One of the highlights of the sesshin this past weekend was segaki, the "feeding the hungry ghosts" ritual on Halloween night.
The hungry ghosts are spirits in one of the hell realms who have huge bellies and tiny, tiny mouths, so they are never able to satisfy their hunger. They are symbolic of those parts of ourselves that we struggle with: self criticism, doubt, anger, jealousy, procrastination, dissatisfaction.
The segaki ceremony is traditionally celebrated during O-bon in Japan, a time of remembrance for the dead which takes place in August. In the West, it has merged with our own time of spirits, the night of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos.
Before the ceremony, all of us changed into costumes. There was a full and imaginative range of masks and camouflage, from our doan Roland in his puppy costume to kokyo Debi in her angry devil outfit, Darlene's Medusa headpiece to Tony's exposed brain, and all kinds of things in between. I wore a long blue wig, black cape, and goth make-up. We were all pretty squirrely in the moments before the ceremony, reveling in the transformations and the silliness after two days of silence.
The altar was covered with mounds of Halloween candy, an offering to the hungry ghosts. During the ceremony, those of us who cared to came forward to the altar and invited our own personal "ghosts" into the room, welcoming them for the evening. After more ritual, we then sent them on their way. There was also a time for remembering our honored dead, stepping forward to name the people that we had lost in the previous year, or those very dear to us who we had lost even longer ago. After the concluding periods of zazen, and the ending chants of the day, the candy was up for grabs.
This past weekend was the five-year anniversary of my father's death. I lost him to lymphoma on Oct. 30 in 2004. It was a Saturday night in San Francisco. I was at his side in the hospital when he took his last breath, and then had to go out into the streets of the city, which were filled with Halloween revelers, people in wild costumes. It was incredibly surreal. That night, there was also an astoundingly beautiful full moon. It felt as if his spirit had leapt out of his body and into the midnight sky. Since that time, whenever there is a breathtaking moon, I feel that he is with me.
Black Mountain Center was bathed in luminous moonlight this past weekend. After the segaki ceremony, I walked into the woods, not needing the flashlight in my hand, because the entire landscape was softly illuminated. I found an opening in the trees, a small meadow, and laid down on my back, the moon washing my face and body with the glow of a father's love.