Let’s reflect together for a moment: What made it possible for us to be here today? Think specifically about things other people—and other beings—did that made it possible for you and I to be here today, worshipping together.
From my end, a lot of things had to happen for me to be here in Watertown, instead of Florida. For starters, someone had to recognize my wife’s ability and offer her a job. But before that, there had to be many years of educational activity up here and a down there, too. People had to build roads from Florida to Massachusetts, others had to create the house we live in, and lots of things like that.
And this church had to be here—countless people had to build and then maintain buildings and a congregation for almost 400 years! I can’t imagine how many people spoke here; showed up to listen; donated money and energy so we can sit here this morning. Just today’s service took effort from a whole bunch of people.
Going back father—2500 years or so—an Indian fellow named Siddhartha Gautama worked for six years to achieve enlightenment, and then spent another 45 years teaching what he had learned and ordaining monks so that others could also awaken. And then a long line of monks and laypeople passed that along.
I actually have a lineage chart that was asked to create when I ordained. It shows a long line of people starting up in one corner down through hundreds of generations to people like Taezan Maezumi, then Bernie Glassman, then a couple other people and finally me. All those people had to do what they did for me to be able to talk to you today.
We owe our present to the past
When I formally became a Buddhist, there was a ceremony called Going for Refuge. We make a commitment that when we look for a way to respond to our stress and suffering, we look first to the Buddha, to his teachings, and the spiritual community—the sangha.
On one level, sangha means this bunch of people, right here. This is your sangha. But sangha is also that lineage of people who practiced the teachings so they are available today, and who demonstrated, by awakening, that we can awaken too.
Recognizing that lineage helps us be mindful that, just as those people’s practice has benefitted us, because we are interdependent with everything our practice is for the benefit of all beings. So ultimately our sangha includes all creation.
You may not have any interest in practicing Buddhism. And that’s fine. My goal with talks like this is not to teach you to be Buddhist. My hope is that you will come away with something you can use, in your spiritual life, whatever that means to you.
We can’t awaken using other people’s wisdom—not even mine. To develop wisdom, you have to realize spiritual truths for yourself. But it’s helpful to know that our wisdom rests on the shoulders of those who have gone before us—our teachers, sure, and many other beings that made it possible for us to do what we’re doing with our lives.
That includes millions of ancestors, like the ones mentioned in the reading Djalai did earlier. Many cultures, as I’m sure you know, have ceremonies and holy days to acknowledge that. I see a lot of Halloween and Day of the Dead decorations around town now.
On the Vietnamese side of my particular tradition, there’s a whole month set aside for filial piety. You may have heard of Ghost Month, in China. It’s the same thing. It centers around an observance called Ullambana. It happens in late summer, and it’s not too different from Halloween, All Souls Day, things like that.
Ullambana is an opportunity to practice gratitude toward our parents and other ancestors. But the central activity of the service is what we call Feeding the Hungry Ghosts.
The idea is that when someone lives a life consumed by greed and craving, then when they pass away, they may become a hungry ghost. These are spirits who live in a special ghostly lower realm.
Hungry Ghosts have tiny mouths and long thin throats, so it’s very hard for them to eat. And they have cavernous bellies, so they can never get full. To make things worse, when they try to eat, their food turns to something disgusting—unless they receive the food as an offering from someone devout.
The Ullambana tradition started when one of the Buddha’s key monks, Mogallana, decided to find out where his parents ended up after their passing.
Now look, sometimes when I talk about ghosts or tell a story like this, someone will ask me afterward, “Am I supposed to believe this stuff?” Well, this is a spiritual lesson—it conveys spiritual truths; it’s not a history lesson.
Anyway, Mogallana was a very advanced meditator, and he was able to visit other realms of existence with his mind—heavens, and places like that. One day, he started wondering where his parents had been reborn. He sat down to meditate and began looking around for them.
He found his father in a heavenly realm. His father had been a kind and generous person, and Mogallana was glad to see that he was living a really nice existence. Unfortunately, he found his mother reborn as a hungry ghost in a particularly hellish place.
Mogallana’s father had made a lot of money in life, which Mogallana inherited and parlayed into more wealth. When he went off to ordain, he gave all that money to his mother. She reacted to his generosity by becoming very greedy and stingy—really mean-hearted.
Now, in the next world, she sat in a fire with a pot of boiling oil on her head. And she was emaciated from having nothing to eat or drink. Mogallana wanted to help her, so he offered her a bowl of rice.
She took the bowl and scooped up a handful of food. But before it could enter her mouth, it turned into burning coals. Mogallana was overcome with sadness. He went to the Buddha in tears, asking for his help.
The Buddha explained that his mother’s offenses were so deep and firmly rooted that even Mogallana’s profound filial devotion wasn’t enough to save her. He said that the spiritual power of the assembled Sangha—the monks, nuns and lay supporters—would be necessary for her liberation.
You see, during the rainy season, all the Buddha’s monks would assemble wherever the Buddha was staying, to practice together. Lay Buddhists would also go where they were to hear the dharma, meditate, and make offerings to support the community. This meant a lot of goodness was being generated at once.
The Buddha told Mogallana to wait until the 15th day of the seventh month, when all those devout people would be together. Then when he made offerings on behalf of his mother, she could move about and eat as if she was human.
When the time came, the assembled monks recited blessings for the donors and their families, then accepted the food offered them. At that instant, Mogallana’s mother was freed from suffering as a hungry ghost.
Mogallana was overjoyed by this. He asked the Buddha if others could do the same thing. The Buddha said that everyone could make offerings like this on behalf of their ancestors. Then their parents, if living, would have long happy lives. Departed ancestors going back seven generations would also transcend their suffering in lower realms.
In Vietnamese Buddhism, Ullambana is combined with Mother’s Day. I imagine some of you have heard of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Vietnamese Buddhist master who passed away not too long ago.
One day, when he was visiting Tokyo, he met a group of Japanese students who explained that it was Mother’s Day. In Japan, if your mother is alive, you pin a red rose on your lapel on that day. If she has passed away, you wear a white rose.
He was very moved when one of the students pinned a white rose on his robe. He took that practice back to Vietnam, where it became a part of Ullambana services. So when I help officiate Ullambana services at the Vietnamese monastery, I and the other monks distribute roses to the congregation. It’s a beautiful ceremony.
The Mother Koan
The story of Mogallana’s relationship to his mother reminds me of something one of my teachers, Gregg Krech, told me once. Gregg teaches Japanese psychology, which includes some practices derived from Japanese Buddhism.
We’ll be working with a few of those in the contemplative practices program I’ll be leading here starting tomorrow. Feel free to ask me about that after the service if you want to know more.
Anyway, Gregg mentioned that at one of his residential retreats, everyone there had issues with their mother. And trying to resolve their gratitude for their mothers’ care and love with the various forms of suffering they experienced because of their mothers’ imperfections, they all struggled with what Gregg started to call The Mother Koan.
You’ve probably heard of koans—these little confusing stories and questions, like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” We use those in Zen help us awaken.
I think we might encounter the Mother Koan whenever explore our lineage and heritage and recognize that our mothers were imperfect. The Mother Koan might include our fathers, too, and our teachers and institutions. It can really shake up our sense of identity when we confront the knowledge that those on whose shoulders we stand did some unforgiveable things.
One of my spiritual ancestors, Shonin Shinran, was quoted in the reading earlier. He said all beings had been his father and mother. What he meant was that at some time in the past, because of the infinite rounds of rebirth, everyone we see has at some point been our mother.
By that principle, you owe your life to the person next to you—you might have been spiders or elephants at the time, but at some point, they were your mother. That’s true even of people you don’t like or feel anger toward.
Our Present Karma Shapes the Future
Maybe you’re not concerned with rebirth. That’s okay. To understand interdependence, part of that is to see that our own actions are only possible because of infinite causes and conditions going back to beginningless time.
You might consider that rebirth. Or just recognize all the people and other living things that made the world we live in, nurtured our ancestors, and so on.
At the same time, our actions today continue into the future—even beyond this lifetime—affecting the world into the future just as ripples expand outward from a pebble dropped into a pond.
Than Chaokhun in Thailand
Some years ago, I visited Thailand with one of my teachers, Than Chaokhun. He’s the abbot of a Thai Buddhist temple in Central Florida, not far from Disney World. There were several of us from that temple traveling together, accompanying him as he visited some of his teachers and family members.
We went to a temple Than Chaokhun had visited as a child. It was a center of activity in that region, because it had a crematorium. So a lot of people went there for funerals. In fact, while we were there, a funeral was happening.
The deceased’s family would come to the temple every day. They listen to the monks chant, hear dharma talks, and then everyone sits down to eat together. After a week of this, everyone processes up to the crematorium.
Our little group was sitting outside, near where the funeral was happening. With the droning songs of insects as background music, the abbot gave us an impromptu talk on the subject of impermanence and the Buddhist view of not-self.
“You watch the cremation, and think, ‘That will be me someday,’” he said. “But where is me? After cremation, me is gone. It all goes back to nature.”
Elizabeth, a young woman in our group, thought about that for a minute. “So what’s the meaning of life?” she asked. “If what I think of as ‘me’ goes away like that, what’s the point?”
“Life is what you do,” Than Chaokhun answered. “If you don’t do anything, you don’t have life. While you’re still living, you need to learn what to do, how to live. The meaning of life is to know this truth.”
“Also the person you loved doesn’t die,” he said. “What dies is the body. But the good things they’ve done—that never dies. The body, that’s just a thing made of other stuff, so it can’t last. But the good—that’s what lasts.”
This is how we solve the Mother Koan. We can’t resolve a koan by thinking about it—we have to live it. In the process, we learn to find perfect existence through imperfect existence.
We live the lives we have, and we develop our goodness. We don’t have to change the past—we can perfect the past by actions that will perfect the future.
I mentioned Shinran. He was sent into exile for a while, and he encountered the ocean for the first time. He saw that sometimes the ocean was cold and rough, and sometimes it was warm and smooth. He started thinking about how miraculous it is that the same ocean could be so different.
He realized that all rivers flow to the Ocean. And even though the rivers are different, the ocean tastes the same everywhere.
Like rivers, even those of us who are very imperfect flow into the great ocean of Oneness. So even if the stream that brought us to this point today contained pollutants somewhere far upstream, we can transform it into sweet pure water.
If we take what we have today and use it with wisdom, with compassion, then the tannin-stained waters from our past simply add depth to sea of wisdom and compassion.
Thank you for your attention. Now if you will rise in body or spirit, as you are able, we will sing Hymn 317, We Are Not Our Own