22 Aug 2012
Obon - Death Beliefs
Incense has been drifting through the air this past week, along with the occasional sound of bells or chants. People dashing here and there, to and fro, from relatives houses, to temples, to bar-b-ques. Typical three day Obon in Japan.
Obon is a time when families gather at the ancestral home and go to the family grave to pray. The ancestral spirites are visiting. Incense, food and flowers are offered. It's a time that always raises questions for me. As I go with my husband to pray at his family grave, I'm instructed to hold the Buddhist rosary, place my hands together, bow, pray, perhaps light incense, depends on whose grave and the timing. I do as I am told. But no one has ever told me what to pray for. I just prayed that they found peace wherever they may be.
This is the confusion. They are dead. They have been dead for a long time. If it's someone who just died I hope that they have found rest, and are on their way. But these ancestors, I just pray that all is good with them. What to do? Am I supposed to be making requests? I don't get it. I always thought Buddhism entailed reincarnation, which would mean these ancestors are no longer our ancestors, but into the big melting pot and onto the next incarnation. I have a feeling this pray to the ancesters predates Buddhism.
Some of my students told me it's not for them, but for us, to remember where we came from, to give thanks and remember our lineage. That makes sense.
A while back I joined a 49th day Buddhist Funeral Service which was a very interesting and touching experience. A very hot and sultry summer day, gathered in our black formal attire, we went and sat in the shady ornate temple. It was 49 days after this lady had passed on. According to Buddhist belife her, she has gone on her tour of the seven hells and seven heavens and is in the stage of transmigration. Our job, the purpose of the ceremony, is to offer support and prayer to help her secure a good position in the after life. Although the Pure Land Buddhists say this isn't really necessary, as ascension is assured This has us chanting Namu Amida Butsu and banging on the most beautiful items of ceremonial percussion. It was a beautiful gathering and I sincerely hope it helped.
However, I have great difficulty in believing in the rituals created by man. I was raised Christian, had a depressive atheist episode, which developed into a hopeful agnostic view, then on to Tibetan Buddhism, which led to Zen, brief episode of forgetting with alcohol and such, another awakening and a slow path to the more spiritual yogic view. Which resonates very deeply with me....on one level. I mean my experiences to date are affirmed by what the Yogi's have passed down, but I still have that drop of existentialist cynicism. I've been told it's good to question, not to have blind faith. But these slumps of belief or rather conviction, in this yoga and what is slowly becoming my all religion encompassing world view, get me down. Old beliefs rear up and ridicule me. I studied psychology which had us believe we are a production of neurotransmitters, chemical reactions in our supercomputer brain giving us the impression of something other than this flesh we inhabit. Anything experienced to the contrary can be explained away by the unfathomable brain's workings. Is the idea of an eternal being, a soul, purusha, just one thought up by men to provide comfort whilst facing our own mortality. A feat which seems to make us human. Other animals, though how we know this I don't know, cannot conceive of their own end. Contemplation continues. Reincarnation, move on to the next level, spirit merged with the universe, recycled, the void....should probably just get on and enjoy where I am right now. Not concern my mass of tangled cells and chemicals with the ultimate in unknowness. That's where it's at right. Now. Back to Zen.
* Five minutes after publishing I step out of my house to watch an absolutely amazing display of lightening, flashes, sparks, multi-colours electrical show. Got that feeling of beauty and awe, puts my soul at rest in a very primal way *