Zen Buddhism and Obon: Feeding the Hungry Spirits

In the Zen Peacemakers, we recite Sanskrit spells and provide food for hungry people in our community. We prepare a food offering and use ancient spells to invite the hungry ghosts into the room.
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The Obon ceremony is a time to remember. While I studied with Maezumi Roshi, my Japanese Zen teacher, Obon was a time to remember ancestors. We banged on pots and pans to invite in all of the hungry ghosts, the spirits of the deceased who didn't reach Nirvana and remained in a sort of limbo of dissatisfaction. We offered them food to satisfy them and then released candle-lit boats into a stream to send the spirits on their way.

The history of Obon is a dance between service and ritual. Early Buddhist rites for the salvation of ancestors were based on the story of Maudgalyayana. Despite being the Buddha's disciple who was the most advanced in magic and communicating with the dead, Maudgalyayana could not find the right spell to release his own mother from suffering in the underworld. The Buddha told him that to free his mother, he must look not to the world magic but to the needs of the people around him; he must offer food to the community of monks on his mother's behalf. The basis of the Bon Odori dance performed during Obon today is Maudgalyayana's joyful reaction to relieving his mother's pain.

Introduced in the eighth century and spread during the thirteenth century, esoteric Buddhist priests emphasized spells as the way to feed hungry ghosts. This tradition builds on the story of another of the Buddha's disciplines, Ananda, who was confronted by a Hungry Ghost who warned him that if he didn't find a way to feed all hungry ghosts, he too would become one within three days. The Buddha comforts his terrified disciple with a series of spells that expand a food offering to become big enough to satisfy all the hungry ghosts and release them from suffering.

In the Zen Peacemakers, we do both: recite Sanskrit spells and provide food for hungry people in our community. We prepare a food offering and use ancient spells to invite the hungry ghosts into the room and make the food big enough to feed them. We look inside of ourselves and call forth the awakened parts of each of us. We ask how we can make our service to the world big enough to feed as many unmet needs as possible in ourselves and in others.

I had a deep experience of seeing that we are all hungry ghosts: the homeless person on the street, the banker who never has enough money, the jealous spouse. When we bear witness at Auschwitz, we remember the Jews deprived of family, liberty and life and Germans desperately caught up in a cesspool of dehumanization. All hungry ghosts. I felt that the hungry ghosts are me and I vowed to feed as much hunger as possible.

When I started my own Zen community in New York after completing my training with my teacher, community service became central to our practice. I translated and adapted the Obon services accordingly. The Kirtan singer Krishna Das composed the melody for the Gate of Sweet Nectar, our liturgy based on the Obon liturgy.

We perform it every Saturday, on the same day as the community meals of the Montague Farm Zen House. After the services, we offer free food and wellness services to a mix of people who come, hungry for a good meal, hungry for support and hungry to connect with others.

Remembering is the opposite of dismembering. Spiritual awakening is making one or making whole. As we re-member, we invite in the parts of ourselves that we don't want to acknowledge. We invite in the people who society has forgotten and we share the best meal we can share.

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