Kyogen Carlson often spoke of the arising of Way-Seeking Mind, and he saw this reflected in the simple calendar of practice in ancient Buddhist India: monks wandering alone during the dry seasons, then gathering together for periods of intensive practice in the rainy seasons. In China, this became more structured: monks traveled alone or visited monasteries and teachers during open seasons of practice, then returned to their own monasteries for cloistered periods of intensive practice. These periods became known in Japan as ango: rigorous seasons of formal practice undertaken by everyone in the monastery. An ango traditionally lasts 90 days, and in Zen monasteries today many vows and terms of office are defined by 90-day periods.

In the Pacific Northwest, we have four distinct seasons. As autumn slowly takes hold—a subtle shift in September, a distinct change in October—our temple sees a marked increase in inquiries. We’ve learned to be ready for newcomers all year round, but especially in the fall. To Kyogen, it was natural that this is when “people begin things, they start things, people get serious, the mind starts to turn inward, they start practice.” It was obvious to him that autumn would be the beginning of our liturgical year.

Our fall ango term now includes several retreats, including the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. (Kyogen knew this celebration as Segaki and refers to it by this name; we recently changed the name to reflect current usage.) This season is also when we hold memorials for Kyogen himself.

Sallie Tisdale

The word segaki means “feeding the hungry ghosts,” and the rituals and practices done for this festival contain a great deal of teaching about training in Buddhism. (Hungry ghosts are called gaki in Japanese and preta in Sanskrit.) Segaki is a time for remembering the dead and resolving our karmic connections with those who have died. It is also a time for resolving our own internal karmic difficulties and for letting go of the obstacles and blockages we carry around with us. During Segaki, we call to all karma—our own and that of others—throughout the universe. Segaki is not about making karma go away. When we talk about “cleansing karma,” we sometimes have this illusion that we’re going to wash it all off and it’s going to go away. But what we really do is cleanse our relationship with it. We come to not being deceived by karma. We drop our old ways of responding and our old traps of habit energy. All these things that happened in the past are still with us in some respects. We acknowledge that; we call to them and find a way to respond to them.

The tradition is continued every year in Buddhist temples by making an offering on a table far away from any statue or picture of the Buddha or bodhisattva. For those who reject religious teaching, kindness is offered without doctrine—the truest form of generosity. During Segaki, we put doughnuts on the altar. The hungry ghosts can’t accept the dharma. They choke on it. A lot of people are that way. You try to give them religion and their throat just constricts. So you give them a doughnut. The profundity of that dharma is amazing: just give something. For an offering to be genuinely one of dharma, it must be given in forms that can be accepted. This principle applies to so many situations we encounter in everyday life. Such an action naturally expresses all-acceptance in a way that touches and deeply affects all concerned.

Segaki is a time of deep, personal spiritual renewal. Here, the main Segaki ceremony features an altar laden with food. The ceremony involves an invitation to all ghosts of every stripe anywhere to come join us—in effect, asking all the unhappy, unresolved karma in the universe to come to the altar to receive the dharma in the form of food. During the chanting and procession we offer incense, and the names of people who have died in the past year are read aloud. After the ceremony, we help the gakis by eating the food on the altar ourselves! Next, a couple of teenagers dress up as hungry ghosts and visit the Dharma School children, grabbing food and walking around with their shoes on. This annual visit always brings joy (and a bit of apprehension) to the little ones, who must teach the ill-mannered gakis the way to behave in a temple—and a little of the dharma, if possible. The closing ceremony, Segaki Toro, is done in the evening. It is an intense, symbolic ritual of cleansing. During the ceremony, a fire is lit in the fireplace. Slips of paper with the names of people who have died in the past year, along with the year’s transfer-of-merit cards, are fed to the fire. Anyone who wishes to can write down some karma or problem that they wish to let go of or cleanse, and one by one they put the slips of paper on the fire themselves.

The festival is said to have begun when Moggallana, a disciple of the Buddha, was plagued by dreams of his recently departed mother suffering in a world in which she could neither eat nor drink. Food would turn to fire and water would turn to blood or pus whenever it touched her mouth. Moggallana went to the Buddha and told him of his dreams, which tormented him every night. The Buddha explained that Moggallana was seeing the suffering of his mother in the world of the gakis. Gakis are usually depicted as having long skinny necks, with throats much too small for swallowing; and the bloated, bulging stomachs common with severe malnutrition. This imagery is a fantastic description of a spiritual state that can be seen every day, right here in the world of living women and men. It is a condition that everyone suffers from, to one degree or another, at some point in life. On the most spiritual level, it is the state of someone who desperately wants to know the truth but who cannot accept the teaching. He knows he is suffering and that religious practice can be of help, but he just can-not stop resisting and holding on to his personal opinions. Wanting the dharma, he goes to drink, but his throat will not open to accept it. Each time he tastes the teaching, it turns to fire in his mouth.

Moggallana’s dreams were due to his deep connection with his mother, and the Buddha’s advice to him was that he should make an offering to her of whatever food she could most easily accept and digest. This was to be done in a ceremony, dedicated in her name, at the time when the monks conducted their regular gathering to confess their transgressions. This part of the story shows profound wisdom and upaya—“skillful means.” Linking the offering for the deceased mother to the time of confession, the Buddha built a bridge for Moggallana to the mind of repentance and forgiveness, helping him let go of his own entanglements.

According to Chinese legend, Moggallana was accomplished in supernatural arts, and he traveled down to hell to try to rescue her personally. He broke the lock on the gate to hell, and because of this all the hungry ghosts in the realm of the gakis got loose and wandered about in the human world. The festival was then done to satisfy the ghosts and to convince them to return to where they needed to be.

After giving aid to his mother, Moggallana made a vow to once again enter hell. He vowed to do his own practice there for the sake of those suffering in that realm. “If I do not do so, who else will?” he said. He became a bodhisattva, an enlightened being dedicated to helping others, offering dharma to all those suffering in the netherworlds, before enjoying final enlightenment himself. To this day, he is venerated for this act of great compassion.

If you apply this process to yourself, looking at your own past actions as that which must be released, it is easy to see the connection between Segaki and personal karmic cleansing. The self of the past can become a ghost in the present. The concept of past lives is not just fanciful, and it is much more than a metaphor. We don’t need to go back years and into previous existences to do this. Just looking carefully at each day brings up all kinds of past karma and previous lives, because the past is, indeed, held in the present.

Looked at this way, what do we mean by past lives? I often use a simple example of a man having an argument with a coworker late on a Friday afternoon. After a pleasant weekend with friends, our worker returns to work on Monday in a good mood, feeling at peace with the world. Then he sees his adversary, they lock eyes, and in an instant the “self” from Friday is reborn on Monday. The “seed of predisposition” left over from Friday sprouts on Monday. This is the first of the twelve steps of dependent origination leading to rebirth on the wheel of samsara. The rebirth of former “selves” happens all the time, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, and these rebirths become quite obvious when we pay attention to them.

Gakis, hungry ghosts, are not the only ones to be remembered at Segaki. It is also a time to remember all those who have died, to be thankful for their having lived, and to give thanks for the teaching their lives give to us. It is also a time to let go of those who have died, to realize that their practice goes on in whatever form it now takes and that they do not need us pulling them back to this world through our attachments. By letting go of those who are now gone, we can also resolve the painful memories that sometimes linger to become the nuclei for a multitude of other problems. All-acceptance is really the key, for if we completely accept those who have died as they were, we can understand them better and offer them what they need to go on, which is quite often our forgiveness and blessing.

Remember that the good acts of today do not undo the karma of the past. We all have to face up to it at some point without excuses—just accept the consequences. At the same time, our right actions in the present moment also affect things. Know that old karma, such as years of hard living and bad habits, will have its effect. Still, you can turn yourself around and get your act together and live in a clean and healthy way. That has an effect, but the old debts will need to be paid. One thing does not undo the other. I’ve learned that compassion and caring about people is one thing, but releasing them from karmic consequences is quite another. You know that sometimes it’s necessary for people to go through what they have to go through. Be kind to the person and don’t step in the way of their karmic consequences. It’s really important to remember this.

When we think of forgiving, we use the word in a few ways. There’s a kind of forgiving of consequence. You forgive the loan, treat it like an old debt or something, wipe it off the books. There are times when you can do that. There are times when you can’t. If someone does not recognize how they have harmed you, there’s no point in forgiving them, but you can let go of your own bitterness about it. You don’t have to pretend like it never happened. You learn from it. You figure out how to hold your boundaries. You know you can let go of your half and still be smart enough not to allow future harm.

My teacher Roshi Kennett used to say, “No matter how badly people screw up, they’re doing the best they can. No matter what types of mistakes they make, they’re doing the best they can.” I said, “Wait, how can you say that? People know perfectly well that they can do better.” She said, “That’s the point. If they really understood, they would do better.”

From You Are Still Here: Zen Teachings of Kyogen Carlson edited by Sallie Jiko Tisdale © 2021 by Dharma Rain Zen Center. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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