Elaborate Blends in Ritual

The Four Instrument Blend is typical of blends found in religious ritual and, while elaborate, is no more so than ritual blends found in many religious traditions. In fact, esoteric traditions in which participants receive extensive training in elaborate rituals often have much more complex blends. This raises the question: how do rituals manifest elaborate blends, and what purposes drive the use of elaborate blends within religious contexts?

Blends are desirable as they enable humans to gain insights and develop creative responses to situations.Yet blends run up against cognitive constraints. While processes, chief among them compression, make it possible to overcome cognitive limitations to some degree and manipulate complex ideas, the psychological processes involved in blends are ultimately limited by working memory. Similarly, elaborate blends pose challenges to learning, both to establishment of procedural knowledge and associated exegetical knowledge in long-term memory. Yet ritual contexts provide a number of crutches to overcome such limitations. To borrow a concept put forth by Vygotsky (1978) to explain child learning, these crutches might be thought of as material and social scaffolding. This scaffolding

Scaffolding and purposes of elaborate blends in ritual

FIGURE 7.8 Scaffolding and purposes of elaborate blends in ritual

assists individuals in running an elaborate blend until elements of the blend are sufficiently committed to long-term memory, at which time the religious practitioner can run the blend autonomously.

A number of design features in ritual reflect key aspects of cognitive ecology (see Figure 7.8). For example, rituals often involve rich sensor)' input, including images and sounds. Dual Coding Theory (Paivio, 1986) would suggest that this enhances learning since such inputs draw on different working memory components (the visuospatial sketchpad and phonological loop, for images and sounds respectively). This input includes music, dance, physical movement, and gesture.The blends can involve numerous material anchors as well (Hutchins, 2005). In ritual, these can take the form of iconography, implements, or special attire. Fragrances such as incense stimulate the amygdala, focusing attention on ritual events, and, through top-down predictive processing (van Elk & Aleman, 2017), cue believers to run the blend. Tastes can even play a part, as in the use of bitter herbs in Judaism when celebrating Passover. In some cases, features of the environment can aid the blend, as happens when rituals rely on rich associations with sacred places within a well- known terrain. Similarly, ritual actions can be plotted according to times of day or a yearly calendar.

Turning to social scaffolding, elaborate rituals are often made possible by extensive training. In the Four Instruments Blend, the Korean monks who strike the instruments or lead group chants in the ceremony in the main hall have typically spent at least six months in intensive training as a novice followed by several years of training in a sutra study hall in which much of the Buddhist liturgy would have been committed to memory. Elaborate blending is further scaffolded through synchronized actions (Schuler, 2012). Collaboration ensures that a momentary memory lapse by one ritual performer does not derail the entire procedure. The blends are of course also aided by language to include both words appearing in chants and songs or words in written texts. Finally, elaborate ritual blends are facilitated by the repetition that is a defining feature of much ritual, particularly the ritual actions characterized by Whitehouse (2004) as part of the doctrinal mode.

Within religious contexts, elaborate blends serve a number of purposes. One key motivation emphasized by Whitehouse (2004) in his discussion of the doctrinal mode is learning. Through repetition, ritual performance results in the development of procedural knowledge regarding how to perform the ritual as well as exegetical knowledge (a form of semantic knowledge) of the doctrinal elements associated with the ritual. Within individuals, changes in long-term memory and a sense of investment can occur, making disaffiliation or conversion to other religions more costly. From an institutional point of view, the rituals result in greater entrenchment of the doctrines within the group and greater standardization of exegesis as a result of groups “running the blend” together. The common effort in mastering elaborate blends through mutual support also promotes a sense of belonging.

In a sense, ritual avoids some of the restrictions that limit blends within typical communication. In everyday interaction, blends must be comprehensible within the exacting time pressures of conversations. Ritual blends, on the other hand, can be highly elaborate. Of course, the elaborate blends invoked by ritual will typically be only partly understood by practitioners. Korean lay Buddhists witnessing a monk hitting the four ritual instruments may only run a very limited part of the Four Instruments Blend. Perhaps they feel a sense of energy, power, and mystery evoked by salient material anchors and features of the sound and have a vague sense of the connection between these elements and altruistic motives of the bodhisattva. More esoteric elements, such as the significance of the number of strikes of the bell, would surely be missed until explained.Yet this opaqueness may also serve a function. In Christian theology', a sense that texts contain some deeper meaning that even the writers or prophets themselves were unaware of has been referred to as a sensus plenior (Brown, 1955). A census plenior might also be evoked by highly elaborate ritual blends, raising the appeal of ritual because they hold the constant promise of generating new insights.

Within religious discourse, blending is also important for invoking a sense of coherence. Religious forms, practices, and doctrines are more likely to be remembered, repeated, and deemed persuasive if they appear within a highly coherent structure. When Buddhists enter a temple and bow, chant, and meditate, they have a sense that they are engaging in activities that hang together as forms of Buddhist practice. Likewise, the stories and ideas they encounter are felt to be part of the same doctrinal fabric (the Buddhist dharma). By packaging multiple conceptual elements within the same conceptual structures, blending is a critical cognitive operation supporting this sense of coherence. Ritual, through repetition, also serves to collapse time and space. When attending a Buddhist ceremony, the Buddhists chant sutras from the ancient past.The liturgical language often involves archaic forms (in the case of Korean services, chants in archaic Korean, classical Chinese, and even Sanskrit) that reinforce the sense of perennial truths valid throughout all time and in all places.

Religious institutions often have an interest in promoting specific notions of orthodox)' and orthopraxy, yet excessive rigidity can leave religions vulnerable. Fortunately, the blending process is flexible, providing avenues for change as religious practitioners further develop and reinterpret blends. On an individual level, this flexibility is crucial as it allows blends to provide material for further blends that relate specifically to people’s individual lives, often through processes of analogy. As alluded to by Whitehouse (2004), rituals aid this process by repeating doctrinal elements so that they are cognitively salient. Since much of the exe- getical content invoked even within highly elaborate blends is familiar, blends would serve little purpose without the possibility of being used as bricks for the construction of even more elaborate blends leading to further insights of personal relevance.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Find two or three of your own examples of religious language that draw on two or more of the types of blends discussed in this chapter. In each case, try to identify the challenges involved in making clear distinctions between the different types of blends.
  • 2. Try to think of your own example of a blend in religious language where particular believers might strongly disagree about the possible emergent elements.
  • 3. Can you think of a religious ritual that would not involve any form of conceptual blending?


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