Seijiki Ceremony - Relating to Death and Dying

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Heading into winter; what is the most important thing at the end of your life? taking refuge; how are we also hungry ghosts; six realms.

AI Summary: 

The talk explores the thematic elements of the Seijiki ceremony, relating to death, dying, and the surreality of hungry ghosts within Buddhist teachings. The focus is on how the ceremony serves as a cushion between life and the afterlife, and how it interplays with concepts of nourishment—both literally and spiritually. Multiple thoughts circle around the inevitability of death, and the described actions taken to nourish 'hungry ghosts' reflect a broader discussion on karma, ancestors, and afterlife entities in Buddhist tradition.

- **Central Ritual Explored**: Seijiki ceremony.
- **Key Elements Discussed**: Hungry ghosts, offerings to ancestors, and transformative rituals.
- **Concepts Covered**: Karma, suffering, transformation through liminal spaces, and the importance of ritual setting in addressing life's ultimate questions.
- **Insights Provided**: Relationship between life choices and their impacts beyond death, role of nourishment in life and afterlife.

Through the explanation of rituals, particularly the offering of food to the spirits, the talk suggests broader reflections on what sustains us in life and the practice’s significance in preparing for death. The detailed narrative not only asks what is most important at the time of dying but also mirrors these concerns back to the living moments, suggesting a parallel between our daily pursuits and ultimate peaceful passing.

AI Suggested Title: "Nourishing the Beyond: Seijiki and the Cycle of Death and Afterlife"


We will remember and accept. I am allowed to taste the truth of the Tathagata's words. I am allowed to taste the truth of the Tathagata's words. I am allowed to taste the truth of the Tathagata's words. This is the end of October.


It's getting a little colder out now. The texture of the air is changing. In much of the world, even here in California, the growing season is ending. My garden is dying back. Yours probably also. We're really going into winter. So in many cultures, this is a time when the seeming veil of separation between life and death seems a little thinner, when other realms are more accessible. So, of course, there are ceremonies that deal with this situation. There's Halloween and All Souls Day.


And in our tradition, we do a ceremony called Seijiki, which we're going to do this afternoon. So I'd like to begin by reading with you from that ceremony. Can you hear now? Is that okay? It's in the wrong place. How's that? So raise your hand if you still can't hear. Giving rise to the awakened mind, we unconditionally offer a bowl of pure food to all the hungry ghosts in every land, to the farthest reaches of vast emptiness in the ten directions, including every atom throughout the entire Dharma realm.


We invite all our departed ancestors going back to ancient times, the spirits dwelling in mountains, rivers and earth, as well as demonic spirits from the untamed wilderness to come and gather here. Now, with deep sympathy, we offer food to all of you, sincerely hoping that you will each accept this food and turn it over, making offerings to Buddhas, sages and all sentient beings throughout the vast emptiness of the universe, so that you and all the many sentient beings will be satisfied. Moreover, we sincerely wish that your bodies be conveyed by these mantras and food, so that you may depart from suffering, be liberated, find birth in heaven and receive joy. In accord with your intentions, may you travel freely through the pure lands in the ten directions


and arouse awakened mind, practicing the awakened way, and in the future become a Buddha without regressing. We entreat those who have previously attained the way since ancient times to vow to realize liberation together with all beings. Day and night, constantly protect us so that our vows will be fulfilled. We offer food to beings throughout the Dharma realm so that every being will equally receive this fortunate offering. Whatever virtue and merit this produces, we completely transfer and dedicate to the unsurpassed awakening with total clarity and wisdom of the whole Dharma realm of true reality, that all may speedily attain Buddhahood without incurring any other destinies. May all sentient beings of the Dharma realm take advantage of this teaching to quickly attain Buddhahood.


At a recent workshop that we had here on dying, the question was posed to everyone, to all the participants. What is the most important thing for you at the time of your dying? Maybe some of you here were in that workshop or have done the workshop at some other time and have asked others this question and been asked yourself, what is the most important thing for you at the time of your dying? As I said, this was a workshop, so this was an exercise.


None of us at that time were actively dying, as far as I know. So the asking, in a sense, was a kind of ceremonial asking. It was a ritual in that the form of the question was set. We were paired off somewhat arbitrarily, and we didn't get to make up the question or some variation on it. It wasn't your usual dialogue or discussion. The questioner was designated, taking turns. Now you're the questioner and you're the answerer. And you simply ask the same question over and over again. No matter what the response is, the same question keeps coming back. So there's no judgment there, no evaluation, no, oh, that's a good answer,


or could you tell me a little more, that's not quite, couldn't you go a little deeper, or could you come up with something better or more interesting or more profound, or nothing, just the question. What is most important to you? Over and over again, just really, really listening. So having all agreed to do this in advance, we knew that the, for each of us, we knew that the question wasn't going to change, that there wasn't going to be any approval. Like, oh, that's really great, I'm so happy that you said that, that you're really a wise person, or just faced with our own response and kind of safe space to find out what is there.


So at the beginning of the exercise, some examples were given so that we had some sense of the range. I think probably most of us hadn't really thought about this before, or not seriously. So it was helpful to have some sense of the range of possibilities of things that we might think about. Like, did we have a preferred cause of death? That's something you might have a preference for. Preferred place of death? What kind of experience? Not too much pain? Medication available? Comfort? Length? Who would you like to be present at your death? What kind of sounds would you like to be hearing? Maybe some nice music playing.


What kind of state of mind would you wish for? So these are just some possibilities of things that might naturally come up when you think about this event that will come to all of us. So at the beginning, actually I was pretty nervous because I had no idea what my response was going to be. But having this kind of ritual framework around it really provided a space to explore for myself. So the first thing I thought about was it would really be nice to visualize myself in my room with my garden there and particular flowers. Not just any flowers, but very particular flowers


arranged in a very particular way. And this would be a really nice way to go. And then I realized that actually this was not going to work because that was probably not going to be the way it happens. I probably will not be in that room. I probably will not have my choice of what flowers are blooming at that time of the year. I could die at any time on Highway 1, for example. In the poison oak. Or in an ambulance. So I thought, if this is really what's most... It's okay for it to be important, but if that's really what's most important I'm kind of in trouble because it's out of control.


It's not going to work. Even who's present. I could think of some people who I would really like to be present, but they might not even be alive at that time themselves or unavailable. So that really was not going to work either. So I started thinking more about what I might be able to have some effect over. And actually the main thing I thought at first was that I really would like to be forgiven by those who I have caused pain. But I don't have control over that either. That's another one of those... It's kind of like setting the scene. You can try to do it, but it's not under control. So hearing the question over and over again,


what came up at that point was that I really would want at that time to be able to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And that was very helpful, very kind of peaceful, to realize that that was really the most important thing. Because if that's what I'm focused on, then I can start with that right now. I don't have to wait until this imaginary scenario, which will never happen the way I imagine, but I'm sure we all have some kind of scenario in our mind. We don't need to wait until that unfolds. We can start now.


So I think this is a very good exercise, and it seems particularly something that comes up now at this time of year, this question of... Another way of asking it would be, what nourishes your life? If this is what you would think is going to nourish and sustain you in your last moments, perhaps this is what will also nourish you now with each living moment. So this Seijiki ceremony is a ceremony that calls up what we call hungry ghosts. As the first line says, we offer a bowl of pure food to all the hungry ghosts in every land.


So who are these hungry ghosts? And what are they hungry for? What is the pure food that's offered? And I think that this question, that this is the question, what are we hungry for? What is most important to us in our dying, and what is most important to us in our living? And how do we have that nourishment for ourselves? How do we offer it to others? And perhaps the hungry ghosts are those who haven't been able to figure this out, who didn't find the answer before they died, and so they wander endlessly trying to get nourished and not knowing what the nourishment might be or not being able to take it in.


So it's like not as if there are those who don't know and those who do know. At least my experience is one of perhaps finding the answer and then forgetting, finding it and then being distracted by something else, finding it and then deluding myself, confusing myself, thinking that other things will satisfy that need, kind of like endlessly searching for this perfect flower that will be the ultimate satisfaction. That kind of search is the kind of hungry ghost search. The center of our practice here is the vow,


beings are numberless, I vow to save them. Of course, we know that this is kind of logically impossible or inconceivable, inconceivable task of helping others endlessly. We don't know exactly even what this means, something about waking up ourselves, helping others to wake up to the truth of our existence. It has to do with how we're related to others, that our life is not the circumscribed, private, independent, infinite existence that we imagine it to be. But how do we wake up? How does this transformation happen? In order for this to take effect, we need to hear the teachings.


And for those of you who have been here over the past few days, as the abbess said, sometimes hearing the words is not sufficient. We need to hear the teachings, but how is it that we can be able to take them in, to actually understand them? How do we prepare ourselves to understand them? What kind of state of mind is necessary, and how do we cultivate it? So as she was talking about, we need to have an open mind, flexible, receptive mind, and this can be cultivated through mindfulness practices, detailed, minute investigation and awareness of our physical body, paying close attention and being willing and able to accept whatever our experience may be.


Again, I think the hungry ghost is a kind of state where we can't accept. We want our body to be one way, and so it's very hard to notice how it actually is. We're wanting some other kind of experience. So to do this, we need a kind of safe space. We need support from each other, encouragement. We need a kind of structure. And this is what this kind of need for the support is the basis of our Zazen practice, where we just sit still, not doing anything, not trying to create something different, not trying to change, just being open to what's happening. So as Tenzin Roshi has said, this is a kind of celebration or ceremony or ritual.


Just like in the exercise about dying, no matter what the response, the question is always the same. The question keeps coming back. No judgment, no evaluation, no right or wrong answer. So also in Zazen, no right or wrong answer. We just keep coming back to the question over and over again. So the space that can help create the possibility for this kind of practice in which we can receive the teaching can be described as a kind of liminal space. The liminal is a threshold space from the Latin word limen, and is sometimes described as the central part or the central stage of a ritual experience.


There's a kind of ambiguity and openness, a kind of indeterminacy in a liminal space where one's sense of identity can loosen and dissolve. It's a kind of transitional period that opens up to something different. In this kind of space, we're supported to let go of the sense of self that we usually hold on to so tightly. The structure of it allows more receptivity, both being able to give and to receive from others. So a very clear example of this would be an ordination ceremony like we had here last week. In the first part, the ordinee leaves home and takes off their usual clothing.


Actually, when they appear in the ordination space, on the ordination platform or in this hall, they're literally half-clothed. Not only are they not wearing their usual clothes, but they're not completely clothed. Their head is partially shaved, so they're really in a very, very transitional space. Then during the ceremony itself, the ordinee receives their new clothes and a new name, and the shaving is completed. So this is the liminal, the transitional phase. They take vows and in this process are transformed. So the beginning ordinary person walks in, becomes an ordinee, and walks out a monk.


How does this happen? How does this transformation take place? So the ceremony this afternoon is also that kind of transformative ceremony. It's a ceremony of awakening and nourishing, not just the usual sentient beings, but those in the in-between realm, those who we usually don't pay so much attention to. And in this case, the space, where the ceremony will be, is kind of doubly liminal or in-between, because rather than our usual altar, we'll set up a special altar at this end of the room.


And as we talked about the other night, the ceremony faces away from the usual altar, so we face away from the Buddha. Usually in a ceremony we make offerings and direct our attention to the Buddha, to the image, the figure on the altar. In this case, because we're calling forth spirits who may be intimidated or not want to hang out with Buddhas, in a sense we're creating a safe space for them. So, by... Actually, the altar that's set up


typically doesn't have any images on it, which I find very interesting, the idea that by having... It's sort of an empty space where different things can happen than would usually happen at the altar. Also, the offerings are not being made to Buddha, so it really wouldn't work to have it at the usual altar. The offerings are being made to these hungry ghosts. I guess it's kind of like if they were made at that altar, the Buddha might take the offerings instead, before the ghosts could get there. It's kind of a... Maybe something like that. Of course, in this hall we have a Jizo here,


the Bodhisattva who is the protector of children and travelers, Earth Store Bodhisattva. So, we could cover Jizo over. That might be good, to literally not have any images at this altar. But, in a sense, maybe it's okay, because of all the Bodhisattvas, Jizo is the one who is most kind of in between the worlds, conducting us from one world to the next. So, in traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are six realms of existence, which I think a number of people have talked about here recently, so I won't go into them so much.


The three lower realms are the hell realm, animal realm, and this realm of the hungry ghosts, in which suffering is too intense. We can't practice in these realms. The three upper realms are the realms of humans, and then the realm of the jealous or fighting spirits, or asuras, and the heavenly realm. And of those realms, only in the human realm is it possible to practice. In the heavenly realm, or God realm, it's too blissful, too pleasant. It's like, if you have everything you need, why bother to do anything else? The problem is you don't stay there forever. You kind of fall out, so it doesn't ultimately work. So, only in the human realm


do we have the ability to actually practice. So these six realms are often described in drawings and paintings, and the hungry ghosts are depicted as having long, narrow necks and huge bellies, so being tortured by desire, but unable to take in nourishment. And this can be, as I said, all kinds of nourishment. So whenever we are wanting that which we can't have, wanting our body to be different, wanting our mind to be different, all those kinds of longings, we are, in a sense, this kind of creature with huge, insatiable desires, which actually, I think, in a way, in our society, we have the capacity,


kind of the technological capacity to infinitely expand those desires, that that's kind of the big advance of our society nowadays, is to come up with more and more ways, more and more imagination about how we could be satisfied. And I guess every historical period has their own suffering, but I think that's our particular suffering are these huge visions that I really enjoy looking at magazines sometimes, at the advertising, and I think there's a very clear understanding there of this hungry ghost realm and a very seemingly deliberate effort to entice us into it.


And it's done so well, don't you think? And so, it's like basically being said, you can spend your life wandering the earth seeking for satisfaction in this big car or this big, whatever, refrigerator or wearing this dress, and then off we go with our little skinny necks, not really able to take it in. Even when we get there, there's kind of something missing. It doesn't really answer that question of is this really what is most important to you at the very end, that you have this thing? But it really seems that way. So this is the ceremony that we,


this ceremony really is geared toward dealing with this problem, and it could be done at any time of year. It could be done every day even, and some temples do actually recite these verses daily. In our tradition in Japan, it's usually done in July or August, and it's often equated or even confused with another ceremony called Urabon, or bone, bone ceremony. But there are actually two different ceremonies which have different origins. They originate in different sutras. The Urabon ceremony comes from the Sanskrit word Ulambana, which means to hang upside down, and this symbolizes the suffering


of being a hungry ghost or spirit, not being able to take in nourishment. The more we eat, the hungrier we get. And the sutra that discusses this describes the story of Maudgalyayana, one of Buddha's ten great disciples, and one renowned as the greatest in supernatural powers. And some stories say he saw with this supernatural vision, or perhaps he saw in a dream, that his mother had been reborn as a hungry ghost, or his mother who had died was in this hungry ghost realm. And out of his great love and compassion for his mother, he wanted to save her. And so he tried to send her food and drink to relieve her suffering.


But when she tried to eat, the food caught fire, and burned her body. And the water turned to blood or pus. So you can imagine this picture. It sounds kind of the ultimate torture. And so he wasn't able to save her through his own powers, so he asked the Buddha what could he possibly do to help his mother. And Shakyamuni Buddha said that he actually couldn't do anything right at the moment. He would have to wait until the rainy season retreat was over, because the monks were all on retreat. They couldn't really deal with their problem at the moment. But when their retreat ended in the middle of July, they could have a ceremony. So they had a ceremony at that time and made offerings, not only to his


mother, but to all who were suffering. And so this was the first ceremony of that kind. And the Saigake ceremony is very similar to that, but it has its origins actually in another sutra, in a story about Ananda, another of the great disciples of the Buddha, who was also his cousin and who served for many years as his attendant and was renowned for his great memory and his ability to write down all of the Buddha's teachings after the Buddha's death. And the story is that Ananda once was sitting in samadhi when hungry spirits appeared before him and told him that he was to die in three days and that he would be reborn as a hungry spirit


unless he provided limitless amounts of food and drink to all the numberless hungry ghosts or pretas and to a hundred thousand Brahmins. They said that if offerings were made to the three treasures, to Buddhadharma and Sangha, then these hungry spirits would be reborn in the heavenly realms. So Ananda also went to the Buddha and asked him how could he fulfill this request, what could he do in this case? And the Buddha told him also to hold service with the other monks and to make offerings and recite sutras. So this is the origin of the Sejiki ceremony that we do. And actually it seems like the two ceremonies are kind of merged here,


that the ceremony of dealing with your own suffering or this idea that we could die in three days or any time. I think maybe three days could be understood as at any moment. Not only could we die but we will die and also others will die and have died. So the ceremony is about the suffering of all beings that in order to relieve our own suffering we also have to address the suffering of others. So every culture has its own particular ways of doing this, its own rituals and


ways of looking at death and relationships with our parents and with others who have died. And I think the ceremony has transformed as it has gone from culture to culture, beginning in India and then China, Japan, and now in the United States. So here we have Halloween at this time of year and we haven't incorporated Halloween into the ceremony but we've moved, we've done the ceremony at various times of the year and I think we've moved it to this particular time because of the influence of Halloween because it seems that this is a time when as a culture we tend to look toward death and dying and how to provide nourishment, how to provide food.


Maybe also because it's near the, it's the harvest time, the question of providing food for the hungry and those who need really comes up. It's I think one of the rare times of year when we actually study the question of dying. I heard a little bit of a very interesting program on the radio yesterday, maybe some of you heard it, a story by David Sedaris about spending a week in a coroner's office watching bodies on the table being cut up and one after another and thinking about how well maybe it's not a good idea to stand in water and bite a wire, an electrical wire for example, because you might end up like


this particular body on the table. So he decided, I guess he decided he wouldn't sort of eliminate that from things that he might do. And then the next day seeing someone else on the table and thinking well maybe it's not a good idea to stand on unstable chairs and change a light bulb with nobody else around. But he would always make sure to have someone around whenever he did that or he might end up like this other body on the table. And gradually he went through many many types of scenarios that he thought would be best to avoid, finally coming to the conclusion that it's not safe to grow old. In fact, no matter what


he did, he would end up on that table sooner or later. That this was the fate that we'll meet, that all of us will meet. But what was missing was how to how to interact with those who have died. So it seemed to me that he was really taking an amazingly brave step in facing death and really studying death and being willing to be with it. But he didn't have the teaching for how do you how do you actually have a relationship with it. How do you nourish and sustain people who are going


through, through all of us who are going through this process. So in the ceremony we call up these hungry ghosts, all of our loved ones who have died. And with unusual sounds and chanting we create a safe space to have a relationship with them. So in a sense it's a very kind of up close and personal ceremony. We have the names of people who have died on the altar and read their names aloud. But it's also, it also includes all the unknown people who have died all over the world. People who we want to hold in our hearts whether we know them or not. People who have been victims of war, of


fighting, of violence, of deprivation. All these, all the negative forces that we would prefer to put out of our mind but that we're actually a part of, that we share responsibility for. So in that way all of these people are also a part of our own life. Their deaths are our own death. So in the ceremony we call them forth and hear their suffering. So just like Magalyayana could hear his mother's suffering, we listen without judgment and try to pay attention to the suffering of others. We ask what is needed. We study how our own lives are not separate for


others' lives. And we vow to feed and nourish in whatever way is necessary those who are suffering. Even though we know this, it's very hard to realize it. We really need to have this kind of safe liminal space in which to call it up, come together with all the spirits, and then feed them and then close. Everyone goes home. Everyone goes back to their own space at the end. Thank you very much. May your attention uniquely extend to every being and place.


May your attention uniquely extend to every being and place.