But when I breathe with the birds,
The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of
And the dead begin from their dark to sing
in my sleep.
We shall live again,
We shall live again.
PLUM VILLAGE, the community founded by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, lies in the old and fertile Dordogne valley in the south of France. After a recent dharma talk there, Thich Nhat Hanh invited people to put photos of their deceased relatives in a book placed on the altar. It was in Plum Village that I began to question our relationship to the dead. I wondered if it was possible to see beyond personal histories of grief to an autobiography that includes the loss of forests and rivers. I wondered if we can look at what has passed from life on this Earth, and see how the absence of so many species touches us at this very moment. And I wondered if somehow we can redeem these dead and prevent the ending of blue sky and bright wind.
PRACTICING BUDDHISM is about discovering ourselves to be in a great, flowing river of continuities. Just as our mother and father live inside us, so do generations upon generations of mothers and fathers before them. Part of our task is to discover how all our ancestors inform our lives—and the same holds true for all forms of life, for we have been shaped not only by human ancestors but also by the environments in which they lived.
This area of southern France has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. Paleolithic peoples worshiped in its caves. Neolithic peoples farmed its rich land. Today, orchards, vineyards, and fields of sunflowers cover these old hills. As I sit in daily meditation on a bright ridge overlooking this history, I feel the ancestors of the Dordogne making themselves known to me—the land itself, the wind and light rain, the oaks and berries, and even the brown viper hiding in the thorns.
Joan Halifax in New Mexico
Tribal peoples often venerate their dead, sometimes to appease the spirits' sorrow or anger at being separated from the world of the living. At other times, the dead are honored for the protection that they offer or the gifts they bestow. By venerating the dead we can experience the fullness of our own souls. Losing touch with these ancestors, we lose touch with the soul, both theirs and ours.
I believe that the psychic retrieval of the souls of the dead is about our own soul retrieval. Earth can be redeemed only if we reach through the veil of this loss to touch what now seems beyond us. Venerating the ancestors of all life forms returns us to the river that flows from the past into the present.
Near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, dwellings that were inhabited by a vital culture a thousand years ago are now abandoned and crumbling. In this part of the world, the indigenous people know that the ancestors, when not forgotten, are changed into clouds that nourish Earth with rain. As I write this, in southern France, there is no water flowing out of the taps. There has been a drought here for several years and now, in the ceaseless heat of summer, the water supply is low. When I was in New Mexico a month before, open fires were not permitted because of drought conditions. I try to remember that according to Pueblo peoples, when we venerate the ancestors, the rains fall. When we forget the ancestors, the rains cease.
We are connected to the dead in ways not commonly remembered. The bones of the ancestors lie in the body of Earth and are transformed into the bodies of plants and creatures, including ourselves. The Dineh, who live in and around Chaco Canyon, know that they are directly connected to the mountains which gather the clouds, the green that gives rise to the clouds, and the mist and rain that nourish all that grows. In all of these forms, the ancestral continuity confirms our true identity.
The mountains, I become part of it.
The herbs, the fir tree
I become part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters,
I become part of it.
The sun that sweeps across the earth, I become part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen I become part of it.
—Dineh (Navajo) Chant
The great trees of tropical and temperate forests, by feeding on the decaying remains of countless plant and animal species, literally translate the past into our atmosphere. The destruction of these forests is an attack on one of the most vital ways that the ancestors express themselves to Earth—as the very air we breathe. In old Earth cultures, the shaman is the servant of the people, the ancestors, the gods, creatures and plants, and the elements. When the world is out of balance, the shaman redresses the disequilibrium. In these cultures illness, planetary or personal, is understood as a loss of connection—an existential alienation. This alienation expresses itself as a divided self, a self that has forgotten and abandoned the infinity of its being.
Broken pebbles scratched white with another stone
St. Abbs, The Borders, 1 June 1985
We think that the ancestors are behind us, but they also go before us—a vanguard, a spirit wave, pulling us along. When the Hopi enter the kiva, they go into the past to ensure the future. We, too, must seek initiation and search the darkness of the past for a light that has been hidden by time. For thousands of years, initiation has served to establish the individual within the continuum of all existence. To see ourselves as part of the body of interconnecting, interdepending, and interpenetrating members—past, present, and future—is one of the functions of Buddhist meditation practice. And until we give birth to our ancestors, Earth cannot be redeemed from its suffering. To exclude, consciously or unconsciously, any species from the continuum of existence is to deny a part of ourselves.
Joan Halifax, anthropologist and teacher, is the author of Shamanic Voices and the forthcoming Fruitful Darkness. She is also the founder of the Ojai and Upaya foundations.