Monday, August 26, 2013

obon and offering to the ancestors

Japanese cemetery at Arayashima, Kyoto.

This may be among my first real Japan posts. The last few may have been written in Osaka, where I've been based since the first of August, but most were written about a different time and a different place. Though I'm sure there's more to glean and excavate from the past months in Europe, I'm also feeling that I've expunged a crucial amount of emotional backlog and that there is a little more space to be in the present.

And at present, I'm in Japan. And everyday here feels a little like a miracle. Two months ago, just as my so-called-plans began to disintegrate and I was asking myself while sitting at a remote Pyranean village in Spain "what to do now?" one email came from Osaka where a mysore yoga program needed a substitute teacher and would I like to be that person?

Arashiyama, Kyoto.
So, here I am. Here and now present, teaching a mysore program at Spirit Yoga International School, where esteemed friends and fellow practitioners have taught before me, sharing a process which I love so deeply, which has moved me to no ends, which continues to push me to the edge and transform me whether I like it or not, a process which I ultimately like, look for, and invite on a daily basis.

And everyday is an offering to moving forward.

Ironically, the present continues to link to the past. Perhaps this is one of the challenges of being me, I think too much. I process. A lot. I've been given a lot of advice too. To not think so much. Easier said than done--but rather than going against my own nature, I am trying to work with it, trying to get this thinking mind to get on my onward moving bandwagon.

What I am coming to realize more and more is that being present isn't about forgetting the past, or disregarding the past. Rather, it's about seeing the past as past, honoring it for what it is, taking the lessons that it has given, and then, finally, letting it go. 

One of the Dimonji at a distance.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I took my first trip out of Osaka to nearby Kyoto for Gozan no Okuribi, the culminating event for Obon festivities in the area, a sacred time to honor one's ancestors, to release them from suffering in the realm of hungry ghosts and to remember the offerings that these ancestors made. Traditionally, Okuribi bonfires are lit on the slopes of Kyoto's mountainsides to remember and release the spirits of the ancestors.

I loved the idea! I had my own spirits of the not so recent past to release, poor tortured souls in the realm of the hungry ghosts. But Obon also had me thinking about my ancestors too as we navigated the crowds along the river, many of whom were not in a good vantage point to see the bonfires.

In the Philippines, we have a similar but more Catholic tradition that falls on All Saints' and All Souls' Day, November 1 and 2 of every year where we go to visit departed family members in their grave sites. We spend some time there, we pray and eat--often it's a grave yard picnic sort of affair. Then we go. We don't recall so much the spirits of far off ancestors, but loved ones we remember, we miss. And for many like myself, the tradition triggers an automatic response, rather than one that sparks deep contemplation and real connection.

In Japan, I realize, Obon has a similar effect. It is widely observed, but the depth of which is not commonly touched by those who perceive it as archaic or those who practice it by rote. The tradition continues but some of the greater significance is a little lost. 

Kyoto: river flows, purifies...
The bonfires themselves were hard to see. We found twice, accidentally, spots in which to get a faint view from a particular angle. But the fires of intention have their moment and burn out quickly.

As I wandered the streets of Kyoto, my friend Andrea leading us to various spots where we might look upon one of the Dimonji, the giant characters burning into the mountain, I wondered about the significance of Obon in the context of my own life. As a tourist, I was looking for a sight-seeing opportunity. But as a life-explorer, however, a different way of seeing--a healthier way of understanding and connecting with my own ghosts, with my own ancestors.

My ghosts, those wily little creatures of my own making, I understood, would continue to shadow me for as long as I allowed them. I had breathed life into them. And I was solely responsible now to deconstruct them, to release them from my mind and to take away their power--or rather to take back my own.

As for my ancestors, I realized that I had none that I could recall directly. I know so little of my family's history. I didn't even get much of a chance to really know my own grandmothers while they were living and no opportunity at all to meet my grandfathers.

What I feel, however, is this: my ancestors are my forebearers, they are the ones who came before me, they are the countless men and women who grappled with their own ghosts; journeymen (and women too, women, especially) who courageously walked their path and those who struggled to do so; writers who wrote and writers who didn't; women who fought for their personal sovereignty and famously failed and those who with quiet grace claimed their own genuine femininity.

All those who have come before me are my ancestors, the steps I walk upon now have been laid down by them. It is them whom I acknowledge, whom I honor. It is to them that I supplicate, that I may learn from their struggles and their victories, that my missteps--because there will inevitably be more of them--be lessons in love rather than mistakes, that their blessings are like flowers strewn on this unpaved dirt road I've chosen, that their love which shines like a light from within me continue to help me banish my own shadows. That they can rest now, too, knowing that me and others like me will continue to walk their path.

The past is past--but there is a power to connecting with it, feeding a human need to honor and embrace it, allowing it to be the inspiration that it can be rather than the heavy weight we often carry.

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