By Enkei Joe Mendyka
In modern America, Halloween is a fun and irreverent holiday. While there’s certainly plenty to be said for having days set aside where we don’t take ourselves too seriously, this was not always the purpose for All Hallows’ Eve. In pre-Christian Europe, October 31, the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, marked the final entry into death in the cycle of the seasons with the final darkness arriving on the Winter Solstice. The ancient Celtic and Gaelic tribes of the British isles believed on this evening the spirit world had special access to our own world and so took care to protect themselves from the spirits of the dead. Over time, the customs meant to placate those spirits were adopted and transformed by the Christian church and turned into the the celebrations of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days on November 1 and 2, respectively. On these occasions, the faithful have the opportunity to honor their departed and continue to offer prayers and blessings to loved ones.
Buddhist cultures are not without their own forms of these celebrations. If we look back to the Ullambana Sutra, we read of a concern by the arhat Maudgalyayana for his deceased mother who he was able to see had been reborn into the hungry ghost realm. In Buddhist thought, humans are reborn as hungry ghosts, gaki in Japanese, when stricken over their lifetime by unrepentant greed and jealousy. These beings are often depicted with bulging stomachs and dreadfully small throats and mouths, indicating their inability to satiate their need for food and drink.
The sutra tells of how, when Maudgalyayana realized the fate of his mother, he went to the Buddha asking for advice to assist her in rebirth in the human realm. The Buddha instructed the monk to make offerings of food and robes to his fellow monks following the summer retreat on behalf of his mother and that through this generosity he could cultivate merit for her that would lead to her rebirth in the human realm.
Japanese Buddhism contains several practices geared toward feeding the hungry ghosts and accruing merit on their behalf. From making offerings from meals and the altar to holding the annual summertime Obon Festival modeled after the directions given to Maudgalyayana, these practices both protect the faithful from potential misdeeds by the gaki and, more importantly, are opportunities for practitioners to express their appreciation for the departed.
The path of the buddha-dharma is difficult and each of us has lost people who struggled to lead a life free of suffering and afflictions, particularly as they approached death. Our grieving for their loss can be complicated by the fact that, in their anguish, they spread suffering to us and those around us. However, regardless of how we recall their lives, honoring our ancestors is important both for their sake and our own. Each of these beings helped contribute to the causes and conditions for our practice and growth in the teachings of the Buddha. Whether they were able to engender compassion and wisdom or not, they strove for joy and equanimity for themselves and those around them. If they were our parents, siblings, partners, friends or neighbors, they felt some kinship to us and wanted this same joy for us.
In expressing gratitude for those that came before us, we don’t have to make up some fairy tale version of their life, but remember them for the reality of their struggle in samsara. This is an opportunity to come to terms with the difficulty of each being’s life without attachment to resentment or sadness toward that difficulty. These expressions of gratitude can, in turn, reconcile our conflicted feelings over loss and be extremely healing both for us and for the deceased, whether you believe that they live on in rebirth or only through our memory.
So, this Halloween, take time to dedicate some of the joy and festivity of your candy-fueled celebration to those that came before you. If you’re interested in learning more about practices to serve the hungry ghosts, contact a Buddhist teacher that can teach you about prayers and rituals from within your tradition.