Ancestors We Choose



Tesshin Roshi opened his talk this week by talking about the Japanese Obon festival which runs from August 13th through August 16th.  During this time many Japanese flee the big cities like Tokyo to return to the villages where they were born.  Obon is a time to visit ancestors and to clean and care for their graves.  Some people call this festival the “day of the dead.”  However, we should not consider this a morose activity.  In Japan it is a time of celebration and partying, dancing, and having a good time.  Roshi also mentioned that many Japanese reach out to long lost acquaintances right before Obon begins.  The tradition is to send small gifts to someone who you have not talked to in a long time.


The Obon festival got Roshi thinking a lot about ancestors.  There are two types of ancestors.  There are the ones we are born with and the ones we choose.  The ones we are born with are our parents, their parents, and so on.  We are with these ancestors in every moment of our lives.  This is because, in a very real sense, we are the manifestation of all of their collected karma.  All that we are in this very moment is the result of the effects of actions taken by our biological ancestors in the past.  


However, there are also the ancestors we choose.  In Zen practice, we have the ability to augment our biological ancestors with our Zen ancestors.  Many people wonder why Zen practitioners pay such special attention to past teachers.  For example, we write out our full lineage of past teachers when we take the Buddhist precepts.  We chant the names of past teachers every week in our service.  We bow to the likeness of past teachers.  Why is this?  Here Roshi was clear – our Zen ancestors and their positive karma of teaching the Dharma affect us just like the karma from our biological ancestors.  The message is that we have ancestors we were born with and ones we choose.  Choosing ancestors wisely can have a great affect on how our life turns out even if the karmic package from our biological ancestors is problematic.


Roshi also mentioned that this choice comes with great responsibilities.  These teachers imparted the Dharma asking for nothing in return – except that we practice diligently and then “pay it forward” by keeping the teaching alive for our successors.  Who are these successors – all sentient beings of course!  The actions of our practice echo out as karma well into the future.  One does not need to be a teacher to teach the Dharma.  Our actions and positive karma are all that our chosen Zen ancestors require. 


Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that each of us is embedded in a web of karma.  Past actions lead to us in this very moment and our actions spread out into the distant future.  During this Obon season, we give a deep bow to our parents for making us who we are, but we also give a deep bow to our Zen ancestors as they make our practice what it is.