Obon - Hungry Ghosts and Hell
- Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu -
Welcome again to Reno Buddhist Center - so Happy to see you all this morning. Wow - NOVEMBER!
I am still processing a tour I had to a gold mine in Elko this week. It doesn't really have to do with Hell. But at ¼ mile underground it was about 85deg and very very dark. It made me think.
We just had Halloween last night. That brings the mind to stories of ghosts, darkness, and Death. Plumas street seems to be strewn with pumpkin parts this morning. Dead pumpkins.
We had a three memorial services last month. One included a funeral service at the crematorium. We met the family at the facility. A very industrial place on Greg St. - I don't think they get many visits. Being present at the dissolution of the loved one’s body is a powerful and important Buddhist experience. It leads to the closure that acceptance gives.
"We open a sacred door now to do the solemn business at hand and close it when we are done".
We entered the room and there was Mandy. She was a dear sister and a daughter and an Aunty. She couldn’t endure the pain of life anymore. So she ended it. But that pain didn’t end there. There she lay, oddly pale. As Rennyo says -
“the attractive countenance like peach and plum blossoms is lost.“
As I approached the body I could feel the fear and worry creep into my mind. I remembered the words of the Buddha “return to the breath”. A few calm breaths brought me back. Her sister Alice began sobbing deeply and uncontrollably, supported only by her husband’s arms. She was racked with guilt - worrying that if she had tried to be there for her sister - if that would have helped? If that would have saved her?
Nothing reminds us of transience of all this like an experience like this. Everything is so temporary. The Nembutsu came to my mind. I chanted it silently as we arranged things - who will stand where? A very solemn duty to perform.
In the Buddhist tradition death is not something to be avoided. As a fact of life it is our solemn responsibility to care for the dead and their onward journey as best we can. Part of this is to be there at the cremation. Traditionally the closest relative is the one to light the funeral pyre.
Most Americans are not Buddhist so the tradition of a close family member lighting the funeral pyre seems strange - “Better to have a stranger do it.” This is an upside down view. To be present at the dissolution of the loved one’s body is a powerful and important experience. It leads to the closure that acceptance gives. Mandy’s Brother-in-Law volunteered to take this duty on and stepped forward. There was a big red button on the control panel - fighting back tears - he pressed it. With a rumble of fire the process began.
“Words fail to describe the sadness of it all.”
We chanted for a time and our service ended. In all the empty moments I chanted the Nembutsu. I realized now that the reflex of bringing to mind the Buddha has seeped into me somehow. The refuge of the Buddha is there for me as well. In challenging circumstances this Dharma came to me. When fear and other emotions threatened to dissolve my composure the Nembutsu offered up.
Loss is real and painful. Suffering manifested large for all to see. Even the stoic and the strong break down in tears. Alice was left with Mandy’s pain - transformed but real. A hungry ghost she would live with for a time.
Read - White Ashes from Rennyo's Letters trans Inagaki
So - What is Obon?
This is our Obon service. A holiday celebrating those who have come before us. Our Mothers and Fathers, grandparents and ancestors. As some of you know - this holiday has its roots in the experience of Maha-Moggallana. One of Sakayamuni's ten primary students. We had a visit from Moggallana when the Relic Tour was here. Because of his high level of practice Moggallana was known for having clairvoyant powers, a common trait amongst spiritually accomplished people. He began to think deeply about his parents, and wondered what happened to them after death. He used his second sight to see where they were reborn. He found his father in the heavenly realms.
But, his mother had been reborn in a lower realm, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. His mother took on the form a preta. A being that has a very small mouth and a large belly - so it is always hungry.
His mother had been a kind mother but had been a difficult person. It is said she had broken all five of the basic precepts: Not to Kill, Lie, Steal, misuse sex or intoxicants. All this was done with the goal of gaining riches. For this reason she was reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts.
As the story goes - Moggallana wanted to ease his mother's suffering. So he asked the Buddha for guidance. The Buddha said,
"your mother's offenses are deep and firmly rooted. You alone do not have enough power.... The awesome spiritual power of the assembled Sangha of the ten directions is necessary for her liberation to be attained. "
He received the instructions for freeing pretas from the Buddha. The Buddha told Moggallana to offer food, recite a mantra, bless the food, snap his fingers to call out to the deceased and finally tip the food onto the ground. By doing so, the preta's hunger would be relieved. Some years passed by and Moggallana steadfastly performed the offering. These actions created merit and his mother was reborn as a dog under the care of a noble family. You might see this as an improvement?
But Moggallana again sought the Buddha's advice to help his mother gain a human birth. The Buddha established a day after the traditional summer retreat on which Moggallana was to offer food and robes to five hundred monks. Many years passed of this offering. Through these merits dedicated to his mother, she finally gained a human birth.
Moggallana was diligent and faithful in his efforts to rescue his mother. When she was released from torment Moggallana danced for joy and that is the origin of the Obon Dance. [ I think the Dharma School kids are learning my favorite Obon dance - The Coal Miner’s. ] We can learn a lot from Moggallana’s story. Utmost, that caring for our parents is the highest duty and honor now and forever. We will never be able to repay their kindness and sacrifice. Also that we can heal old wounds. That no trouble is permanent and it is never too late. We are also reminded of the 6 realms of existence.
What are the six realms? I’ll list the realms of existence for the most pleasant to the less pleasant… They are the realm of the ..
Titans or demons (Asuras)
Hungry ghosts (Pretas)
and for want of a better word - Hell - This has many aspects but all are very unpleasant.
Dr. Alicia Matsunaga [our founder] wrote a whole book on the Buddhist conceptions of Hell. We want you to understanding these realms in the best way for you.
The Buddha once said,
'When the average person makes an assertion that there is a Hell down below, he is making a statement which is false and without basis. The word 'Hell' is a term for painful sensations.'
- Patala Sutta
Dr. Alicia saw two levels of understanding of these realms. A literal level and a psychological or spiritual level. She argued that for uneducated people the fear of Hell was a kind of social control - To promote good behaviour. For more insightful people the meaning of hell and indeed all these realms is largely psychological. How you see them is up to you.
I can say from experience that when we are in a hellish state of existence it sure doesn't feel symbolic - It is difficult and painful and very real. Maybe not a physical place “down there” - but very unfortunate. We understand these realms to be states of being we are reborn into. Understanding these realms gives us a vocabulary to describe the experience of life.
When we are very cruel we are reborn in the hell realm. When the bad karma was worked off. We are re-born into another realm. Some of us have felt like this before. Everything hurts; its all suffering - driven by uncontrollable forces.
When we are very greedy - like Moggallana’s mother -wanting more and more of everything - we are born into the realm of the Hungry ghosts - This is an unhappy place - on to the edge of human existence like a ghost. All the time feeling craving - always unsatisfied.
When we act on impulse and drive rather than thought - we are born into the Animal realm - We are driven only by basic impulses and no spiritual life exist for us.
Then there is the human realm. Although we often suffer, we are lucky because we have insight into the Dharma. This was a most fortunate state or realm because here we awakened the desire to be enlightened: Bodhichitta.
When we are bold and effective and competitive we are Titans (Asuras] - We can talk about this another day.
We can talk about the Heaven realm another day. Just remember no mindspace lasts forever.
We have all experienced all these realms - many times. These are the realms of rebirth our ancestors have migrated to.
This Obon time is a good time to consider our own Personal Ancestors. Lets take a moment now and call out their names. We will do a “saying of names” together.
Many of you have lit a candle for a departed loved one. You brought a picture and placed it on the alter. When I ring the bell - If you would please say the name of the people you are holding in our thoughts. Just say it out and I will ring the bell • • • Robert Fisher • Hershel Wolfe • Alma Wolfe • • •
We should sometimes ask ….How did they live? Who were they?
Where were they laid to rest? Where are they now?
What gifts do we enjoy from them?
This reflection brings me to think of one of my ancestors - my Grandfather Herschel Wolfe. Gran Daddy Herschel was a pharmacist and an optometrist that went to Cal Berkeley. He was born in 1882 in Des Moines, Iowa. - That was a long time ago - He was married in 1900, in San Francisco to a concert pianist - Merne - that marriage was complicated. And after some time he realized his dreams of a family and a settled life would probably not happen if he didn’t make some changes. Her Show-Biz aspirations were also being stifled - no time for kids. He loved the outdoors and fishing in the Sierras and the city life didn’t offer that opportunity very often. My grandfather divorced and moved to the small town - Sonora, California. He built a life there with a little Drug Store. One of three in town, so he could get two weekends off every month [when he was not on call]. He loved the mountains and the beauty of the Sierras. With a new wife and a daughter he made a new life.
A gift - He gave me the idea that it is ok to fail at first. It is OK to rebuild your life. It is up to me to have the clarity to know what I need and build that into my life.
Its funny but, he had a habit of crossing just his feet when he sat. My grandmother would point that out and say I was sitting just like her husband. Sometimes they give us little meaningless things - and we carry them forward.
Grand daddy Herschel was a old school man who expected everyone to pull their weight and never complain. He could be quite stern and a little frightening. I got some of that from him as well. I acknowledge it as a gift because everyone has dark sides - passing on the fullness of humanity is a gift. Without our pains we would not be spurred to grow and to move onward. So I say thank you to him - even for that. Acknowledging this gift and accepting it. This heals him too. As Moggallana showed us - We can go back and mend broken lives. The wisdom and compassion of the universe makes that possible. The depth and breadth of mind makes it possible.
A Gratitude meditation for a loved one who has passed on -
Let's do this together - cultivate gratitude for all their gifts. Love and acceptance can release a ghost from Hell.
Sit in a centered and quiet way - better if you close your eyes - As you sit, breathe softly and feel your body, your heartbeat, the life within you. Feel your connections. To the chair to the room, to each other, to your ancestors. … Now, bring to mind a lost loved one. Someone close to you, who you dearly love. Picture them and feel your natural caring for them. Notice how you hold them in your heart. How they are with you even now. Smiling with you.
Let yourself be aware of one gift they gave you. One way of being or seeing the world that they taught you - that lives on in you. A warm memory, or a skill, or anything that comes up for you.
Be with that - feel it well. o o Bell And say thank you to them for that. o o Bell
Now return to that dear one and find a neutral gift they gave you. Something benign that lives on in you. Funny little habits of life - the way you eat peanuts, a turn of phrase, whatever comes up for you.
Be with that - feel it well.
o o Bell And say thank you to them for that. o o Bell
Now return to that dear one and find a hungry ghost that lives in your heart from that relationship. A difficult and painful something they left you with. Something dark that lives on in you. Destructive habits of life - fears and worries passed from generation to generation, whatever comes up for you.
Be with that - feel it well.
o o Bell And say thank you to them for that. o o Bell
These are all great gifts. Maybe small ones, but great. And the sum total of all your ancestors gifts are the foundations of who you are. All the wisdoms and compassions that we have learned and experienced are really the greatest gift. And we live those onward. They are not separate from us.
These are part of Amida Buddha - Wisdom and compassion imbued in many things and thoughts and actions. Really the universe imbued with infinite light and infinite life. Every small piece of goodness is part of Amida.
I am grateful to Amida Buddha - He doesn't know me, he doesn't see me, but he loves and cares for me just as I am. He locves mandy just as she is. Flaws and all . Amida made these vows for you. Working for many kalpas Dharmakara Bhodistavha manifested the Western Pure Land. He dedicated his good works to all sentient beings unable to end their own suffering and reach enlightenment. Just as Moggallana dedicated his merit to help his mother. Just as our ancestors dedicated their efforts to us.
Lets all think of that ancestor who most needs our love and compassion - we can extend deep compassion to them and to dear Mandy.
Please say it too - just repeat after me...
May you be happy;
May you be free from harm:
May you receive boundless compassion;
And may peace and harmony fill your heart
- Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu -
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