican II Catholic practice, one of the traditionalist criticisms to which I am (in relative terms) most sympathetic, that there is a serious lack of concern in many modern parishes with the sensory aspect of worship. Newer church architecture is often artistically underwhelming, Catholic hymnals and congregational singing tend to be lackluster, and many people are uninterested in or even vaguely suspicious of incense. For all too many contemporary Catholics, the main sensory element of worship, not counting the sense gate of the mind (which itself is at risk of being underused if one has a tendency to zone out during Mass), is tactile, and usually unpleasant: the “pew calisthenics” of sitting, standing, kneeling, standing, kneeling, sitting. The liturgy really ought to be interacting with our senses, as ways of perceiving the world, more than it is in most suburban or rural “Gather Us In”-heavy parishes. Whether a parish pursues that through traditionalist avenues, through charismatic avenues, or simply through springing for better hymnals is, I would contend, a secondary question.

The truth is, a liturgy engaging more of the senses is a liturgy that engages more parishioners. This includes especially disabled parishioners, since many disabilities impair some senses but not others. A deaf person would get less out of a primarily aural liturgy, a blind person less out of a primarily visual one, and so forth. For this reason, a strong argument can be made that the liturgy should be designed to enter as many of the sense gates as possible, so that “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” may be invited to the feast (Luke 14:13).

It is important to note that I am not suggesting that the concept of sense gates is how we need to view the liturgy. Sense gates are not a concept of Christian origin, and the Buddhist treatment of them is incompatible with the Catholic teaching that the material world is much as it seems to be. The differences between Buddhism and Christianity aren’t always immediately obvious, but they are profound. I would argue, however, that it is precisely in those differences in which looking at Buddhist concepts, or ones from any other religion for that matter, can help us clarify what we’re talking about when we talk about issues in the Church.

The “liturgy wars” all too often are, or were, fought solely within the context of Western Christianity. Looking at a notion like the sense gates helps us both to put our own liturgical hobbyhorses in their proper context and to keep in mind why the liturgy is important in the first place. Can the created world as it is be trusted to speak to—or through—us in religious practice? If so, how, and to what extent? The fact that other religions have had similar debates and often emerged intellectually and spiritually stronger from them ought to inform and enrich our thinking on this matter.

~*~

[1] Robert Thurman’s translation. State College, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

[2] Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2000.

[3] Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2019.

[4] Abingdon-on-Thames, England: Taylor & Francis, 2019.

[5] “108 Gates of Dharma Illumination” (my translation).

Image: Votive candles and incense at a Buddhist temple in London. From Wikimedia Commons.


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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

Opening the Sense Gates with the Liturgy
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