Why Remember? - thoughts on the Puja for Ancestors
Many people have a great problem with the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and non-self. Our culture, some would say our very nature, cries out for immortality; yet Buddhism teaches that there is no inherent, immortal soul that survives our bodily death. This life is what we have. As the sutra says, “only the name remains of those who have died”. I understand what those people are thinking; but they don’t see the full picture.
No religion can - with honesty - deny that we die, and that when we do those we leave behind are no longer able to communicate with us. What they promise their adherents is that in some future time we will be united is some unknown and unknowable place. To me that’s more separation and abandonment than what we teach in Buddhism because it’s built around a metaphysical belief rather than a verifiable reality.
What we have in Buddhism is the teaching on interconnection and interdependence. What we are - not only physically but socially, psychologically, behaviorally - arises from those who have gone before us - including the “us” who has gone before us. In this case it doesn’t matter whether you come down on the side of nature or nurture - or somewhere in-between - because both arise from the causality that is our ancestors. This is sometimes illustrated by the metaphor of tossing a pebble into a pond; but that’s too simplistic.
I would say we must look at interconnection as a hail storm raining down on a pond. There is no way to tell from which hail stone a particular wavelet arises since it actually arises from the interaction of all the stones - and all the other ripples as well. The hail stones are the ancestors we remember here today - and notice too that hail melts into the pond and becomes one with it. Indeed the hail itself is formed from evaporated water from the pond.
We do not need to wait for some promised future when we might be reunited with our ancestors (physical and otherwise). They are with us all the time; they influence our actions and our interactions with others. Their actions become our karma as ours become the karma of our descendants. This is what we teach in Pragmatic Buddhism as the Social Self. These ancestors of ours not only influence us but those we influence as well. I am changed by your ancestors and you are changed by mine.
This is why we say today that our remembrance of these ancestors facilitates their return to Oneness; when we call them to mind they become even more a part of us and those with whom we interact. We are not being stuck in the past wishing they had not died but instead we are celebrating their continued existence in us now, this moment. Yet, because we are mere wavelets in the hail storm we can’t know for sure from where we arise; and so we celebrate the great causality that, from across the universe, gives rise to us - not as isolated individuals, nor as members of some hive-mind of “Oneness” but as individual within the Social Self.
This is why we come together today and celebrate these ancestors together; why their memorial tablets will stay on our altar throughout the month. This is the community that transcends time and space; life and death. This is the Social Self. This is Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; The Four Ennobling Realities and the Eight-fold Path. This is life itself transcending our lifetime.