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From Ancient Forms To Modern Rituals

Editor’s Letter for Issue 103

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“Ritual”—the word sounds almost archaic today—but it has never been more relevant. Scholars in ancient China burned incense and washed hands before picking up books to read. The practice not only showed respect and sincerity, it also had the practical benefit of preparing their mind for optimal study.

The poet Su Dongpo of the Song Dynasty supposedly combed his hair 100 times before going to bed every day. More than just primping, this simple act brought each day to conclusion and was a wellness routine for both mind and body. Christians say grace before they eat, and Native Americans burn sage to purify their homes. Every culture has developed mindful practices to remind people of the underlying sacredness of even the most mundane aspects of life.

In our fast-paced modern lives, rituals have mostly fallen by the wayside. Our daily routines are rushed and lacking in intention or distinction. Without the special memories that ceremonies and rituals create, our senses and feelings become stale and we miss out on the joys and satisfaction that build over time through deliberate practices.

Even if we don’t have the luxury of taking tea like an English or Japanese noblewoman, we can still reserve a few extra moments to truly enjoy the flavour of a cup made just the way we like it from leaves harvested with the same sense of appreciation.

For dinner, we can replace the electric cooker with a traditional Japanese donabe, and let the aroma from the slow simmering meal melt away the fatigue of the day. Regardless of when or why, we need to take the time to make some of the daily events of our lives more special, because when we do, the joy of those moments carries through the rest of our day.

In a remote village on the Tibetan plateau, American fashion designer Dechen Yeshi follows a Buddhist tradition of walking around the monastery in the morning. This daily ritual lets her and her Tibetan artisans cultivate a pious heart in making their yak wool garments.

Shen Yun artists who spend six months of the year touring the world never forget each other’s birthdays, no matter where they are. Their team spirit and support for each other turn a rising star’s birthday wish into reality year after year.

Traditional Chinese culture holds that rituals and formality embody the concept of “propriety” advocated by Confucianism. Ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi once said, “A person without propriety cannot survive; an effort without propriety will not succeed; a country without propriety will not be peaceful.”

A French missionary who visited China 200 years ago revealed just how deep this sense of propriety ran when he wrote and illustrated a book about Chinese architecture.

Today, ancient Chinese architectural principles are carried on not only in city buildings but also in fashion—an architect-turned-designer’s love of woodwork led him to create a luxury handbag brand using ancient inlaid wood techniques.

To those of us who live in the moment, rituals and ceremonies are particularly important. They can slow us down and loosen us to let us rediscover many small joys in life. Even routine chores can become something joyful.

Times have changed, and our rituals have changed. But the feelings they bring us haven’t. Just like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said in his classic children’s tale The Little Prince, a ritual is “what makes one day different from other days, one hour different from other hours.”

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 103

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