Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ritual Water Purification

       Ablution is the practice of ritual washing for purification before prayer and worship. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Shintoism and countless indigenous belief systems incorporate ritual washing into their spiritual practices.

       Purification practices are associated with the liturgical season of Lent since it is a time of repentance and fasting, so now is an opportune time to learn about ablutions. You may find cultural and spiritual resonance with ancient ablution rituals from around the world. Most people are familiar with the mikveh and baptism rituals from Judaism and Christianity, and with zudu, ablution before prayer in the Islamic tradition. Hindus consider rivers in India, especially the Ganges, as sacred spaces for purification. In Catholic churches, there is a holy water font near the entrance so that people coming to worship or pray may symbolically cleanse and bless themselves upon entering--this symbolic action marks a separation between the ordinary and the sacred. Ablution thus helps the spiritual practitioner to prepare the mind and emotions, setting an intention for sacred activity.

       Water symbolizes purity and clarity in our collective consciousness. Below is a summary of water purification practices across some the world's faith traditions:

Shintoism: The people in ancient Japan believed that the Divine inhabited trees, rocks, mountains, springs of water and other natural phenomena.  From the inception of Shintoism, each act of worship began with water purification.  This is why you will find a temizuya, a trough for ritual washing, inside of every Shinto shrine. Learn more about temizuya here. Waterfalls are held to be sacred in Shintoism, and standing under a waterfall is a powerful purification practice. 

Buddhism: Waterfalls also play a role in a Buddhist ritual called suigyo, translated as “water austerities.”  These are practiced in Nichiren Buddhism today.  Some Buddhists have adapted the ancient Japanese ritual of standing under waterfalls while chanting sacred scriptures.  Now, Buddhist monks and nuns practice suigyo for cleansing and purification, by standing in front of basins of pure water which have been blessed by the Sui-jin, the water deities.  They sing sacred words from the Lotus Sutra while using water from the basin to purify themselves before beginning their daily spiritual practice.  The Lotus Sutra instructs monastics to clean themselves within and without, and these are the particular verses they chant during suigyo.

Hinduism: Hindus begin the day with morning cleansing by water.  In a practice called Tarpana, the worshiper makes a cup with his hands and pours the water back into the river reciting mantras.  After sipping some water, the person may then apply the distinguishing mark of the sampradaya (tradition), and say the morning prayer, samdhya.  Sodhana is a word that means “cleansing,” and the name of the Hindu purification practice. Every Hindu temple has a pond near it and worshipers are required to bathe before entering the temple. Indeed, to Hindus all water is sacred, especially rivers, and there are seven sacred rivers. In the Ganges the pure are made even more pure, and the impure have their pollution removed, if only temporarily. In the Narmada, the Ganges herself is said to bathe from her own buildup of impurities. In the sacred water, distinctions of caste count for nothing, as all sins fall away.  In the Yoga tradition, the niyama of sauca requires cleanliness. Sauca encompasses both physical and spiritual purity. 

As with all rituals, water rituals strengthen our intention and resolve to commune with the Divine. I am grateful to learn about ablution as a means to strengthen my desire for mental clarity and spiritual purity. 

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