Reading the Air: ancestral spirits – letter to Meredith

Dear Meredith,O Bon

Waiting for ancestral spirits to come in twenty-first century Japan! This is indeed a primitive act as you say. On closer examination, and by talking to many people, it is apparently not questioned or thought about in detail here. People just accept it. It is impressive  that even young people, with their growing materialism and desire to emulate bland western culture, seem to simply accept that their ancestors and their grandparents are worthy of respect, and they have a wish to demonstrate that unconditional acceptance. 

It could be said that perhaps they are merely going through the motions, but even so, they are participating in a clear act of consecration by traveling long distances to spend time with others of their lineage each year at butsudan 2O Bon time.  This constitutes some kind of gesture of gratitude to those who made their lives possible through the altruistic act of birthing.

At O Bon time, often all the generations of a family sleep together, breathing the same air laden with the aromas of burning wax and incense made of resins from mountain forests.  Fire, a symbol of purification which promotes new life, figures importantly in guiding the spirits back to the invisible world, so they can harvest all the prayers and sincere wishes of gratitude collected together for their visit.  

In Kokoro’s coastal hometown, squeezed between the forest slopes which lead down to the beach and low maroon cliffs, there is no space to make the bonfires that will be raging out on the mountaintops and in the funagatavalleys all over Japan this night.  Tonight also, lanterns will be lit and carried down to the waters, the prayers inscribed on them having been carefully considered, a sincere moment of gassho offered, and probably a small tear or two shed, as they are launched.

Meredith, perhaps due to our human condition, which has temporarily lost a sense of deep gratitude, some of us are unable to see our parents’ faces until the moment of their death.  But then it is too late, and deep regret is liable to set in.  But there are gestures and nonverbal phenomenon, which link us permanently with our parents, and their parents, link us invisibly.

stones of deathImagine a father and his young son exchanging the stones they found on a small pebble beach near a wide river.  They keep them secreted away in their separate lives as the child becomes adult and the father ages.  Then, on the father’s solitary death, the son is summoned and he prepares to deliver his father to the invisible world, cleaning and dressing him in his death robes.   

He struggles to unclench his father’s fingers, stiffened by the ceasing of the flow of blood and air in the body’s channels. He must place them in the traditional position of repose at the heart.  And once they are finally released, something falls out of the sealed cup of the left hand.  It is a small oval white pebble, which his link between father and son imagethen-small son had given to him on the smiling beach of his youth.

Also, as an unrecognized sign from the invisible world, just before the father’s unexpected death, the son had recently rediscovered his father’s gift of a larger rough dark stone wrapped in newspaper of that time which was stored inside the case of his childhood cello. His wife had suddenly urged him to play something for her. This was just such an invisible link between the estranged father and son. We are often not able to understand this connection until the time of death.

prep for deathThe son will deliver his own father into the invisible world, washing his grey body and cutting away the bristles on his face.  Then, suddenly, the face beneath the son’s tears becomes un-blurred in his heart.  He has tried for so many years to see that face that gave him life, but it was always unclear, somehow obscured.  

Now, through his tears and the tragedy of life and death, the father’s spirit leaves the body, and once this clarification has been accomplished, the face of his father surfaces in his son’s mind.  In this way, the handing over of the lineage is completed.

The son turns to offer the small white stone to the swollen body of his omniscient wife sitting behind him.  And so the spirit moves on to the next generation, and the next stage of training has begun.ancestors




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