Dharma Rain - Dharma School Manual
Segaki — Feeding the Hungry Ghosts
The first ceremony of the dharma school year is the Segaki festival, when
we feed the “hungry ghosts” or gakis. The adult festival happens
just before the kid’s ceremony and is an important part of an annual
retreat. It is held around the time of Halloween to coincide with the abundance
of ghosts and snacks. In buddhist mythology, hungry ghosts are creatures
who, because of their past actions (refer to the section on the Six
Realms under “Our Five Main Dharmic Themes”), can never
satisfy their hunger or thirst. Their mouths are so tiny they can’t
fit any food in them, and when they try to drink, water turns to fire before
it. The hungry ghost symbolizes our own unresolved karma and the tenacious
quality of karma. The Segaki ceremonies done by the adults in the sangha
represent both our willingness to bring this karma to resolution and the
gentle accepting approach we need to take to achieve any resolution.
An important aspect of the hungry ghost is that it is so fixated on desire
that it cannot accept the things that would truly nourish and cure. The
of those things that nourish and cure are called Dharma. Anything that is true
may be called dharma, but the forms and expressions of religious life that remind
us of things that are true are also called Dharma (often capitalized to make
the distinction). Because the hungry ghost are fixated on the things they think
they want, they tend to be fearful of things that look like something other than
what they want. To make it easier for the gakis to accept the Dharma, all the
Buddha statues are covered up and the altar for them is at the far end of the
room near the door. It is covered with sweet and salty snacks, fruit and soda
pop, nuts and donuts.
During the adult ceremony, the priest calls to the ghosts and all unresolved
karma, inviting them to come and stay for the day. S/he chants dharanis of
protection so the practitioners may safely entertain these “ghosts.” There
is chanting done by all during a winding procession while names of those
died during the year are read aloud. Later in the evening, there is a second
ceremony in which the ghosts are sent back home again and all are given the
opportunity to let go of some unresolved issues. For adults, Segaki is a
time of intense
reflection and determination.
For kids, the emphasis of Segaki is more external, but deeply symbolic.
The gakis are vividly described, and the kids are encouraged to feel sympathy
for the poor, hungry ghosts. Teachers also point out that all of us, at times,
can be “hungry ghosts” — impossible to satisfy, always running
to the next thing we think will make us happy but unwilling or unable to accept
what would truly bring us peace. All of this becomes concretely illustrated when
the kids fill the ceremony hall and start the same solemn chanting the adults
do — until they are rudely interrupted by two marauding gakis!
dressed up as hungry ghosts come loudly in the open front doors (with their
shoes on!) and start poking around the junk food on the altar.
With coaxing from the
teachers and older kids, the youngest dharma schoolers come forward to teach
the gakis some manners like taking off their shoes and sharing with each other.
They carefully break food into bits to fit in the gakis’ tiny mouths. Despite
the care the high schoolers take not to be too scary, some kids are too timid
to come forward but still watch carefully from a distance. Gradually the hungry
ghosts seem a little less agitated and a little more happy, so they are finally
sent on their way. The kids join the rest of the sangha and everyone celebrates
by finishing off the rest of the junk food.