Feeding Hungry Ghosts- Late August is the season for SEGAKI (施餓鬼) Services in Tsukuba and the surrounding area – where Shingon Esoteric Buddhism still thrives
By Avi Landau
An important part of Japanese tradition is attending to the spirits of one’s ancestors. Even today, many homes have a BUTSUDAN ( a Buddhist Altar), at which offerings of water, rice and incense are made daily. There are also four times a year ( equally spread out through the calendar year), New Year`s in winter, the Spring and Autumnal Equinoxes, and the O-Bon Festival in summer, when the souls of deceased family members receive more special attention ( and much better offerings!) .
It was also interesting for me to learn that in Tsukuba ( and throughout Japan) many make offerings to OTHER SPIRITS: those who have no descendants to care for them (無縁仏, MUEN BUTSU), or the spirits of those who according to Buddhist belief have fallen into the realm of GAKI (餓鬼道), where they are suffering ( because of past misdeeds) from incessant thirst and hunger.
The ceremonies at which such offerings are made are called SEGAKI (施餓鬼), and in Tsukuba and other parts of Japan they are often held within a two week period after the O-Bon Festival ( though at some temples they are held every day!).
( Apparently, in early Indian Buddhism, the offerings to GAKI ( Preta, in Pali) were made at the same time as the offering to ones own ancestors at the URABON-E, the prototype of todays O-Bon Festival in Japan)
The logic of this is as follows: the ancestral spirits have just returned to the Other World after their short stays with their families for the Bon Festival. Offerings are made to MUEN BUTSU and GAKI not only out of compassion or sympathy for these suffering spirits, but also to help guarantee that ones own ancestors do not become the victims of their spiteful bullying upon their return.
( It is always amusing for me to hear Japanese people refer to bratty kids as GAKI- a common usage of the word in modern Japanese. )
It is also after O-Bon, (and in Tsukuba very often right after the SEGAKI ceremony), that families receive their new SOTOBA, the wooden boards inscribed with Chinese and Sanskrit characters which are placed upright at graves.
The word SOTOBA derives from the Sanskrit word STUPA, a word which was used to mean a Buddhist monument for someone who has passed away( originally for the Buddha himself!).
While in past ages, the wealthy and powerful could afford grand five-tiered monuments of stone ( GORIN TO , 五輪塔), or even grander five tiered pagodas ( Goju- no to-, 五重塔), representing the five elements- space, wind, fire, water, and earth, the common man had to make due with a more rustic ( and much cheaper) type of monument: a wooden slab with notches on top representing the same five realms!
(Please note that SOTOBA are referred to as TOHBA in Ibaraki and other parts of Japan.)
And since in Japan nothing is quite so simple, these SOTOBA play another role. Besides being Buddhist style monuments ( inscribed with prayers) for the dead, they can also be interpreted as being Shinto ( Japan`s native belief system) style YORISHIRO (依代), which act as antennae of sorts, to attract the spirits back their graves and or make communication between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead possible.
My first encounter with a SEGAKI CEREMONY did not occur until last year. The year before that , while I was talking with retired teacher (and awesome harmonica player) Oyama Sensei, my curiosity was greatly aroused when I heard him tell about how he had been “FEEDING HUNGRY GHOSTS” ( he had translated the heard SEGAKI directly from its characters)!
After much pestering, I made him promise to take me with him the next time such a ceremony was held.
For that I had to wait nearly twelve months, as in his neighborhood the SEGAKI is held only once a year, about 12 days after the O-Bon Festival – on August 28th.
When the time did come for the ceremony, held at the Fudo-Zon Hall in Higashi Maeno, Tsukuba, I found that it had been WELL WORTH the wait. Not only could I witness the neighborhood SEGAKI CEREMONY in its mysterious venerable old wooden hall, but I could also sit through a GOMA TAKI fire ceremony dedicated to Fudo Myo-o, AND see all the local families ( as represented by a single male member) receive their new TOHBAs.
Once again this year ( on Aug. 28th) I will be attending the SEGAKI in Higashi Maeno. If anyone is interested in joining, please let me know.
And if you can’t make it, I will leave a detailed account of what happens right here on this post.
One more thing of interest for those interested in Tsukuba and the surrounding area. Segaki ceremonies are performed by all the major sects of Japanese Buddhism- except for Jodo Shinshu ( which happens by the way to be the one with the most followers!).
The reason for this is apparently connected to a story involving SHINRAN (親鸞), the founder of that sect – and a visit to Mt Tsukuba!
Here is a short summary of the tale.
Shinran was staying at a lodging house at the foot of Mt Tsukuba the night before his planned ascent of the mountain. While he slept, he dreamed of a boy who announced himself as the messenger of Nantai Gongen ( the male deity of the mountain). The boy went on to beseech the great priest to visit the middle one of 3 caves he would find on the mountain`s slope.
Shinran found the cave and entered. First he found two jars with a little water in them. Then deeper inside he found ( much to his surprise, I assume) a GAKI.
The tormented spirit told Shinran that because of past sins he was now suffering terrible hunger and thirst. However, due to the merciful kindness of the deities of the mountain, every day, he and the other GAKI could drink ONE DROP of water each day.
The Gaki then went on to beg Shinran for relief in the form of food or water.
Shinran, however, did not believe that just because one had sinned, one had to suffer in hell. And Gaki, in his mind, were no exception! He was certain that ANYONE who chanted nenbutsu ( the phrase NAMU AMIDA BUTSU) a sufficient number of times would be saved.
And this, according to the story, is exactly what happened. After chanting with the Gaki for a full day- they were saved and taken off to heaven by a mysterious cloud.
It is this story of “Shinran on Mt Tsukuba” that explains why the followers of Jodo Shinshu do not believe it is necessary to make offerings to GAKI. They do not have to stay suffering in hell and do not need food or drink. They can save themselves by chanting NENBUTSU.
EXPERIENCING A SEGAKI CEREMONY IN TSUKUBA
This year, once again, I set out for the old Fudo-Zon Hall in Tsukuba`s Higashi Maeno neighborhood ( just behind the world famous particle smasher and the High Energy Physics Laboratory), amid the pulsating heat and drone of cicadas.
The Fudo-Zon Hall is connected with The Shingon Sect of Buddhism ( the most popular sect in Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods) and it is dedicated to Fudo-Myoo, a fierce, sword bearing deity, whose name means the UNMOVEABLE ONE.
The reason that O-Fudo Sama is so important to the Shingon Sect can be seen by looking at its NAME , as Kukai ( also known as Kobo Daishi), the great founder of that sect in Japan ( and one of the most influential men in Japanese history), put an image of the UNMOVEABLE ONE on the bow of the ship which was carrying him on his perilous journey back to Japan from China ( in the hope that the seas would be calm, i.e. NOT MOVE TO MUCH).
This notion of standing firm has also made Fudo-Myoo a popular image to pray to for safe childbirth and protection from earthquakes.
The reason the worship of O-Fudo Sama is so popular in this part of Japan is probably connected with the uprising of the rebel Taira No Masakado, and the six years of turmoil this involved.
After the self proclaimed New Emperor`s defeat ( in the late 10th century) the Imperial Court and aristocracy want to restore order and calm as represented by the UNMOVEABLE ONE.
Another important point is that O-Fudo-Sama`s special day (En nichi), is the 28th of each month. It is for that reason that the SEGAKI at this hall is performed each year on August 28th. The First En nichi after O-Bon.
When I arrived, just in time at 3pm, the old hall was full- about 15 men ( almost all past retirement age), were seated cross-legged on cushions as the young priest began explaining ( for my benefit?), the meaning of the ceremony.
As I listened, I enjoyed the cool breezes which rolled through the ancient wooden structure ( Japanese traditional architecture is especially effective in helping fight the summer heat), and surveyed in awe the old images, utensils and the building itself. Occasionally a wisp of delicate incense tickled my nose.
The priests explanation of the SEGAKI was as follows ( this, is I assume the official teaching of the Shingon Sect):
The SEGAKI ceremony has its roots in a SUTRA called the ENKU GAKI DARANI-KYO Sutra ( in Japanese). This ancient piece of Buddhist scripture speaks of ANNAN SONJA, a disciple of the Buddha, who had a terrible vision.
In it, a frightening GAKI appeared and told the astonished monk that he had three days to live and that he had better make offerings to GAKI. Not knowing how to make such offerings, the disciple went to the Buddha and found out.
After the proper ritual was made, this disciple is said to have gained great merit and lived to a ripe old age.
This was why, the priest explained, the SEGAKI ceremony is held by Buddhists even today.
He also emphasized ( most importantly) that the ritual should be carried out with a heart full of compassion.
Also of great interest to me was an explanation of what exactly would be offered. There was incense, rice, and what is called MIZU NO KO (水の子)- bits of cucumber and eggplant sprinkled on lotus leaves. There were also flowers. All these offerings were placed on a special altar set up for the GAKI.
It was then time for the rites to begin.
First, prayers to O-Fudo Sama
The priest, in spectacular green garments with a gray sash embroidered with images of phoenixes ( Hi no Tori), took a seat ( cross legged on a cushion) and asked all to join hands for a moment in GASSHO.
He then sounded a gong and began a strange chant, a growl in fact- almost like one clearing his throat and sinuses. This weird vocalizing continued for what seemed like a very long time. Most of those in attendance sat motionless , with eyes closed.
With occasional gong-crashes, the chant would change… to a sing-song then to something not unlike a rap… hypnotic, soothing numbing…..
After about 40 minutes, the chanting came to an abrupt end, and the priest announced that the Segaki would begin.
Each man in turn approached the altar and dropped some incense onto the burner. This took less than 10 minutes.
When it was all over, the men eagerly snapped up their TOHBA, and headed off for home.