Standing in the Stream of Ancestors
Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still, they say. Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.
~Linda Hogan (Native American writer)
This time of year, with golden aspen and cottonwood leaves falling all around, my heart opens to the truth of impermanence. I feel much more awareness of those who are no longer here with us but who live on within us in so many ways. Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead, observed on November 1–is a time to remember our ancestors. In the spiritual tradition that I practice, Zen Buddhism, there is also a great emphasis on being part of a stream of ancestors–a lineage of wise ones and teachers who came before us and who continue to support us.
What does it mean to stand in a stream of ancestors?
When I was growing up, I didn’t have much of a sense of my biological ancestors. While three of my grandparents –both on my dad’s side, and my grandfather on my mom’s side–were alive when I was a child, they were on the other side of the country and I saw them only once a year. Because I didn’t spend much time with them, I didn’t have a strong feel for how they informed my life.
On the layer of culture and ethnic traditions, I felt a disconnect as well from those who came before me. I believe this is true for many of us who grow up white in America. Assimilation is the name of the game and we are, for the most part, taught to value sameness more than difference. We lose touch with our ethnic roots. I remember a story my mom told me from her childhood as a first-generation daughter of an immigrant family from Slovenia. On her first day at school, the teacher told my mom’s older sister that she would have to change my mom’s name—Stanislava—to something that was more “American” and easier to pronounce. From that point on, my mom was known as Sylvia or Sue. She had to give up her name to be part of this idea of what it means to be “American.”
I grew up in the Los Angeles area and the majority of my friends were Chicano/a. When I spent time with them and their families, I envied how strongly they were connected to something bigger than themselves—through their foods, language, and way of being in the world. I didn’t have that, and felt a huge void around that. Sometimes I wonder if that need to establish an identity where one has been taken away is one of the seeds of white supremacy. If only those of us who are “white” could do that in a more wholesome way and re-connect with our ethnic roots in a healthy way…
When I started Zen practice, one of the first things I noticed was how much emphasis there is on lineage and ancestors. When we practice Zen we are stepping into a stream that goes back more than 2,500 years, and we are reminded of that in morning chants when we recite the names of the ancestors. The long list begins with Shakyamuni Buddha, moves through the patriarchs in India, then to China, then to Japan beginning with Eihei Dogen, and finally to the most recent ancestors for whatever lineage one is practicing within. More recently there has been an important movement to chant the names of the women ancestors, beginning with Mahapajapati. If you’re interested in learning more about Zen ancestors, The Record of Transmitting the Light: Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku is a collection of beautiful stories of warm-hand-to-warm-hand transmission of the dharma, from teacher to student over 52 generations. http://amzn.to/2zhEbFi
CHALLENGES OF OUR ANCESTORS
Even as we receive many gifts from our ancestors, it is just as true that we can inherit their wounds as well as other problematic aspects. In my own family, I’ve found it painful to acknowledge some of the attitudes that my German grandmother held toward certain ethnic groups. When I heard her making disparaging comments about Jews and people of color, I was too young to understand what was going on from an intellectual viewpoint but I knew in my bones something didn’t feel right.
There are wounds that get passed down to us as well. Historical trauma happens when we come from a people who have collectively experienced some kind of trauma, including genocide, slavery, and having homelands stolen. These kinds of traumas can congeal into racism and systemic economic injustice that continues generation after generation to the present day.
There is growing evidence that this kind of historical trauma is actually physically transmitted from one generation to another. This is something to be aware of whether we are the ones who have inherited that trauma, or when we interact with someone whose ancestors have experienced the impact of racism and hatred over generations.
What would it be like if each time we spoke with another person we held an awareness of this lineage of ancestors that we both come from, as if we could almost see those folks sitting on each of our shoulders, bearing all the strengths as well as all the challenges that have come before us?
We all have ancestors, and we will all be ancestors.
Even if we don’t have biological children, the deeds that we have done and the energy we have put into the world continues down through generations to affect those who come after us. Our legacy is not limited to after our death—in this very moment our actions and choices are creating an impact that ripples out into future weeks, months, and years. This is the Buddhist teaching of karma, that every action has a consequence. When we start living in awareness of this truth, we often make our choices in a much more intentional way.
Here’s a short, guided meditation I created to help you connect with the gifts that you received from your ancestors, as well as to help you more consciously step into what it means to be an ancestor yourself.
As I read through The Record of Transmitting the Light, it occurred to me that in our meditation practice, especially as we unfold it in a relationship with a teacher, we are continually connecting to a source of light both within us and beyond us. This transmission of the light is the intimacy and love that passes between teachers and students, between our ancestors and us. It is the thread that connects us all. May we honor it well.
This article is based on a dharma talk given at Upaya Zen Center in October 2016. You can listen to the podcast of the full talk here.
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