Feeding the Hungry Ghosts

Giving rise to the awakened mind, we unconditionally offer a bowl of pure food to all the hungry ghosts in every land to the farthest reaches of vast emptiness in the ten directions, including every atom throughout the entire dharma realm. We invite all our departed ancestors going back to ancient times, the spirits dwelling in mountains, rivers, and earth, as well as demonic spirits from the untamed wilderness, to come and gather here.
– Offeratory from Segaki Ceremony

Who are these ghosts and what do they want from us?

On a drizzly October morning, ten of us gathered at Empty Field to prepare for Segaki, an adaptation of a traditional Japanese ceremony called “Feeding the Hungry Ghosts.” This elaborate enactment is rooted in an ancient story of the Mogallana seeking council after he is troubled by repeated dreams of his deceased mother in anguish in the realm of the “gaki.” The Buddha directs Mogallana how to make her an offering. Gaki are hungry ghosts, beings who are profoundly hungry yet unable to take in the food, depicted with extended bellies, a symptom of malnutrition, and skinny long throats that do not allow food to pass. This is truly a mythic image made for our insatiable modern appetites and how we hunger for something vitally alive that we try to fill with stuff that only makes us hungrier.

Though we contemporary types are quick to dismiss anything that looks superstitious or “high church,” if we look closely, the anatomy of this ceremony holds deep wisdom for us and offers healing and wholeness that leaps beyond the psychological or symbolic. This unusual ritual, both somber and celebratory, has a lot of power to it and comes complete with Gregorian chant, noisemakers, candy on the altar, and processing around the engawa tossing flowers to the night sky. It is something to experience directly. Kindness is offered to the “ghosts” without doctrine. Somehow, in this wild act together, we both release and are released from our karma at the same time.

And so, together, amidst the falling ash leaves, our group spent the day travelling the wisdom of the evening ceremony’s contours – a progression that begins by invoking our spiritual guides and setting our intention before inviting and feeding our “ghosts” and honoring those who have died in the past year. This year, our purpose was to do the inner preparation for the ceremony by working with a particular personal unresolved relationship (one of the many ways to understand what is meant by “ghosts”). Though consequences from seen and unseen causes and conditions are endless, some of the most troublesome karma we experience, our heaviest burdens, emerge from fissures in important past relationships – mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, relatives and teachers, those we have allowed into our hearts, by choice or birth. By taking up a single conflicted relationship from the past that has impacted us in some way, the ten of us spent time finding out what it means to really let go.

Although zazen directs to “let go” of our stories, some stories are not easily “meditated away” but instead call on us to bring forth the energy of turning towards these “ghosts” with fresh wisdom, not the familiar narrative, but with true heart and clear seeing. One thing I witness as a teacher repeatedly is that given half a chance to meet one another intimately and take a dharma eye towards our karmic conditioning, it becomes apparent that our lives are truly extraordinary. What is our own familiar chronology often turns out to be, for another, the making of a great novel. Taken as a whole, all our joys and struggles – grappling with the sudden suicide of a dear uncle, the sister against whom we could never measure up, the friend who secretly became a lover of your spouse– all of the difficulties, unforeseen and wholeheartedly chosen, make up our karmic inheritance. What we do with these events is nothing short of remarkable as something deep inside us attempts over and over to become whole. Sometimes we need to take up our story wholeheartedly in order to let it go.

This is what was learned about the release of karma.


Release cannot begin before we completely accept our present moment experience of what has come to pass.

When calling to mind those times of betrayal or hurt, we often find ourselves in an impossible position where part of us wants to let go of something and another part says, “But I can’t!” or, “I don’t want to.” It’s easy to imagine letting go means being free from pain or forgetting about things that have happened. Another part of us bristles thinking that letting go means not responding to or condoning past actions. There are many misunderstandings about this, which is why we begin the process of letting go with returning to ourselves, entering into the real experience we are having without judgment, aversion or grasp. There is deep wisdom in the Segaki ceremony that opens by calling on the strength of practice and Kanzeon, the heartmind of compassion, as well as the guides from all directions in the Sweet Gate Scripture, to help protect a space within which we can become clear witnesses to what is present before we invite in the hungry ghosts. We need to ready ourselves, to be grounded and clear.

When working with past conflicted relationships, while in our conceptual mind we may acknowledge what has transpired, what is called for in the heart is a full body knowing of pain and hurt without turning away, analyzing, judging and getting caught in the story of what has happened. He did this because he is this way, or I think I have to do so and so to let go. Putting aside all analysis, should, shouldn’ts, could haves, and plans and instead, we stay right in this spot and invite the heart of compassion. Our vespers chant that opens the ceremony, has a familiar sweet prayer for those of us familiar with it: Do, do the work within my heart.

This is the true beginning of healing and atonement. To have the accepting eyes of sangha bear witness to this, resting in what is true and noticing the ways we’ve tried to avoid or manage our experience in ways that have not served us or others. To be able to be oneself and know and accept, I feel hurt and shame and sadness, simply as the truth of this moment, makes all the difference. Often, it is important to stay here a bit for longer than is comfortable, until we can say without a fight, Yes.


Meditating on the one who has hurt us restores the other to their humanity.

The practice of Zen is the practice of the harmony of difference and sameness. Another way to say this is “Not one. Not two.” Most people think that when in conflict with another, the problem is that they have become separate, which is how it often appears. But if we look closely, it may be the case that in truth, they have lost their “otherness” to us and have become part of our own self enclosed inner world. Through singular images, rehearsal and judgment, the other individual is reduced to someone unchangeable, stuck, and nonresponsive in our psyche. We carry them around with us unchanged. We conclude things like, he or she always or never or will never. We even obsess and formulate compelling analysis of their motivation and short comings causing their behavior. Throughout this rumination, they cease to participate in the living process and flow of change. Being open to finding a new way begins the shift.

Once rooted in the mind of compassion, by calling the other person to mind, we begin to return the other to their otherness, to their “not oneness” we might say in Zen. Do we really know the other person? How the person sees us? That they are unchanged or unaffected by what has unfolded? What are their hopes and struggles? What might they regret or have suffered? Just by calling them to mind and looking again, we make space for more a larger view.
One of the most poignant moment of the Segaki ceremony that speaks to this is right in the middle when the doshi calls out toward the Segaki altar a set of call and response phrases (dharanis) three times. Completely piercing the stillness in zendo, these particular chants are meant to banish all fear and give the gaki the precepts. They are unequivocal, bold, loving and clear. The act is a kind of gesture that suggests the ghosts will one day travel back into the human realm, the spiritual state most conducive to practice and awakening.

This is mirrored in our human relationships. Letting go of our reactivity and judgment, we begin to see through the other who lives in our inner world unskillful behavior and return them to their true nature, ungraspable. By simply accepting our own experience completely, new ground opens up right in this moment to begin to see clearly the humanity of the other. We can pause and look again, be surprised by new findings. Relax. We may see the love of an abusive mother, the fear from someone who has criticized us, the loneliness of a friend who betrayed our confidence. We also begin to admit the ways our defenses may have harmed the ones who have harmed us hidden by justifications and blindness to how we try to right wrongs in unskillful ways.


Release is not an action of getting rid of something, but allowing things to take their natural course.

During the entire day of our retreat, bursts of yellow translucent ash leaves lit from behind by the afternoon sun, floated through the sky like confetti. As I looked up from some journaling, I noticed how easy it appeared, once the juice of making sugar for the tree is spent, in an imperceptible moment, the leaf just drops, carried and twirling on a little breeze before gently dropping to the earth where it will again serve more life. After doing the hard motion of turning towards our suffering and karmic inheritance, true release begins much in the same way as we return to things as they are. At this point, nothing is forced or pushed away, but instead we can allow the process to take its natural course. Rooting deeply in our experience, not our stories of our experience, we begin to allow the other to be the other.

At the end of our Segaki ceremony, after the ghosts are fed and sent back to complete their karmic journey, we each throw slips of paper into the wood stove fire upon which are written the particulars of the karma we wish to release. On the back of the paper is the word “immaculate.” The fire is the fire of change and purification and we sit in by the embers taking it in the body, seeing it is true. This immaculate reminds us that from the point of view of “Not two” there is no problem, no foul, no self, no other. This moment is always perfect as it is. At once, our karmic lives are also pure and clear – like a lotus in muddy water, says our verse, rooted in the mud but not of it.

It is a paradox that this letting go is not a willful action, but a willful surrender that cannot be reduced to something psychological or symbolic. Letting go is a mutual act of all things reconnecting – it is the ground of being, and anything but “getting rid of.” Letting go and being let go of are two sides of the same coin. In this “not one,” we can accept the pain and release the artificial hold we have in our minds, a hold that is a felt sense in the body, that if we keep our anger, ideas, we will somehow right what has been wronged. If we keep our resentment at the other for the ways we have felt hurt, we have a temporary sense of power and protection that costs much in the long run.
We do this ceremony every year, renewing and releasing. We end the ceremony by enjoying the yummy sweets offered on the altar, returning to daily life, talking about ordinary things and allowing what has transpired to have its own natural time. This work is difficult which is why we need the support of the sangha to travel these roads where ghosts jump out from the untamed wilderness to scare us.

The natural course of things. One day, the transparent tear shaped leaf, catching a breeze opens up to the blue sky. Completely seen through, enjoying the ease before it returns as an offering to the root.

Palm to palm,

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