Puett Talks Importance of Chinese Rituals

Michael J. Puett, the Walter C. Klein professor of Chinese history and anthropology at Harvard University, said that ancient Chinese religions contain practices that are worth integrating into the world today. 

“I’m going to try to argue [Chinese religions] open up incredibly fascinating things for all of us to think about,” Puett said. 

As part of the Brien O’Brien and Mary Hasten Lecture in Interreligious Dialogue, Puett spoke to the BC community on Thursday about reframing the perception of ritual in order to increase the possibility of a richer life. 

“To become good, conquer the self by submitting yourself to ritual,” Puett said, quoting Confucius. 

Puett began by talking about the traditional notion of finding self and leading a good, rich life.

“Growing up, I was told to begin fully internalizing the idea that I should look within and find myself, my true self,” he said. “By doing that, by finding my true self … I should learn to love myself for who I am, love my good qualities and my bad qualities because it is who I am.” 

This idea collapses under its own weight, according to Puett, because humans cease to respond to people around us and simply react. These reactions become patterns and habits.

“We start to respond with rote patterns and habits,” Puett said. “Those rote patterns and habits setting in—we’re talking age three and four now—become so much a part of us, they define everything about us, they define how we experience the world.”

Puett said another danger of this idea is when people believe these patterns are personalities. This misconception can be incredibly harmful.

“We tell ourselves … that ‘I should be finding my true self and loving what I find, and devoting my entire life to this thing I’m finding within,’ which are actually rote patterns and habits … and never, ever changing,” he said. 

One example that illustrates this false sense of self is when people make purchases based on something they describe as a feeling. In reality, Puett said there are algorithms at work drawing out emotions and tracking the patterns of billions of people, trying to get them to purchase specific items on the internet.

Puett said that according to the Chinese way of thinking, people in society can confuse the personalities of themselves and others with the patterns and habits that form from a young age, and this causes an obvious problem.

“If all of us are falling into these patterns, most of our relationships—familial, friends, everything else—are based in these patterns,” he said. “We get locked into patterns that can just go on and on and on … those patterns can repeat for years, decades, lifetimes.”

Puett said these patterns, which permeate all relationships and then are passed down from generation to generation, can be described as demonic.

“And the reason [demonic] is a really powerful term is because we have to deal with the fact that these demonic sides play into our daily relationships,” he said. 

By embracing and not changing the true self, Puett said we are claiming the demonic sides don’t exist. In order to combat this destructive attitude, Puett suggests looking at rituals.

Puett said one ritual, which played out in ancient China, involves exercising the dynamic between a father and son in a hereditary monarchy, where there is a constant struggle for a feeling of satisfaction in each successive generation. 

“You and your son enter the ritual space, and your deceased father is called down,” he said. “You are now your son, and your son is your father.”

The massive role reversal in this ritual aims to break the patterns of demonic energy that exist. 

All rituals should help us break patterns and become different people so that we can construct the world in a better way, according to Puett. 

“In all of these role reversal rituals in which our demonic sides are worked on … we slowly break our patterns by becoming different people,” Puett said. “Over time, if you do it right, if you become different people in this ritual, you … begin to slowly see the world as it is … a messy world, but we can construct the world differently and better.”

Featured Image by Vikrum Singh / Heights Editor

October 25, 2021