, 215–229Article No. reli.1998.0179, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com on
: Diagrammatic Analysis of RitualSyntax
is a ritualised meditation in which the practitioner visualizes the syllable
Popular in the Japanese esoteric Buddhist tradition of Shingon since mediaeval times,this practice is rooted in classic Indian religious culture. The symbolism of the syllable(originary, universal and eternal) is based on its uses in Sanskrit. This essay examines theritual syntax of the
practice, comparing two ritual manuals, one premodern, theother modern. This analysis seeks not only to understand the structure of this particular ritual but to develop a diagrammatic technique that will allow meaningful comparisonsof rituals from di
ering religious traditions.
1999 Academic Press
Frits Staal has shown convincingly that it is heuristically fruitful to consider the ways inwhich rituals are organised as analogous to the syntactic structures of language.
Inaddition to the theoretical and methodological concerns regarding considering rituals tohave a syntactic structure analogous to that of sentences, Staal’s work on ritual hasinitiated a technique of diagramming the structure of rituals.
Just as syntactic studies of language have beneﬁted from the development of the now widely used techniques of diagramming sentences, so also ritual studies can beneﬁt from a consistently useddiagramming technique.Visualising the syllable
, known in Japanese as
, is one of the most commonpractices of the Japanese sect of esoteric Buddhism, the Shingon sect (lit. ‘true word’,referring to mantra).
In the following, two versions of the Shingon
practice willbe described.
One of these is from an early Tokugawa era (1603–1867) manual. Theother is from a modern manual. The syntax of each will then be diagrammed, and thesyntactic structures of the ritual discussed.This essay intends ﬁrst to present information on the
and the patterns of ritualsyntax which structure it. Second, it intends to further the development of adiagrammatic technique for the syntactic analysis of rituals comparable with that used for the syntactic analysis of sentences. Finally, some theoretical considerations of therelations between cognitive science and ritual studies will be explored.There are two related aspects of ritual syntax that diagramming can assist in analysing.First, the rules by which rituals are organised are themselves ordered. Second, there aremeta-rules. Staal has summarised these two factors, saying ‘ ‘‘Meta-rules’’ ’ are simplyrules about rules. ‘‘Rule order’’ is easiest understood in the ritual context: the rulesabout lighting the ﬁre have to operate before those that describe how oblations are madeinto it’.
Rule ordering and meta-rules were both discovered by Vedic ritualists andform part of the analogy Staal makes between ritual and language. In addition, it seemsclear from my own work on Shingon rituals that ritual structuring employs elementsanalogous to phrases.The importance of ritual phrase structure is that it can contribute to an understandingof cognitive structures in the same way that the analysis of linguistic phrase structuresdoes. According to Steven Pinker, it is the phrase structure with its ability to utilize thesame kind of phrase in a variety of locations, that allows for the incredible variety andadaptability of human language: ‘Once a kind of phrase is deﬁned by a rule and given
1999 Academic Press0048–721X/99/030215+15