But when I breathe with the birds,
The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of
And the dead begin from their dark to sing
in my sleep.
Theodore Roethke

We shall live again,
We shall live again.

—Comanche Chant

Plum Village, the community founded by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, lies in the old and fertile Dordogne valley in the south of France. After a recent dharma talk there, Thich Nhat Hanh invited people to put photos of their deceased relatives in a book placed on the altar. It was in Plum Village that I began to question our relationship to the dead. I wondered if it was possible to see beyond personal histories of grief to an autobiography that includes the loss of forests and rivers. I wondered if we can look at what has passed from life on this Earth, and see how the absence of so many species touches us at this very moment. And I wondered if somehow we can redeem these dead and prevent the ending of blue sky and bright wind.

Practicing Buddhism is about discovering ourselves to be in a great, flowing river of continuities. Just as our mother and father live inside us, so do generations upon generations of mothers and fathers before them. Part of our task is to discover how all our ancestors inform our lives—and the same holds true for all forms of life, for we have been shaped not only by human ancestors but also by the environments in which they lived.

 Joan Halifax in New Mexico. Courtesy of Ron Cooper.
Joan Halifax in New Mexico. Courtesy of Ron Cooper.

This area of southern France has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. Paleolithic peoples worshiped in its caves. Neolithic peoples farmed its rich land. Today, orchards, vineyards, and fields of sunflowers cover these old hills. As I sit in daily meditation on a bright ridge overlooking this history, I feel the ancestors of the Dordogne making themselves known to me—the land itself, the wind and light rain, the oaks and berries, and even the brown viper hiding in the thorns.

Tribal peoples often venerate their dead, sometimes to appease the spirits’ sorrow or anger at being separated from the world of the living. At other times, the dead are honored for the protection that they offer or the gifts they bestow. By venerating the dead we can experience the fullness of our own souls. Losing touch with these ancestors, we lose touch with the soul, both theirs and ours.

I believe that the psychic retrieval of the souls of the dead is about our own soul retrieval. Earth can be redeemed only if we reach through the veil of this loss to touch what now seems beyond us. Venerating the ancestors of all life forms returns us to the river that flows from the past into the present.

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