Celebrating O'Bon Week: Tending to the Dead and Feeding Hungry Ghosts.
Tending to the Dead
and Feeding Hungry Ghosts
Learning from Shugendo
O'Bon: Welcoming the Dead
This week we celebrate O'bon (お盆), a festival which takes its name from the Ullambana Sutra (盂蘭盆經; urabon-kyo). In 1873 the Meiji Government enforced the adoption of the Gregorian calendar as part of its push to match Western modernity ideologically. O'Bon was originally based on the observation of the Lunar calendar, hence the variations in the timing of celebrations across Japan today.
Across Japan and the East-Asian Buddhist/ Shinto/ Taoist world more broadly, this is a time to reflect on ancestors and what it means to be a good ancestor.
O'Bon as we understand it today emerged as a combination of folk customs related the dead, Taoist forms of ancestor veneration, Buddhist teachings and Confucian ideals of filial piety. Author-translators like Shojun Bando argue that aspects of O'Bon can also be traced back to early Zoroastrian forms of worship. These varying elements were all disseminated primarily through the vehicle of Shugendo. As Historian Byron Earhart writes, "much of the foundation, content and texture of Japanese folk religion was produced and shaped after the pattern created and diffused by Shugendo."
Historian Miyake Hitoshi writes that the welcome fires (迎え火 ; mukae-bi), farewell-fires (送り火; okuribi) and dances for the dead (盆踊り; bonodori) which are all part of the modern O'bon festival were, in part, first spread in to the popular life of the common people through festivals organised by practitioners of Shugendo. These events derive from and continue to punctuate important points in Shugendo's mountain-entry rituals. In Shugendo, we find ancient beliefs connected to mountains (山岳信仰; sangaku-shinko) and ancestors (神奈備信仰; kannabi-shinko) which hold the mountain as the realm of the dead and the abode of the divine. Returning to the mountain, the dead maintain a period of autonomy in their pilgrimage before amalgamating into a greater idea of collective ancestry and kami. This belief holds that ancestors and the kami of the mountain are indistinguishable.
The O'Bon period is a time where ancestors and the dead are welcomed back into our lives — a period during which they are said to be more receptive to offerings and prayers. An aspect of this ancient custom which continues today is the presentation of offerings in the form of spirit horses (精霊馬; shoryoma) and spirit cows (精霊牛; shoryoshi). By attaching chopsticks to a cucumber (horse) and an eggplant (cow), the offerings provide the dead with the means to return to this world quickly (horse) and be taken back slowly (cow). Offerings of food and incense, along with a welcome fire and ritual prayer form the basis of private O'Bon celebration.
Keeping ancestors in the relational periphery of our inner world is regarded by many as quaint and outdated. A quick look at modern day missionary organisations however reveals that beliefs around relating to ancestors are tenacious. Mission Nexus - a peak missionary body - for example, state that, "Ancestor worship has always been the greatest obstacle to the missionary...As a giant rock blocking the flow of water in a river, it prevents the great majority [from converting]." Far from disappearing, with recent trends like 'ancestral healing' making a resurgence, it feels like there is a growing desire to retrieve these lost aspects of the self.
A Garland for the Ancestors:
What does it mean to talk about ancestors? Scientists say that it's been 3.8 billion years since life emerged on earth. During this time, life has shimmered without interruption, allowing for us to exist in this moment. We are born of a mother and father, who also have two parents, and two grandparents. Going back only fifteen generations the amount of people it took for us to exist would fill a cricket stadium. Going back only nineteen generations, the figure would be closer to the population of a city. We are the "warm end of a long line of dead people". This is the wellspring of life from which we have all arisen.
We bring the dead with us wherever we go. They speak to us through the questions we ask about them and recall them in our bodily responses and reactions. A cursory look shows us that everything is ancestral: the way we look, our actions, our physical health, our preferences, our genetic information, our mental health, our understandings of life, our nervous system responses, our traumas — there really is nothing we possess individually. From the Ullambana Sutra and East-Asian Buddhism more broadly we also get the idea that to give offerings benefits seven generations of ancestors and seven which follow. Advances in genomics and epigenetics confirm that generations previous to us influence our genetic patterns - based on their choices, environments, cultures and so on - and so we will influence those who come behind us.
Rotting dead matter in the soil forms the basis for nutrients and fertility. The water we utilise today is the same water that has nourished countless beings across billions of years. The boundaries of our bodies do not stop at our perception of what is external to us; "we are all part of one human body, and the sun is a shared organ, our 'master gland'." It does not take a comprehensive cosmology to understand that life is relational, temporal, borrowed and returned.
That we are the inheritors of gifts, blessings and curses from the past is a key example of the non-linear nature of time. What does it mean to act as a benefactor and custodian of these? Are we being good ancestors? We live in a time of pathological short-term, linear thinking, a cultural amnesia made anxious by endless facts but which lacks a story (or is based on a fictitious one like terra nullius).
"The long memory is a most radical idea. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we're going, but where we want to go."
Across the hundreds of original cultures and Laws across this continent, too, to cut oneself off from ancestral ties is to separate from any grounding sense of responsibility and to regard the world as a blank slate without connection. As in other parts of the world, the recent history of this continent shows us that geography, history, cosmology and mythology cannot be separated but by great unrestrained violence. Both these ancient worldviews hold that the rhythmic cyclic entirety of the universe is mapped in a constant present around us, and tell us that the world around us holds stories, memories, and reveals its own laws of obligation, interdependence, reciprocity, custom, and protocol - elaborate systems of multispecies kinship which Deborah Bird-Rose describes as 'enduring bonds of intergenerational, mutual life-giving'.
The Buddha's exposition of dependent-origination demonstrates that within the interconnectedness of our inner and outer worlds there is great room for choice, infinite possibility, and the opportunity to learn to act skilfully. It also shows us that ultimately nothing belongs to us personally. Practices to ancestors in this sense are a gateway to unravelling the idea that phenomenon possess some kind of unique intrinsic essence or self-nature which can be separated from the relational. Embodying this state unclouded by conceptual proliferation is to return in some sense to an ancestral world beyond the emergence of thought and even life. We can call this Buddha-nature, original-unborn-ness or inherit awakening.
“Practice is a matter of slowly building up an awareness that life is given by all that is around us, that one lives interdependently...this is both the simplest and most difficult teaching to grasp..It is living with the awareness that life is a gift. There are too many people living [as though] on their own. There are few who [live with the awareness that they] are given life. When one realizes that life is a gift, one should express gratitude to all. In particular, gratitude toward the past and towards ancestors is important..”
—Mitsunaga Kakudo Dai-Ajari
The Tale of Mokuren:
Buddhism's influence on O'bon came through the Ullambana Sutra's tale of Maudgalayana (目犍連; mokuren); a tale which would go on to be depicted in the Ten Realms Mandala popularly used in Shugendo.
Mokuren was a contemporary of Sariputra (舎利弗尊者 ; sharihotsu-sonsha) and one of the Buddha's closest disciples. Having gained the testimony of Arhatship (阿羅漢果; arakanka), he utilised his powers of divine sight (神足通; jinsokutsu) to explore the various realms of existence. He found his deceased mother suffering in a realm of great hunger and was filled with distress. She appeared emaciated and was unable to take food, which would burst into flame as she attempted to swallow it. Upon receiving the Buddha's advice to practice transfer of merit, Mokuren saw his mother released, and danced with joy. This is said to be the origin of the O'bon festival dance, as well as the puja for the dead and hungry ghosts. Both Sariputra and Mokuren died before Shakamuni, and they must have been deep in the heart of the Buddha.
The Hungry Ghost rite (施餓鬼; O'segaki) performed by priests is said to have been first propagated by the Esoteric-Buddhist patriarch, Amoghavajra (不空; fukujoju), who lived between 705-774. It was during Amoghavajra's time that folk-agricultural festivals connected to the dead in China intertwined with two Buddhist ceremonies originating in India; the offering of food to the sangha to benefit seven generations of ancestors, and the offering to hungry ghosts, all of which which were celebrated in the middle of the seventh lunar month. The Hungry Ghost rite itself derives from sections of the Dharani-Sutra for Alleviating the Burning Mouth of Hungry Ghosts (佛說救拔焰口餓鬼陀羅尼經; busetsukbatsuenku-gaki-darani-kyo) in which one of the Buddha's principle disciples, Ananda, receives instructions on how to assist a ghost. The essence of this practice involves inviting, drawing back and embodying these parts of ourselves, providing hospitality and care so offerings can be accepted, and generating the transformative nectar of restorative nourishment according to what is required, regardless of disposition.
Ryuju (Nagarjuna) gave a graphic depiction of the hungry ghost (餓鬼; gaki) experience of reality:
"Covered in pus ridden goiters, their lives are as dry as the desert. The glow of the moon is experienced as painfully hot and the winter sun is experienced as painfully cold. Their mouths are the size of a needle's eye, their throats the diameter of a horse's hair, their limbs as thin as large stalks of grass, their bellies as large as mountains. Their hair is shaggy, the whole of their skin and body is utterly dry, and their bones are sunken and hollow. In their general appearance pretas resemble the fronds of dead palm trees. They never have an opportunity to remain in any one place at leisure because they are compelled to roam about due to their intense hunger and thirst. Their bodies give out groans and cracking sounds like the pulling of old carts, and as they move about, their joints crack loudly. Marked by mental weariness and despair, they feel as though flames were breaking out in their bodies."
Although emphasis is now heavily placed on the image of a hungry ghost, the origin of the Sanskrit term preta simply means the departed; those that have 'gone forth'. Nonetheless within Buddhist cosmology there are a variety of entities that fall under the label of 'preta' or hungry ghost, ranging from corpse-feeding ghosts (食人鬼; jikininki) to the mara papiyas who feed on and take over others' wholesome deeds for themselves. Understandings of the Hungry Ghost realm more broadly have also been influenced by the Sutra of the Right Mindfulness of the Dharma (正法念処経; shobonenju-kyo/ saddharma smrtyupasthana-sutra). This sutra stands out for its contemplation on the porous nature of our internal and external worlds and through its descriptions of various spheres of existence, including thirty-six hungry ghost realms. In the section on 'generating compassion for hungry ghosts', the sutra frames the preta's reality as being experienced primarily in terms of miserliness, stinginess, greed, craving, addiction, abandonment, rejection, self-deception, humiliation, obsession, compulsion and envy, all in the context of overwhelming psychological poverty. Some hungry ghosts are surrounded by abundance but can't engage with it. Others wander aimlessly, desperately searching for any kind of relief. In the mountain entry asceticism of Shugendo, too, the hungry ghost realm is marked by fasting and rites for the dead.
“A deer hit by a poisonous arrow
Will take the poison with it, wherever it goes.
For humans, the poison is craving;
It follows them wherever they go.
With 'giant bellies, 'needle thin necks', and bodies resembling 'withered and scorched pine trees', they are the embodiment of avarice and unquenchable thirst, 'moving in bondage and knowing no satisfaction'. Absorbed in their own situation, unable to see anything beyond themselves, time flows differently for the hungry ghost, with 'ten human years equating to a day'. "Deceived about the consequences of their actions, they will cry, wail, and weep as they run in all directions." This is the typical imagery depicted in hungry ghost scroll paintings (餓鬼草紙; gaki soshi) .
"In this way the practitioner discerns the subtle features of the mind, and in doing so becomes disheartened by cyclic existence. The hells and their neighbouring regions sadden them, and the world of the starving spirits saddens them in the extreme. Thus they realise the truth of the noble ones concerning suffering and the path of noble ones."
Life Hung Upside Down:
One way to think about the hungry ghost is to see it as the remainder of what is left behind in our experience by the functioning of the three poisons - delusion, aversion and craving, which fill our psyche with afflictions/obstacles (煩惱; bonno) and mental proliferation (戯論; keron). Our life becomes diminished and we feed the seeds of resentment, ignorance and grasping. Possessed by these ghosts, our lives go into turmoil as if we were being 'hung upside down'. The Sanskrit word ullambana (उल्लम्बन) is a combination of 'ullam', meaning 'to hang upside-down' and 'bana' meaning a basin of rescue (the offering bowl).
"If we understand possession in the negative to mean the invasion of our own being by another consciousness that doesn't have our best interest in mind, a parasite of consciousness, and if we realise that such a being doesn't have to have a human form, we can see how we all give over a degree of mental and emotional control to disembodied forces...I would contend that as a culture we do not speak of possession not because it is rare but because it is ubiquitous."
— Padraig O'Donoghue
The hungry ghost experience can also be said to be marked by a lack of reverence for life. The inner world of the hungry ghost is characterised as both dry and damp, lacking the nourishment or heat required to see beyond their own situation. Walking around half-dead, depression becomes a way of life for the hungry ghost, and death becomes appealing for it.
Another way of looking at the hungry ghost is through the psychological symbolism of addiction and trauma. Trauma, abuse and neglect can cause us to become possessed by an internalised version of the event, patterning us in retraumatising situations and further isolating us from reality through cycles of shame, avoidance and addiction, freezing our awareness through withdrawing, numbing, depression or fragmentation, extinguishing our vitality and armouring us against our own vulnerability. That these events can continue to haunt our inner worlds causes us to live on the surface of ourselves, disembodied and in despair — a predatory state which overlaps with the hell realm. As with the hungry ghost's food turning into fire, inner nourishment can only occur once our experiences have been blessed and transmuted into nectar.
That the Hungry Ghost Rite (施餓鬼; o'segaki) is performed silently and with great care speaks to the gravity of this imagery. The 'upside down' under world of the Hungry Ghost demands a different kind of language, a new set of eyes and a different kind of approach. During the Hungry Ghost Rite, offerings are blessed through calling on the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (観世音菩薩; kanzeon bosatsu). Avalokitesvara's defining attribute is the ability to clearly discern and assess the capacity of beings so that they can be assisted in a manner that accords specifically to their levels of understanding and receptivity – compassionately applying the right antidote for the situation. In Buddhism this is referred to as ‘upaya' or 'skillful means’ (方便; hoben), and a central teaching of the Prajnaparamita cycle of sutras is that all teachings are devised with a particular audience in mind, and not abstract dogmas to be espoused independently of knowing the exact dispositions of those who suffer.
In the Hungry Ghost Rite of Shugen, offerings for hungry ghosts are placed low on the floor, or are left in dirty, unhygienic locations; the only places where the offerings can be seen as acceptable. These realms demand deep listening, surrender and openness. As a practice-path which affirms practices for the dead and ancestors, we can say that ritual honours the entire contents of our hearts.
The Connectionless Dead:
The other defining quality of the hungry ghost is being disembodied and connectionless. Both in Japan and around the world we are seeing the rise of 'muenbotoke' (無縁仏); the 'connectionless dead'. The term muenbotoke comes from idea that we are facing an era defined by rugged individualism, narcissism and the unravelling of social bonds, referred to as 'muen shakai' (無縁社会); a 'society characterised by relation-less disconnection'. In response to this situation, the concept of ketsuen (血縁) has been brought to the forefront by popular Shugen writers like Riten Tanaka over recent years. Ketsuen carries the meaning of 'kinship', 'connection', 'consanguinity' and 'affinity'; a social presentation of Indra's net (帝網; taimo). In his 'Contemporary Transformation of Japanese Death Ceremonies', Haruyo Inoue writes:
"We have arrived at the era of a 'connectionless society' (無縁社会; muen shakai). The term 'disconnection' (muen) became widespread in 2010 following an NHK special broadcast and connotes a society where support networks are absent and there is no one to rely upon when one is ill. More than 32,000 deaths are considered 'connectionless-deaths' (無縁死; muen-shi) due to the lack of family or friends to claim the deceased’s body for burial.
Death comes to us all without discrimination, but the ways we die have increasingly become dissimilar in contemporary Japan. Performances of death rituals, or their absence (‘lonely deaths’, 孤独死; kodokushi), reflect the extremity and differences of each death and how unequal corpses are treated. The variations in dying ways are the very reality that propels the Japanese search for corresponding variations after death."
O'Bon in this sense is also a time to learn to grieve, to cultivate reciprocity and to learn responsibility — especially for things which we may not regard as within the boundaries of our own personal psyche. Francis Weller encourages us to view grief as a visitor to be welcomed, not shunned, and reminds us that in addition to feeling personal pain over the loss of loved ones ('to love is to make a pact with grief'), we harbor sorrows stemming from the state of the world, ancestors, the cultural maladies we inherit, and the misunderstood parts of ourselves. Grieving is important not just for ourselves, but also for others, lest it jump down generation to generation. The honour of grieving is a form of praise for the dead, and, as Martin Prechtel notes, it is "properly held grief that animates our praise for life." It is grief that ultimately heals the rift in our wounded relationship with reality. Celebrating O'Bon together, let's resist the paradigm of individualism and not be solitary in our grief! During O'Bon, I had a vivid dream of my father, who killed himself when I was a child. In the dream, as I was performing o'segaki, his invisible presence caused the house to shake and wind to blow through the room. In that moment the memory of his violent life and violent death made itself known.
These are ordinary experiences which must be honoured and held. Disconnection from our emotional world can cause a disconnection from our physical world and vice versa. Emotions influence physical sensations, mental cognition, social exchanges, and how we feel about how we feel. On a cultural level this kind of disconnection causes our eco-social nervous system to remain in a state of deep dysregulation; a state which writers like Tanaka refer to as the violence and arrogance of cartesian modernity.
Hearing the Cries of the World:
Speaking at the Japan Society's 42nd Symposium for the Prevention of Suicide, Riten Tanaka gave a stern opening (rough translation):
"As an antithesis to a civilized society that prioritizes the body's comfort and luxury, the practice path of Shugen, as laid out by the ancestors of our practice, taught through the practice of hardship. We need to think about our future generations, and how we can protect the future. The dawning of the century has brought to us a highly advanced civilised society that has completely altered the living environment of human beings, but this kind of advancement in and of itself does not necessarily equate to a good direction. Rather, it has caused irreparable environmental damage, destruction of the earth, the natural environment which we are a part of and a loss of our humanity. Our biosphere has been violated to such an extent that global warming, acid rain, mass extinction, ozone layer destruction, dioxin pollution and so on are imminent realities.
Since the days of our Founder, Shugendo has seen the natural world as a dojo – a precious place of practice approached with reciprocity, veneration and gratitude. Rather than conquering nature, the spirit of Shugendo is to walk and enter it like returning to our mother. Now that global ecological problems have attracted a great deal of attention, the spirituality possessed by Shugendo, which values living in harmony with nature and communal life, can be said to be ahead of the era of the new century. We also have a criticism of ‘painless civilisation’ and advancement through comfort. From this point of view, I claim that the spirituality of Shugenja is also now a symbol of ‘eco’ and ecology. It is true that the lineage of En'no Gyoja is a lineage of ‘eco'[logy]..”
Speaking to modernity's hyperseparation, Martin Shaw writes:
"The authentic part of the task is the acknowledgement of an incomplete cosmology — that we as a [Western] culture have waved a death rattle over the proud bone-cairn of all the animals, denizens and languages long flung inelegantly from their points of origination - wiped out. To weep for a hundred years wouldn't be enough."
Francis Weller adds important weight to this:
"We are plummeting into an age of loneliness, becoming a single species talking only to itself… As the monoculture of modernity grinds its way into the lives of every culture of the planet, the complex interactions of sequence and synchrony which we once were part of go silent. Our voice is increasingly more alone as the multilayered song of the world, [particularly in Australia], is ravished by extinctions…
We are depleting with an ever growing tenacity, the complex voices of the world and replacing them with a single pitched monotone, forever silencing cultures, languages and ways of being. As humans we are finding ourselves increasingly alone in a one way conversation with the earth we live on. The work of grieving for the world has the potential to translate into a fierce and undying devotion to the world. Particularly in the West, we have collectively neglected our emotional and ethical response to this 'emptying' of our planet...Initiation is a contained encounter with death...Martin Prechtel once said that ''those, who don’t fight death in adolescence, are destined to live in a walking death.'' This failure to confront death during initiation, dooms many of us to become agents of death, eating life wherever we go. Any sideways glance at our culture reveals a massively consumptive, parasitic energy, feeding off the life force of the planet. Restoring rituals of initiation is at the heart of any meaningful cultural change."
The grief of our shared history on this continent is so immense it is hard to reconcile. We need to seek ways to mend the world without pretending that these life-shattering events can ever be wholly undone or overcome. Deborah Bird-Rose suggests that even when things can't be mended, one can at the very least turn towards them; "to refuse to turn away is to remain true to the lives within which ours are entangled, whether or not we can accomplish great change." If we are going to practice meaningfully, we need to show a willingness to situate ourselves so as to be available to the call of others; a turning towards rather than a turning away. Sadly, Deborah suggests that this 'turning away' and hyper-separated dualism is central to our understanding of who we are in contemporary Western culture.
"The land and how we treat is is what determines our humanity...Because land is sacred and must be looked after, the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relationships. All meaning comes from land."
—Dr Mary Graham
If, as the Buddha put forward, we live in a mutual web of entanglement, then we must acknowledge that the greater part of our selves lies outside of the body. We all share in this communal cup of loss.
Tyson Yunkaporta's insights are also valuable here:
"Suffice to say, well over half of the vertebrate species on the planet have become extinct. The twenty percent of the planet that has been left as habitat for the remaining species has been reduced to a series of isolated systems that are unable to exchange matter and energy to maintain complexity, to keep creation in motion. No single cause such as global warming can account for this... How do these symbiotic dances develop, when the causes and effect relations are so interdependent and complex that there is no way to reverse-engineer the process by which the system came to be? This is precisely the kind of process we need to understand and engage with to create responses to the catastrophes we are facing.."
Wiping out the life giving systems that are the signs of the ancestors, we wipe out the living presence of the dead. Deborah Bird-Rose called this state of affairs - a period of tipping-point extinctions - a 'twofold death'.
"Life usually offers an intergenerational gift with death. Ecological communities—associations of predators and prey, omnivorous scavengers, parasites and hosts—depend on ongoing intergenerational cycles of life and death. The food web is premised on reciprocity among species."
'Double-death' is characterised by the unravelling of the work of generation upon generation of living beings, the death of temporal and material relationships across generations and the death of resilience and renewal where eco-systems are unable to recuperate their diversity - "cascades of death that curtail the future and unmake the living presence of the past:"
"Double death breaks up the partnership between life and death, setting up an amplification of death, so that the balance between life and death is overrun...Double death is a despoiler. It smashes the relationship between life and death, fracturing a compact that has been integral to life on earth. The despoliation of death throws the lives of earth creatures into a barren place with no future and with a rapidly unravelling past.
Double death is an open secret and an open wound. At this time it is driven by humans: it is the mirror on the wall. Something so deep, that involves us as participants and that we struggle to witness, calls from the very flame of life itself. The fact that much of the current tidal wave of death is caused by humans is inescapable. There is an affront to our very being as creatures of earth in the fact that we are doing so much to destroy it.
As our world diminishes, so too might we harden our hearts to devastation and proceed with yet another delusional as if - the delusion that we are not in connection and therefore that what happens doesn't concern us. This much at least is certain: our lives are held in the hands of others. Whether denial takes the form of strident refusal or the more subtle form of blank indifference, the result is the same: the past is concealed, and the living become accomplices in the continuation of injustice."
Various epochs of European history have projected their dream-lands in the 'antipodes'. The shadow of empire and colonisation reveals its beating heart in the ways we continue to project utopian dreams of healing without ever questioning this within ourselves, let alone its place in grief, heartache and justice. This legacy extends right back to Governor Arthur Philip, who projected his (eu)topian dreams onto the Australian landscape, seen as the fertile ground for the idealism of Enlightenment-era thinking. In the pursuit of these utopias we can sidestep reality, and the predatory spirit of Captain Cook continues to possess our cultural nervous-system through the inner logic of the Nation State.
It takes conviction to see our complacency and responsibility in these webs of connection; to respond to that which we cannot fully understand. Note again that the heart of Shugen (and Buddhist) confession (懺悔; zange) isn't just limited to actions which we hold within our own memory and lifetime, but rather actions going back into beginningless time. It means widening our perspectives and breaking open our hearts to accommodate for these things in our world-views. Confession means to hold this up to ourselves in our deepest solitude and silence, atoning and responding through the fabric of our being for the condition we find ourselves in.
"We humans emerged in dynamic relationships with animals and plants. With them we share our dependence on water and air and we share basic energy and basic substance: blood and its plant counterpart, chlorophyll. The water in our bodies has flowed through countless other beings, as well as through soil and roots and mycelia and what is held in the fascia-soil of the earth will be held in our fascia as well."
The body, rather than being a machine of production and reproduction is more akin to a self-organising system with its own weather patterns. On this, Deborah Bird-Rose adds, "understanding how we fit into the community of life and death is not really an optional extra." Thom van Dooren also puts it well when he says "we are interwoven into a system in which we live and die with others and for others."
What do our deaths feed in these wounded spaces? The infinite varieties of unrestrained craving make hungry ghosts of us all. In this sense ghosts reflect the spirit of our time, and it is an ancient idea that if we don't leave room on the altar for our obstacles and hungry ghosts, there is a chance they'll take up residence in our bodies. By offering to the dead, we are really feeding ourselves without distinction. This is the reason that offerings are described by the idiom 'shinjin-kyoshoku' (神人共食); that is, the hospitality of sharing in life's banquet together. In the sense that we are all enmeshed in these social relationships, we may begin to see aspects of the hungry ghost in our own lives. The living ghost however can act on its karmic-fate and learn to act skillfully. This is the beginning of a practice of awakening and taking responsibility for our inner and outer worlds; a gift to ourselves and others. It is for this reason that ritual-offerings to hungry ghosts consist of both physical offerings and offerings of dharmic nectar.
Head Priest of Shogo-in, Miyagi Tainen, in his lectures discusses speaking with the dead as being key to our times. If we accept the presence of the dead, we may be able to alter the way we live; "the greatest way to honour our ancestors is to practice 'eko' (迴向; merit-transfer), that is, generating the vow of compassion and dedicating our actions to others. Merit-transfer is the very essence of the way of life of the person who issues it." Merit-transfer can act as a raft to ferry ghosts to the other shore of great harmony, mutual peace and dignity. Expanding on this, Shokai Koshikidake, Head Priest of Kannon-ji, has said:
"Through merit transfer (迴向; eko) and ritual-prayer (加持祈祷; kaji-kito), we will suddenly and steadily have our eyes opened to another kind of existence. Time connects with time when we pray for our future in the past. And our prayer at the present connects with time in the future. This circle of time makes 'no time'. This circle of no existence beyond time makes 'no existence'...The present prayer influences the future or the present occasion. Also the prayer sometimes corrects past behaviours. The essence of prayer comes from beyond time and space. To pray now helps us in the future. This is the support for the future from the past. To confess the past behaviour influences time and space in the past. The past corrects the present and future also drives the present...We come to recognise the circle of time between the past, the present and the future. We can catch time and space beyond our consciousness through prayer and practice. This is the meaning of pursuing ritual-prayer."
In the 'zero point' of the present, which has neither beginning nor end, all beings, all things interpervade; past, present, future, life, birth and death. Shokai Koshikidake speaks about courting death as counter-intuitively being a path to greater life; that the self requires a dying process to truly experience aliveness. Shokai explains that for ancient Shugen-mokujiki practitioners, death was not the end of life, but a vital part of their awakening. The core theme within Shugendo's doctrine views the essence of the Founder's practice as receiving testimony to an experiential understanding of death and rebirth, with mountains as the gestation grounds for revealing the inner teachings. The mountain is seen as liminal 'other-world', as ancestral abode, as womb, as the body of Acalanatha, in which the practice of transformation takes places. Ritually entering into these geo-ritual-mythological spaces is transformative in the sense that they are inter-pervasive. Making its way through the feet, these 'ritual sites of cultivation' also provide practitioners with an interior landscape to anchor and give shape to their insights. During mountain training, and in the most secret of Shugen rites, a ritual act of self-cremation occurs. Shokai, tongue in cheek, describes the secret message of this practice as:
"Only death can cure us fools !"
A true understanding of the fragility of our lives can help bring abstraction, narcissism and mental proliferation back down to earth, helping us to see things more clearly and enhancing our ability to live with greater depth and gratitude — something which researchers are increasingly acknowledging as the 'death nudge'. Death will approach. How we court death literally creates our experience of life and we all embody our own deaths. It is by being in close proximity to death that we often become more open to the presence of the dead and become more keenly attuned to their wishes. Welcoming death and the dead, let's be good ancestors and not live as hungry ghosts!
Acknowledging our place at the table of shimmering life, let's have good table manners! Living one's life as the blessing of ancestors, let's keep the idea of ketsuen in our thoughts. Practicing eko as a way of life, let's practice to navigate our inner and outer worlds skillfully. With feet planted in our historical-cultural-inter-relational context, lets rebel against amnesia. Breaking our hearts wide open, let's not become numb and oblivious to the world, as a hungry ghost would. Practicing welcome, let's generate the courage to honour and bless what we would usually turn away from, cast out, and exile. This is what I reflect on during Obon's Rite for Hungry Ghosts (施餓鬼; segaki).
May these offerings
pervade the ten directions;
an offering dedicated to all,
Including demons and gods
"May we enter into the Buddha land of the seed syllable “A” with our extended families, our fathers and mothers of many generations, nine generations of ancestors, those to whom we are indebted for generations, patrons [of the Buddhist community], all interconnected living beings, the myriad spirits of the three realms, enemies and friends, those both noble and vulgar, those of the six destinies and four types of birth, those with and without connections to the dharma, the entire realm of devils, all gods and demons, those already deceased and those who will die after us, all that exhausts the dharmadhatu, and sentient beings of water and land. All rely on the grasses and are connected to the trees. It is into this Buddha land of “A” that we pray to bring ourselves and others."
— Akyubo Sokuden
• What We Owe to Future Generations Samuel
• Not with a Bang but a Whimper: Muen Shakai and Its Implications Taylor
• The Geography of Sorrow Weller
• Double Death Bird-Rose
• The world’s species are playing musical chairs: how will it end? Vaidyanathan
• We Are Not One: Interdependence and Dependent-Origination Thanissaro
• ‘Mind blowing’: Grizzly bear DNA maps onto Indigenous language families Fritts
• Losing Biodiversity Could Lead to “Extinction Cascades” Geib
• Australia’s ‘unclaimed persons’: what happens to those who die alone? Palin
• Dioramas of death: cleaner recreates rooms where people died alone Tanaka
• Death of the Disregarded in the Time of Extinction Bird-Rose
• Lessons From Stone: Indigenous Thinking and the Law Yunkaporta
• 'Muen botoke' rite held in Tokyo Matsubara
• Shimmer: When All You Love is Being Trashed Bird-Rose
• A humble evaluation of the time-space view of the Avatamsaka Dharma realm Ruh
• The Meaning of Yulanpen Karashima
• Remembrance Bird-Rose
• The Saga of Captain Cook: Morality in Aboriginal and European Law Bird-Rose
• Australia as the Antipodal Utopia: European Imaginations from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Hempel