Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Cycle of Life

Saturday morning we had a sejiki, or segaki, ceremony at the Houston Zen Center.  It's a ceremony to give offerings to the gaki or "hungry ghosts" and calm the restless spirits of the recently departed.  In a psychological sense, it gives us the chance to recognize and accept the loss of loved ones.  Traditionally it's held in the summer during the Japanese festival of Obon, but here in the United States it coincides with Halloween and is very similar in spirit to the festivals of Dia de los Muertos.

I was honored to serve as one of two jisha or attendants to the doshi, or the priest performing the ceremony.  There are several resources online that give descriptions of the various ways the ceremony is conducted in different places, but that's not what I intend to write about.

During the ceremony, the doshi reads a statement about the body of the Buddha and the transitional and interdependent natures of all things.  One line that struck me as echoing a belief I've had for a while was
"...the living are living on the dead, the dead live on mostly in the living."
 (as close as I can remember)  This thought has many layers for me.

Initially, to me at least, "the living are living on the dead" has to do with food.  Nothing we eat wasn't alive before, and with very few exceptions is dead when we consume it.  Plant or animal, the living are living on the dead.  This food becomes us physically.  The proteins that make up our muscles, the cholesterol that holds our cells together, the carbohydrates and fats that fuel our metabolic processes.  In this way "the dead live on mostly in the living."

Another way I've always seen this has to do with people who pass living on in their loved ones.  Whether in memory or physically as offspring.  We live off of the dead, or at least those that have come before us, by way of the feats accomplished or lessons taught.  Our civilization is built on top of all the others that came before.

The theme of the Dharma talk that followed the ceremony touched on the fact that in Buddhism, and in Zen especially, the person to person historical lineage that reaches back through time to the historical Buddha is very important.  He discovered something for himself and sanctioned the teaching of those who followed only when he saw what he'd discovered in each of them.  In this way the Dharma has been "transmitted" person to person unbroken for over 2500 years.

For this reason the respect for our ancestors is very important in Zen, not just in the lineage of Dharma transmission, but in everything.*  Despite Zen's focus on the present, our appreciation for our current existence relies not only on the history of humanity, but life on Earth and even the development of the Solar System all the way back to the beginning of the Universe if not earlier.

In this way the cycle of life continues throughout time, uninterrupted with all beings interdependent on one another.  Nothing really ever dies and nothing new is ever really born, but both happen constantly.

So as the season drifts inevitably from the vibrant life of Summer into the cold death of Winter, we should remember that thus is life: ever changing, but always the same.

*since the Dharma manifests in everything and is presented as an opportunity to learn from anything that we experience.


  1. wow, i really enjoyed reading this post - thankyou for this insight!!

  2. My pleasure. I'll eventually getting around to my post concerning why I don't have a problem from a Buddhist point of view for not being a vegetarian using the same ideas.

    This just seemed like a nice spot to bring it up.

    Thanks for reading and for commenting. It's nice to know who reads since the stats are essentially anonymous.