Twice a year we perform the Segaki Kuyo-ceremony, “Offerings for the Hungry Spirits.” One time in spring, one time in autumn, usually around the equinox, when day and night are of equal duration. We stand in the middle of our time. We have made progress in life, we seem to understand where we are coming from, we seem to understand the future course to take. We seem to understand better and better our surrounding world, our insight is growing.
Then something happens. With our expanding insight, our horizon also grows. We notice things we did not even knew existed. Things, that until now had nothing to do with us, seem to reach us and touch our heart. And it seems not possible to carry them alone. Even stronger, just focusing on self-cultivation and residing comfortably within our small world becomes impossible. We suddenly find ourselves in an ever expanding universe. Our own small world, this sure and strong beacon, has become volatile.
This seems to have happened to Maudgalyayana, disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha. He is considered to be the foremost disciple in matters of meditation and concentration. His spiritual insight became so strong he was able to see other worlds, see other horizons of existence.
But what he sees, touches his heart. It propels him back to his own small world. He sees his own passed-away mother. But not in a lovely, comforting melancholic memory: he sees the body of his mother, all twisted and torn, difficult to look at. She seems distressed and hungry, but is unable to eat or drink. Her throat has become very thin, unable to swallow. Food put in her mouth immediately turns to flames.
Maudgalyayana is startled from this mediation, and the vision brings him back to his own small world. His deep serenity of mind breaks, sadness and anxiety take over. He goes to his teacher Shakyamuni Buddha, who gives him a simple line of advice:
“Maudgalyayana, this is not something for you to carry alone.”
Alone. Only focusing on self-cultivation. Only relying on your own strength.
Shakyamuni assembles all the monks and nuns. He assembles the entire sangha and asks to prepare food-offerings. Together the monks and nuns pray, and with the power of this communal prayer they are able to send all food-offerings to the mother of Maudgalyayana and all living beings suffering the same karmic consequences of greed. This is the world of the Hungry Ghosts, a world in which greed and competition have made life impossible to live. Together. Interdependent, relying, focusing on the liberation of all living beings.
Twice a year, when day and night are equal, when we have reached a middle-point, we come together. We listen with our hearts to the story of Maudgalyayana. We listen with our hearts to the words of advice of Shakyamuni Buddha:
“This is not something for you to carry alone.”
We come together. We offer food and water. We come together in prayer.
The words of the prayers make our own small horizon crumble. I am the son/daughter of my parents, I am the grandson/granddaughter of my grandparents…and even if I don’t know nothing about my great-grandparents, they are part of my horizon of existence. The further I trace my horizon, the broader it becomes. More worlds merge with my world. My compassion transcends my existence. Even a harsh world of greed and competition comes within reach. Even the unbearable suffering of the hungry spirits comes in sight. I can bear it. But not just with these two hands. With the hands of all people joined together in prayer and compassion.
Hermitage under the Leaves