Honoring Our Ancestors

In many cultures it is common to honor or even worship one's ancestors. You might think this is all well and good, but there are some ancestors I'd rather not remember. Like most of us, you have mixed feelings about your ancestors. Who are they anyway? They're certainly next of kin and they may even be close friends of the family. In our Zen tradition we also think of our lineage of teachers as our ancestors.

Since we are very individualistic and materialistic in our western culture, once people pass away, we don't really want to think about them too much. But if you can open to a larger perspective, you might be able to appreciate how honoring your ancestors is something worth doing. For this present moment is already connected to our past and our future; it includes past and present.

No matter how you feel about your family, it is your primary collective experience and it's been this way for human beings for thousands of years. This family system extends from generation to generation, and it's primary purpose is to propagate life and extend love to each succeeding generation.

And that's important. It's not just about survival. A vitally important aspect of all family systems is the harmonious belonging that members feel. This legacy of love is one of the most important aspects of family systems. When this flow of nurturing compassion is blocked, the members of the family system suffer.

When a family experiences some crisis, trauma or catastrophe that is beyond it's capacity or willingness to deal with, it passes this burden along to succeeding generations. I'm sure you've heard the expression, "The sins of the father are visited on their sons and daughters." It's common folk wisdom. And what is amazing about this; what may be difficult for our rational minds to grasp–is that much of this happens below the level of consciousness. And it shows up in a future family member as a hidden loyalty.

Let me give you an example. A young woman has repeatedly tried to start her own business with no success. Inexplicably something always seems to go wrong. It turns out her Grandfather was very successful in business and he had a partner who he treated very unjustly. The Grandfather cheated the partner out of his part of the business, and as a result this partner lived and died in terrible poverty. The young woman knows nothing about this consciously, and yet she is carrying this burden. Unconsciously, she has this hidden loyalty for the Grandfather's partner. And she is living this out in a pattern of doing business for herself in which she continues to sabotage herself.

So you can see in this case that the family system is not harmonious and this pattern gets carried on in future generations. So it's up each of us to restore our respective family systems to some kind of harmony so that the love can continue to flow and nurture ourselves and our succeeding generations.

Illness arises, not so much from repressing an emotion as from failing to act in a way that resolves disharmony. Your suffering is in many ways, easier to bare than it's resolution. Your suffering can be bound up with a feeling of innocence and loyalty at a magical level. You hope that through your suffering someone else may be rescued. So you become resistant and reluctant to give up your suffering, because if you do, it will have been for nothing. So you cling to some romantic notion that your suffering has a noble purpose.

Family systems are dysfunctional because of the skeletons they keep hidden in the closet. So it require some courageous member to begin pulling the skeletons out of the closet.

So in our hypothetical case-if this woman is able to become conscious of what happened with her Grandfather and his partner, and she becomes aware of her hidden loyalty for the partner, she can now choose to give the burden back to the Grandfather where it belongs. She's been carrying the burden all this time, but it wasn't really hers. It belongs to the Grandfather. Giving back the burden is an act of deep forgiveness and acceptance. And it allows the woman to get on with her life. It also allows the Grandfather to take responsibility for what he did, so now the blessings can begin to flow again within the family system. Harmony is restored.

So this is part of the practice of what I mean by honoring our ancestors. I don't mean worshiping them blindly, but seeing them for what they were. And there is both shadows and light. Many of the gifts they bestow on us are utterly positive and nurturing, as they should be.

Again, I know what I'm saying here may go against the grain of our culture. But in many cultures throughout the world, I think they understand these psychological truths at an intuitive level. So it's very common to keep family altars and make offerings to them so that they are pleased and the blessings continue to flow.

If you haven't already, you might want to start your own family altar. And there are many ways you can do this. If you don't have a photograph of the ancestor, pick any object in your home that intuitively helps represent that person for you, and place it on the altar. Think of these figures on your altar, not just as object, but as spirits who are there in the constellation you have arranged there to help you embrace the wholeness of the family system of which you are apart.

When I lived at the Zen Center of Los Angeles in the early 70's, each New Year's day we would always go to the grave of Noygen Senzaki and do a service at his grave site. It felt nice to do this. And I still remember the marvelous words on his tombstone which read as follows:

"Friends in the Dharma, be satisfied with your own heads. Do not put any false heads above your own. Then minute after minute watch your steps closely. Always keep your head cold and your feet warm. These are my last words to you."

May we honor our ancestors, and receive their blessings so that our families may be whole and continue to nurture succeeding generations.

by Robert Joshin Althouse