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Feeding Hungry Ghosts

I recently read an article about a Buddhist ceremony in a cemetery in San Diego for the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts and it got me thinking about the failures and opportunities of Western Buddhism. For those of you who don’t know, hungry ghosts are one of the six realms of existence mentioned in Buddhist sutras - along with Gods, Angels (demi-gods), Demons, Humans and Animals - and are said to be those who were possessive in life and so were reborn as beings who could never be satisfied. I know. For a religion without a belief in the supernatural what’s with this stuff? While Theravada - and Tibetan - Buddhism still refer to these as actual beings and states, most Mahayana Buddhists see them as metaphorical teachings. As Buddhism moved into Asia the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts (where people make food offerings in hopes that the hungry ghosts will be satisfied by their compassion) became associated with traditional reverence for ancestors and this is what made an impression on me in this article.

Along with describing the ceremony and its history the writer also interviewed attendees - including the monks performing the service. Not one of them - monks included - referred to the ceremonies being done as any mystical satisfaction of beings trapped in a horrible existence after rebirth. Without exception they all talked about the service as a chance to honor their ancestors - not worship, that’s a Western misunderstanding of the Eastern attitude toward ancestors. They talked about how important it was to have a time when the community could come together and remember those who had died and to support each other in that remembrance.

One of the things that bothers me about Secular Buddhism - which is a term eagerly grasped by many Western Buddhist groups - is that it often rejects wholesale the rituals of traditional Mahayana Buddhism in its striving to be “relevant” to the modern, Western mind. I am restricting myself to talking about Mahayana because that is my lineage and because Theravada does, without doubt, include rituals, believes and behaviors that are so bound with the mystical and supernatural that it can’t be separated. It usually does this without understanding that many of these rituals are nothing more than life-event recognition that had mostly already dropped the mystical, supernatural baggage of Theravada - as in the service I mentioned above.

I fully agree with the overall aim of Secular Buddhism of stripping away the supernatural and magical so that we can practice the teachings of the Buddha within a humanist paradigm - as they were originally taught. What I don’t agree with is the wholesale rejection of ritual rather than its reclamation. Even the American Humanist Association has realized that they need rituals for life events and they are starting to build them within their organization. Humans want to celebrate life events, and if they can’t do that within their religious (philosophical, faith, support, etc. etc.) community then they are being failed by those communities. No matter what you call your Buddhist practice, if your sangha is anything more than a meditation class you have to consider the celebration of life events as part and parcel of the community activities.

To be clear, I’m also not advocating mimicking here in the West the ceremonies of traditional Ch’an or Zen Buddhism within their native cultures. I’m actually not a fan of doing that at all. Ritual is, at its base, culturally bound and loses its efficacy and intention when moved out of that culture. What I am suggesting is that Western Buddhism fails its members by not looking at these celebrations and adapting them - or entirely recreating them - within its communities. What I am suggesting is that Western Buddhist communities are doing a disservice to their members by ignoring their important life events out of fear of being “exotic” or “mystical”.

Celebrating births, marriages, deaths - and those who have died before us - is not exotic, it’s human nature. If we don’t create celebrations of those events that reflect the secular nature of Western Buddhism we are failing people in our communities and they will respond either by rejecting our “brand” of Buddhism as irrelevant in their lives (ironic since we’ve gotten rid of these type of things to BE relevant) or by staying with us yet feeling unsatisfied - like the hungry ghosts whose existence we reject. So feed the hungry ghosts of your communities, the hungry spirits of your brothers and sisters in sangha.

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