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Sitting With Our Ancestors

October 2, 2012

by Stephen Damon

This morning, while cleaning up the drawers underneath my altar, I found the Blood Line of the transmission of the Bodhisattva Precepts that was given to me on my priest ordination.  The line began with Shakyamuni and proceeded through the generations of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and American ancestors to my teacher, Meiren Val Szymanski and finally to me, Korin Stephen Damon. 

While the list on the piece of paper started with Shakyamuni, I sensed that this lineage included the seven Buddhas before Shkayamuni and was old as the universe itself.  I could sense the dynamic fullness of time, without being caught up in my limited views of time as past, present, and future—there was only time—the present moment which included all our ancestors, past and future. Dogen was right—all the ancestors were invisibly sitting beside me. No, I couldn’t see them, but I knew that they were there, not because I believed what Dogen had said, but because I was open to the fullness of time, experienced in the limitlessness of the present moment.

Looking at the carefully transcribed names of twenty five centuries of Buddhist practitioners, I felt as if I were looking at the mystery of time and space; life and death. Dogen said, Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world.  Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment…Time itself is beingYou are time.  Mountains are time. Oceans are time. Time is not some intractable external container we are caught in. We are time. When we fully express ourselves right now, we are time. When we fully express ourselves, we see that all of the ancestors of the three times are right here with us.

According to Buddhist teaching everything exists together simultaneously in a moment.  We usually think that time is separate from beings, but there is actually no separation. Time itself is being.  When a moment begins, all beings temporarily appear as independent beings in the stream of time and seem to have their own independent existences.  When a moment ceases, all beings disappear, but they do not go away. They are interconnected seamlessly in timelessness.  When a moment begins life is form and when it ceases it is emptiness.

Holding this fine piece of calligraphy in my hands I saw myself in the context of the long line of Buddhas and ancestors. I began to sense that this unbroken chain of women and men, who, by upholding the Bodhisattva Precepts, were the secret thread that kept the world from falling apart.  In my hands were the names of those who have gone before me, but I was also keenly aware that there were countless others who have remained anonymous as well as those whose names have yet to be written—our future ancestors.  I could feel that they, like the ancestors of the past,  were guiding me in ways that were as incomprehensible to me as time itself.

After I rolled up the document and put it safely underneath my altar, I recited the names of the ancestors located in one of my chant books.  While the heart of our practice is just sitting, we need the historical and mythological context, provided by chanting the names of the ancestors, to intensify and broaden our efforts. We need to feel that we are part of a lineage. We need to feel that we are the lineage!

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From → Zen Buddhism

One Comment
  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience. And thank you for keeping the world from falling apart!! I am sure Dogen is patting your back, or perhaps whacking it with a stick!

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