185 – 14 Ways to Enliven Your Zazen – Part 2
187 - Lotus Sutra 5: Step Right Up to Get YOUR Prediction of Buddhahood

The annual Buddhist ceremony of “feeding the hungry ghosts,” or Sejiki, offers rich mythological imagery as a teaching. In a sense, a “ghost” is anything painful or difficult which continues to haunt the present although the causes that created it lie in the past. A ghost may manifest when we feel dominated by the memory of a person with whom we had a troubled relationship, or when we experience something like anxiety or depression rooted in childhood trauma, or when we struggle repeatedly with compulsions or fears of unknown origin. Sejiki and its surrounding mythology encourages us to make peace with our ghosts: We acknowledge them, set appropriate boundaries, make a sincere offering of whatever they can accept, and hope that, over time, the ghosts will be able to partake of some healing and liberating Dharma.

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
Relating to Supernatural Buddhist Stories
Mythology Behind Sejiki and the Ghost Festival: Moggallana Saves His Mother
The Ghost Festival and Sejiki
What Are Ghosts?
Feeding the Hungry Ghosts: The Sejiki Ceremony
Relating to Ghosts: The Teaching of the Sejiki Ceremony
Liberation for – or from – a Ghost
Making Peace with Ghosts

 

Relating to Supernatural Buddhist Stories

I’ll begin this episode with brief descriptions of the ceremony of Sejiki, the Buddhist Ghost Festival, and associated mythology. These topics are interesting in and of themselves, but my deeper purpose in talking about them is to reflect on the teaching they contain, so I’ll get around to discussing how we practice with so-called “ghosts” in real life.

You may or may not appreciate ceremony or mythology. If not, that’s okay. It can be rather off-putting for modern Buddhists – particularly those who have converted to the religion or are simply interested in it, as opposed to those who were born into it – when you encounter aspects of our tradition which seem to suggest a necessity to believe in the supernatural. Especially if you appreciate the down-to-earth, verify-everything-for-yourself aspect of Buddhism, you may find it unnerving to discover the tradition includes stories of ghosts, alternate realms of existence, and offerings that produce effects in supernatural ways.

For you skeptics out there (and I include myself among you), I recommend relating to supernatural stories and imagery in Buddhism as myth. Myth is a cross-cultural phenomenon where colorful, dramatic, compelling stories are passed down through the generations because they convey important truths in a very effective way. It doesn’t matter so much whether the mythological story is factually true, what matters is the deeper truth contained within it – a deeper truth that usually can’t be expressed sufficiently through rational explanations or “objective” descriptions. Some Buddhists in the world believe literally in the stories I’m calling “myths,” and I don’t mean to disparage that relationship to the tradition. However, it’s not necessary to believe in the factuality of Buddhist stories in order to benefit from their teaching.

Mythology Behind Sejiki and the Ghost Festival: Moggallana Saves His Mother

Throughout most of the Buddhist world, there is an annual celebration called the Ghost Festival. It happens at different times of year in different places, but generally speaking, the festival occurs when a culture believes the boundary between the realm of the living and realm of the dead becomes more permeable. Associated with the Ghost Festival – which is a wider cultural phenomenon – is a Buddhist ceremony conducted by monks called “feeding the hungry ghosts.” In my Soto Zen lineage, this is Sejiki (formerly called Segaki in many places, but the term has been changed because, apparently, the term “gaki” has unfortunate racialized overtones in Japan).

Before I describe more about the Ghost Festival and Sejiki, I want to tell the Buddhist story behind them. Note that the roots of this story lie in original Buddhism, which included the cosmology of the six realms of existence, and Buddha’s disciple Moggallana, who was said to have extensive supernatural powers that enabled him to travel to other realms. Other aspects of this story appear only in Buddhist scriptures that arose later on, in China. The version of the story I’m sharing here is from Kenneth Ch’en’s book, Chinese Transformation of Buddhism (note that in Chinese, Moggallana is “Mu-lien”):

“Mu-lien, upon attaining arhatship, wished to repay his parents for their love and kindness to him. With his divine eyes he surveyed the three worlds to see where they were, and to his disappointment, he found his mother reborn as a hungry ghost, emaciated and famished.”[1]

Taking a momentary break from our story to explain: According to Buddhist cosmology (again, not something you need to literally believe), we are subject to rebirth after death unless we have cleaned up our karma and attained complete spiritual liberation. There are six realms into which we can be reborn, based entirely on our past actions: The three relatively pleasant realms of Heaven, the Human Realm, and the Realm of the Asuras (jealous demi-gods), and the three lower realms of Hell, the Beast Realm, and the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. I describe the six realms in detail in Episodes 29, 30 and 31 (Six Realms of Existence).

Beings are reborn in the realm of the hungry ghosts, as was Mu-lien’s mother, when they have been pathologically stingy. In this realm, they experience intense hunger and thirst but are unable to either find or imbibe any nourishment. Sometimes this is because they can see food and water but are prevented from reaching it, as in a bad dream. Or they are able to reach a source of sustenance but can’t eat or drink because their mouths are the size of a head of a pin, or because the food or water transforms into something terrible before they can take it in. Our story continues:

“Out of compassion for [his mother, Mu-lien] took a bowl of food and presented it to her, but the food turned into burning charcoal as soon as she brought it to her mouth. Mu-lien was sorely grieved by this, and returned in tears to report to the Buddha.

The Buddha told Mu-lien that his mother’s offenses were indeed most serious, and could not be alleviated by his (Mu-lien’s) individual efforts, even though his piety was sufficient to move heaven and earth. What was required for her release, the Buddha suggested, was the divine powers of all the monks of the ten quarters. The Blessed One then instructed Mu-lien to have prepared a sumptuous offering of the hundred delicacies, fruits, utensils, and sweet-scented oil, and on the fifteenth day of the seventh moon to present them to the monks of the ten quarters on behalf of present and deceased parents for seven generations back. On this day, all the monks of great virtue, no matter where they are, must accept the offerings and observe the commandments. The virtues of the multitudes of monks are vast indeed, and through the power of such virtues, the present parents and relatives would escape from the three evil modes of existences. If the parents are still living, they would live up to a hundred years, and deceased ancestors for seven generations back would be reborn as deities in heaven.

“Mu-lien carried out these instructions, and as a result his mother was rescued from her evil existence as a hungry ghost.”[2]

Mu-lien, or Moggallana, then asked the Buddha whether this kind of offering on behalf of one’s ancestors could happen every year, and the Buddha said yes. Note that the offering that frees the ghosts is made to, or through, the monastic Buddhist community. This is because it was believed that, if you were looking to generate merit by giving a gift, the greatest benefit was achieved by giving it to morally upstanding monks who were diligently practicing the Buddha way. The monks could then transfer the merit where it was needed.

The Ghost Festival and Sejiki

Significantly, Moggallana was not able to free his mother by himself, despite his devotion and his supernatural powers. Instead, it required the participation of the whole community, which is how this offering on behalf of ancestors who might be in the hungry ghost realm evolved into the larger Ghost Festival. In east Asian countries it was (and is) very important to honor one’s ancestors and demonstrate filial piety. Part of the popularity of Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan was due to its ability to incorporate this impulse into the Buddhist liturgy.

I have not personally attended a Chinese Ghost Festival, or the Japanese version of the celebration, Obon. However, from what I hear and read, these are community-wide events that last days or even a couple weeks. It is understood that ghosts and spirits are able to come out of the lower realm and visit during this time. To honor, placate, or benefit these spirits, many offerings are made. Food, drink, and decorations are plentiful. Symbolic offerings may be made in the form of paper versions of money or valuables. Entertainments including fireworks, music, and shows are presented, sometimes at very high volumes in order to attract the ghosts, and the front row of seats may be left empty for them.

The specifically Buddhist ceremony of feeding the hungry ghosts, performed by priests or monks with participation from the laity, takes place within the context of the larger ghost festival. I describe the ceremony (Sejiki) as it is done in my lineage, but first I want to reflect on how we can think of “ghosts” in a metaphorical way that is helpful in our Buddhist practice.

Note that Sejiki and the Ghost Festival serve two functions: One is to remember and honor ancestors or other people we have lost; the other is to make offerings to those who might be wandering in the hungry ghost realm. These functions are related in that they have to do with permeability between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead, and in that we hope to alleviate any suffering our deceased loved ones might be experiencing. However, it is not assumed your deceased loved ones are hungry ghosts. Most ceremonies and religious traditions are like this, encompassing more than one meaning at a time.

What Are Ghosts?

What are “ghosts?” They appear in every culture’s mythology, whether traditional or modern. Ghosts manifest in many different forms and ways, and there are widely varying explanations for their existence. Generally speaking, ghosts are something or someone from the past lingering in an unhelpful, unhealthy way. Notably, ghosts are different from “spirits” in this way, which can be more positive or neutral in their manifestation and motivation.

To bring the concept of a ghost into the realm of metaphor, it can be anything painful or difficult which continues to haunt the present although the causes that created it lie in the past. Two things characterize a “ghost” as opposed to your run-of-the-mill negative experiences or bad habits: Its persistence, and the fact that it seems to have a life of its own. Ultimately you can’t put your finger on the ghost (after all, they’re usually conceived of as being physically insubstantial), but it manifests as a set of experiences – physical, mental, and emotional.

A ghost may manifest when we feel dominated by the memory of a person with whom we had a troubled relationship. Suddenly we feel we’re in the presence of the person again, and feel some of the tension, anger, sadness, or shame we used to feel when they were around. A ghost may manifest as an annoying or overpowering experience like anxiety or depression rooted in past trauma. In this case we may feel less like we’re being haunted by an external ghost, and more like we’re being possessed by something from the past. Another ghostly manifestation might be neuroses, compulsions, or fears that show up in our life although we have no idea why. The palette of emotions characterizing ghosts include regret, longing, disappointment, anger, resentment, unacknowledged grief, and despair.

Feeding the Hungry Ghosts: The Sejiki Ceremony

Whether our ghosts are associated with actual people, or manifest as pain, reactivity, obstacles, inhibitions, or fears, they are not yet ready to leave us. No matter how much we wish they would go away, they keep showing up. To little or no effect, we have analyzed their origins, worked on antidotes to their mischief, gone to counseling, and meditated hard.

The ceremony of Sejiki contains a great teaching on how we can best work with our ghosts. It essentially enacts physically what it is we want to do in our personal practice of body, speech, and mind. I’ll briefly describe the ceremony and then reflect on its meaning.

A Sejiki altar with offerings for the hungry ghosts, near an open door

We begin by preparing our ceremonial space for the hungry ghosts. We cover all the images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas with cloth. Hungry ghosts aren’t ready to accept the Dharma, so the images will scare them away. Then we set up a big altar just for the ghosts, covering it with all kinds of food we think they will like. Sometimes people will bring the favorite snacks of a deceased person they are remembering, but mostly we put out junk food like chips, cookies, candy, and soda pop. Any kind of food will do, but I guess we assume the hungry ghosts might put health food in the same category as Dharma and reject it. Finally, we open the door of the Zendo to the outside, so any ghost wandering by could come right in.

As the ceremony begins, we make lot of noise with a bell, drum, and cymbals to grab the attention of the hungry ghosts. At first the three instruments take turns but then things speed up and there is resulting cacophony. Then we do some chanting, including some dharanis. Dharanis are nonsensical strings of syllables that have been passed down through the millennia by transliteration instead of translation – preserving the sound, as opposed to the meaning. Presumably they meant something as some time, and different dharanis are used for different purposes. The one we chant at Sejiki opens a portal between the realms and lets the ghosts through. However, as this happens, the priest performs some gestures and mutters some words which set up appropriate protections for the living should the ghosts get up to no good.

At some point in the Sejiki ceremony, those present process around the room such that each person ends up walking by the altar with all the food. As you pass, you make a bow and an offering of incense (in our Zendo we offer lavender petals into water). During the procession, someone reads aloud the names of people who have died in the last year or who have never been remembered at Sejiki. At the end, there’s another noise-making session, or quatz, with the bell, drum, and cymbals.

A non-traditional aspect of Sejiki from my lineage conveys an especially vivid teaching. (Actually, what I’m going to describe may manifest in some way in the Buddhist ghost festivals, I don’t know.) A separate ceremony is conducted with children of all ages. We usually have about 40 kids and their parents in the Zendo for this. The ceremony is the same as the adult one up until the chanting, when in through the open door would come several ghosts, tromping right into the middle of the room with their shoes on. (We always remove shoes before coming in.)

The ghosts are middle-schoolers dressed up, but there is always a large enough contingent of little kids who believe these are real hungry ghosts that the ritual is great fun. The adults pause the chanting in mock surprise as the ghost rudely stomp around the Zendo, breaking small rules and grabbing food off the altar. The little kids are encouraged to teach the ghosts a few things while they’re around, like taking off their shoes and making a polite bow. The middle schoolers play dumb but eventually catch on. A little. The ghosts can’t eat any of the food they’ve taken because their mouths are just tiny holes (holes cut in sheets, that is). The little kids kindly break candy into small enough pieces to push through the ghost’s mouths. The greatest achievement is getting one ghost to feed another. Then the adults suggest it’s time for the ghosts to leave, and all the kids get to eat the stuff on the altar.

At my Zen center we say the second quatz, the one at the end of the adult ceremony, sends the ghosts home, but traditionally there is another ceremony for that. It may happen in the evening (the Sejiki ceremony happens in the morning), or maybe even after a couple days. In Ghost Festivals, sending the ghosts back home may be marked by setting candles on little paper boats and sending them out to float down a river.

Relating to Ghosts: The Teaching of the Sejiki Ceremony

In the lineage in which I trained, we held a meditation retreat centered around Sejiki. We took a whole weekend to invite our ghosts to be present with us. As I sat Sejiki retreat, I liked to imagine opening the doors of my mind to whoever or whatever wanted to come in, just like we open the doors of the Zendo during the Sejiki ceremony. It felt like I was extending a special invitation to those ghosts in my life who I usually try to try to ignore, or even keep locked up somewhere. Over the years I found that the invitation of Sejiki often caused things to arise in surprising ways. I didn’t need to go searching for problems to solve, I just acknowledged there are always ghosts lingering and this was the time they could get some attention and care. Still, opening those doors can take courage.

Sejiki encourages us to acknowledge our ghosts and spend some time focusing on them. However, it sets boundaries around this activity: We do this for a specific period of time, at a particular time of the year, in the context of Sangha where we have support, and only after placing some reasonable conditions on our invitation. If a ghosts start causing too much havoc, we’ll send it home. We can use this approach at any time, choosing to contemplate one of our ghosts for a zazen period, or an hour, or a day, but staying aware of when such contemplation stops being helpful.

Once our ghost is present with us, we just let it be. We’re not trying to chase it away, or give it a lecture, let alone kill it. In fact, if we can, we make it some kind of offering, if only the offering of our attention and patience. By conceiving of our “ghost” as a separate but related being of sorts, we step out of the delusion what the ghost, or whatever it gets up to, is us, or that we should be able to banish or control it. Maybe, if we sit really still and even extend some compassion, we’ll learn something about our ghost. Maybe our offering and stillness will put our ghost at ease, and this phenomenon in our life will change in a positive way. Maybe, while the ghost is present, we can offer it just little bit of teaching, like the little kids in our children’s Sejiki ceremony coaching the rambunctious ghosts on how to bow.

Liberation for – or from – a Ghost

We don’t know how long our ghost is going to linger. It might be with us for the rest of our life. We can hope that it resolves sooner than that, but that hope can be a compassionate hope rather than a resentment based in shame, judgment, or anger. Taking this attitude, I believe, aligns our body, mind and heart more closely with reality than our typical ego-based approach to solving problems. Enacting the teaching of Sejiki with our ghosts can have some surprisingly healing and liberating results.

For example, one Sejiki ceremony happened a few years after the death of my grandfather, whom I loved dearly. I had also recently gotten ordained as a Zen monk and was experiencing some extremely painful alienation from my family on account of it. I kept trying to explain to my family, who I also love dearly, why I was doing what I was doing. They didn’t care about me being a Buddhist, they just were worried I was throwing away my education and career for a fanatical level of involvement with it. You might say the “ghost” in this case was a part of me in pain because of an unmet longing for affirmation and understanding from those I love.

At some point during the chanting and processing of the Sejiki ceremony, I had a strong sense that my grandfather was present, witnessing everything that was going on. I’m not a superstitious person and I’m not saying he was “really” there, but on the other hand, I’m more agnostic than atheistic on these matters, so what do I know? In any case, it’s interesting that my grandfather had been by far the most religious of all my family members, which tend toward the lapsed or secular. He had been a devout Catholic and probably knew nothing about Buddhism, but from the perspective he had now, wherever he was, he completely understood what I was doing. I felt a powerful release of sadness and longing, and after that I have never felt the need to pressure any of my loved ones to understand or approve of my Buddhist vocation.

If I was to interpret the experience with Sejiki and my grandfather psychologically, I guess I’d say I was able to give up the need for approval, or that I was able to find a new source of confidence within myself. However, neither of those explanations quite fit. What seems more accurate, even though it means using mythological imagery, is to say some hungry ghost within me was finally satisfied. I suppose it makes sense that fully explaining our ghosts and their eventual liberation is impossible without the language of metaphor and story, because our usual modes of expression can only address one dimension at a time, such as the physical, or the mental, or the emotional, or even the spiritual. Ghosts are something we experience with our whole being.

Making Peace with Ghosts

When we try to make peace with our ghosts, it’s important to remember we’re aiming to acknowledge and sit with them. Any agenda to convert or get rid of them will prevent us from understanding the ghost’s nature, and the nature of its longing. We have to cultivate willingness to witness, even when it’s uncomfortable.

One important thing to keep in mind: What a ghost wants is not necessarily what it needs! A ghost may long for an intimate partner, but what it really needs is deep self-acceptance so it can stop looking for affirmation from others. Another ghost may long to acquire fancy possessions, but what it really needs is to face the sense of meaninglessness eating away at its insides. Essentially, what every ghost really needs is Dharma practice.

However, ghosts are notoriously resistant to Dharma practice, so when we’re working with them, perhaps the greatest virtue is patience. We commit to making a practice of regularly inviting our ghosts in, acknowledging them, giving them what they can accept, and sustaining the hope that someday they will be released from the hungry ghost realm and they – and we – will be free.

 


Endnotes

[1] Ch’en, Kenneth Kuan Sheng. Chinese Transformation of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973. Story told in the Yii-lan-p’en-ching,21 translated by Dharmaraksha during the Western Chin dynasty.

[2] Ibid

 

185 – 14 Ways to Enliven Your Zazen – Part 2
187 - Lotus Sutra 5: Step Right Up to Get YOUR Prediction of Buddhahood
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