Ocean Gate Zen Center celebrated the offering of food, incense and sweet tea to our ancestral hungry ghosts last night (Oct. 30th) during our annual Segaki Ceremony. In Japan this is a mid-summer ceremony associated with O-bon. O-bon honors the Buddha and the Segaki Ceremony is to call forth the family ancestors to offer peace and sustenance for whatever suffering may be occurring.
In the United States Buddhist community we have transplanted the Segaki ceremony onto Halloween or All Hallows Eve on Oct. 31st. Not surprisingly, the two ceremonies have a similar purpose: to bring peace to suffering spirits. All Hallows Eve seems to have taken the majority of its characteristics from an ancient Celtic celebration called the Samhain Festival.
At Samhain, ancestors are welcome into the human world again and places are set for them at the dinner table. In this very concrete way, offerings are made of food and good will. During this time children would go from door to door receiving gifts of food.
In 835 Pope Gregory moved the All Saints Day from May 13th to Nov. 1st on the Christian calendar. During All Saints Day church bells were rung to sooth the souls in purgatory. Cakes called Soul Cakes were baked and given to children who came door-to-door begging for them, perhaps reenacting the soul’s desire for redemption.
In all of these various events across cultures, we venerate those ancestors who precede us and wish them peace and salvation through offerings of food and comfort. During Ocean Gate’s Segaki Ceremony we begin by drawing pictures of hungry ghosts (Gakis, whose stomachs are bloated in starvation, but their necks are too small to receive nourishment.) and hang them on the walls. Then we call for the spirits with noise makers and chanting. Finally we offer them food, sweet tea, water, flowers and incense and chant for their well-being.
How fitting during this time of transition from Fall to Winter, when for many storms come and the light wanes, we acknowledge and bring forth the mental suffering that might lie in the shadows that come forth in the winter of our suffering. Winter can arrive at any time and our healing comes from bringing our difficulties into the light through our offerings of good will. It is this good will toward the self and others that enables us to find the courage needed for transformation. Let us remember this great truth of Buddha’s compassion as we go forth into the holidays.