The Joy in Expressing Gratitude to Ancestors
Nichiko Niwano, President of Rissho Kosei-kai
Be Aware of Life’s Preciousness
For us as members of Rissho Kosei-kai, performing acts of filial piety and showing reverence for our ancestors are important parts of daily practice, but are all of you aware of the fact that truly there is no greater joy than being able to revere one’s ancestors?
With the period of o-bon approaching, we orgnize the Ullambana (Bon) Festival and offer sincere thanks to our ancestors, from whom we have received life, and renew our vow to cultivate our individual characters so as to lead lives that will make our ancestors rejoice.
Incidentally, according to the folklorist Kunio Yanagita (1875–1962), in former times in Japan only certain persons among the descendants were allowed to perform ancestor veneration. In other words, that everyone can now perform ancestor veneration as they wish to is, in and of itself, a very fortunate development. Still, there are many members of society who have no clear idea of the meaning of “ancestor veneration.” It could be that some people have a fearful impression of the phrase. Under such circumstances, those of us who know the true meaning and importance of ancestor veneration, and in addition are able to practice it, are truly fortunate.
We have all been born in this world through the connection of our parents. And our parents had their parents, and they all had parents as well, of course. Shifting perspective, we can say that we are connected by the “baton” that is the lives of ancestors innumerable, as we are running at the very forefront of an uninterrupted relay with their lives. Reflecting thus on the preciousness of our own lives, we feel grateful for being caused to live here and now—and that is the basic meaning of ancestor veneration. Because it is the opportunity to know the miracle of our own lives, since if even one of those ancestors had been absent, we would not exist—we can venerate our ancestors in such a way that brings them joy.
For the Whole World’s Happiness
The expression “of seven portions, one is gained” is included in a Buddhist scripture. It teaches us that regarding the merits of veneration, one-seventh goes to those who are venerated—the ancestors—and the remaining six-sevenths is received by the person offering the veneration.
It is a traditional Japanese belief that on the forty-ninth day after someone dies, he or she is transformed from an intermediate state into a buddha. Therefore, if we believe that ancestors who have become buddhas are praising us, saying “good, good” to our diligent efforts to perform veneration and giving us the reward of many merits, then we can feel a greater sense of happiness in making offerings to them.
In the sense that our ancestors are praising us, that we, in our daily lives, undertake practices that bring joy to other people is, in a broad sense, a form of ancestor veneration. Then, because our ancestors expect that we get along well with our family members and that we live in harmony with the people around us, being mindful of small acts in everyday life to promote harmony is actually the equivalent of ancestor veneration.
Ancestor veneration, in other words, gives us the chance to reflect upon the preciousness of our own lives. In doing so, when our thoughts of appreciation for our ancestors have deepened, we cannot help but take a hard look at how we conduct ourselves and lead our lives. When such self-reflection is connected to bodhisattva practices that shine the light into our corner of the world, then we experience the joy of life and true happiness. From the perspective of the essence of the Buddha’s teaching, this is the reason why we are able to become happy through ancestor veneration. That is also the reason that Founder Nikkyo Niwano considered filial piety, ancestor veneration, and bodhisattva practice as components of one thing, and made that a subject of his teaching and guidance for us.
Incidentally, there is also the following view about ancestors: “All things in this universe are related to us in ways that they have become our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, while all have been born and have died repeatedly.” Ancestors are not only our own relatives, but everything to which we are connected in this three-thousand great thousandfold world (the world in which we reside). When we accept the larger meaning of ancestors, such as expressed in these words of Shinran (1173–1262), the founder of the Jodo Shin Sect, then what we are aiming for becomes crystal-clear.
To build a world of peace for the sake of the people before our eyes who are facing difficulties and the people around the world who are suffering—that is the greatest offering we can make to our ancestors. I think that in light of this year marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, we should reflect upon the preciousness of life and of peace, and move forward bearing it in mind.
From “Kosei” Translated by Kosei Publishing
Read past Guidance messages from President Niwano.