Transforming Ghosts into Ancestors


Something died on election eve in 2016. What many of us thought it meant to be an American became a ghost which now haunts us. It hangs around with an air of regret and may for others become a bad case of buyers remorse once our new president takes office. Perhaps the ghost has been here for a long time, and we simply did not notice. But whatever the case may be, he or she is here now. And we could release this ghost to become an ancestor that we remember with affection, an ancestor that supports us and gives us courage in times of difficulty to remain true to the American values that seemed to go missing on election eve. 

For our Winter retreat, we chanted the Gate of Sweet Nectar. In this service, we invite all the hungry ghosts to join us. We offer them whatever they need, food, dharma—whatever will release them from their suffering. 

This is a very old practice known in ancient China as the ghost festival. It actually predates both Taoism and Buddhism so it's very old and it was very common among the Chinese population. They believed that by doing this practice they could release and free the ghost so it would take up it's honored position as an ancestor that would serve the family and community. 

Villagers would do this practice in the seventh month of the year on the 15th day of the month at the full moon. It was not religious. It was agricultural, coming at a pivotal time of year, at the end of summer and the beginning of fall. It was a time of rebirth and renewal, of ripening and decay. 

So it occurred to me that we might do our Gate of Sweet Nectar Service once a quarter, we might do it as a special service to release the ghost of election eve to become our honored ancestor. Since Leonard Cohen died at the time of the election we might start by inviting him to take up this honored position as our first honored American ancestor. We already have American ancestors in our spiritual White Plum lineage, but this would be another kind of ancestor that we added to our spiritual lineage that reminds us of what it still means to be an American and helps protect and support us during times of darkness and confusion. 

If any of your reading this are good with your hands, and can help us make a special plaque, we call an ihei, then we could put out this plaque each time we do the service. 

I plan to do this service in early next year, on Lincoln's Birtdhay, on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2017 at our Sunday Morning Zen program. I'll then give a teisho (dharma talk) about this to our community.

Roshi Robert Althouse