Thursday, June 26, 2014

Remembering the Ancestors

We all have ancestors or we wouldn’t be here today.  How fortunate this is, that we are sitting in front of a computer screen this very moment! Every single ancestor of ours survived long enough to produce offspring.  It’s really quite remarkable that we are here – that our ancestors survived saber-tooth tigers, broken legs, diseases, famine, wars, the Black Plague, monsoons, and falling off horses.

Just as our biological ancestors were survivors, so were those who brought us Zen. Not only did they have to survive as our ancestors did, there were also great obstacles in the survival of Zen Buddhism.  A couple of examples from Peter Hershock’s book Chan Buddhism will give you an idea of this.  From 755 to 764, only ten years, “…a combination of rebellion and famine left two out of every three people in the country either dead or missing., cutting the official population from 53 million to only 17 million (P. 32).”  There were several purges of Buddhism in China, one taking place from 842-845; where “…the Tang emperor Wuzong forced over a quarter of a million monks and nuns back into society at large and destroyed nearly five thousand temples and forty-thousand shrines across the country (P. 31).” Linji, our Zen ancestor, died in 866, so he experienced this large-scale purge of Buddhism. He was a survivor.  Our Zen lineage survived.

Being grateful for ancestors is important to me, and to my spiritual practice. My ancestors give me a sense of space, as in where my life fits in the jigsaw puzzle of human history. When I put on my rakusu, I feel a connection to all the ancestors in our tradition, as well as to my teacher’s dharma heirs.  My ancestors give me a sense of belonging, continuity, purpose in this life, and hope for the future.

We have biological ancestors, spiritual ancestors and there are figurative ancestors, too.  I had a career as a state park ranger for twenty-seven years. As I left home each day to go to work, stepping out the door I donned my Stetson (aka Smokey the Bear hat).   The feeling was similar to when I put on my rakusu, except it was the ranger ancestors I was feeling now, the ranger spirit from those who came before me as well as my brother and sister rangers in the world right then.

All Twelve Step programs have ancestors, too, beginning with the first 100 AA members who left us with the Big Book.  I sponsor men, I have a sponsor, he has a sponsor, and so it goes…ancestors reaching back to Bill and Bob who started AA – two drunks who wanted to stay sober but could not do it by themselves. Working together and then with newcomers, they discovered how to stay sober and live good lives.

Even our dog, Ryla, has brought her ancestors into the family.  Ryla is a product of Canine Companions for Independence (; an organization that trains dogs to be service dogs, facility dogs, hearing dogs, etc.  Not only do they train their dogs, CCI has their own breeding program in Santa Rosa, CA.  They choose the smartest and healthiest dogs to become breeders. We volunteered to become Breeder Caretakers.  Ryla had five litters in our kitchen.  We cared for the puppies until they were about 8 weeks old – then the pups are sent all over the U.S. to volunteer Puppy Raisers for about a year and a half.  After that the dogs go into advanced training at the nearest CCI facility.  Almost 50% of Ryla’s puppies graduated to become service dogs.

Kyra, Ryla, Wyla and Dyla
The ancestor part began by meeting Ryla’s mom, Kyra and her Breeder Caretakers.  Then, from Ryla’s third litter came Wyla who was chosen to become a breeder with a different family. And Wyla, from her fifth litter had Dyla.  Yes, you guessed it; Dyla is now a breeder.  In fact, she just had her first litter a few weeks ago.  Kyra, Ryla, Wyla, Dyla, and the legacy continue – thanks to their ancestors and those who cared for them.

My family, my Zen family, my 12-Step family, my parks family and even my CCI family – I can’t have family without ancestors.  This collection of ancestor wisdom is always available to me, when I listen and pay attention. Remembering ancestors or those who feel like ancestors is a good thing.   Thanking them for all they went through and having conversations with them is a powerful gesture of love that, in some ways, connects us all.

Thank you Grandma Moore; thank you Linji; thank you Park Director Mott; thank you Bill W.; thank you Kyra.

Bill K.

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