The Genuine Ancestors

Monk bowing to tree.  By Daishin

Sitting at the edge of a small, sparsely wooded area on my college campus, the trees and grasses all around me brightened, as I could feel an immediate sense of intimacy with matter, with atoms, that was, until that moment, foreign.  The realization:  I share some of the same DNA as those trees and grasses.  They were my ancestors, as was every dancing atom around me.

Almost 3-years later I entered a Zen monastery because, in part, I found a religious form where, through ritual, I could celebrate my relation to all living beings on Earth.  In the Zen monastery, for example, I daily chanted the “Four Vows” which proclaim, “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.”  As someone who was a biology major studying endangered species like the Red Hills Salamander, this particular verse contained within it the spiritual inspiration I needed.  If species are going extinct, a religious vow that says that the number of species are numberless and that we should do all that we can to free or save them seemed particularly relevant to me.  It’s as if the Buddha is saying, “Do everything you can to prevent the mass extinction of species.”  This seems to be an impossible vow – how could I single handedly save all beings? Yet, I am nonetheless vowing to do the impossible.

Since then, I’ve come across many more resources within the Zen tradition that affirmed my connection with the entirety of the natural world.  The Buddha, in one sutra, says that there are no beings – from ants to zebras – that have not at one time been our mothers.  Therefore, we should treat everything respectfully, as it continues to open us to the life energy that is us. 

Zen Master Dogen, one of the founders of Soto Zen, further taught that “mountains walk just like people walk.”  Dogen’s religious naturalism is infused throughout his writing.  While I could go into greater depth on any of the aforementioned teachings, I would like to focus on a particular ritual found within the Zen tradition that I find, both problematic and encompassing tremendous potential for deepening our awareness of our animal and plant ancestors.  This ritual is the chanting of the Buddhas and Ancestors lineage.  I’ll begin with a description of the ritual, then talk about how it is problematic, and then how it may be “greened” or practiced such that it weaves us into a deep connection with the natural world.

A traditional Soto Zen morning chanting service begins by reciting the Lotus Sutra followed by the Great Compassionate Mind Dharani, and Heart Sutra.  Sometimes other sutras and ancient Zen poems are included.  Each of these sutras has its own separate and distinct dedication.  The chanting of the sutras generates an invisible energy called “merit” which can then be directed through the dedication of that merit to a specific purpose.  It’s the Zen way of soliciting help from forces beyond our understanding, but with the caveat that there are no expectations for a specific outcome.  The outcome is beyond human control.  The point is that the practitioner shifts their mind from preoccupation with ego-self to a concern for the welfare of others.

Mountains Walk

Following the chanting of the Heart Sutra is the recitation of two Chinese Zen poems called “Harmony of Difference and Equality,” and “Precious Mirror Samadhi.”  The dedication for these two poems is the Zen ancestral lineage.  In other words, we dedicate the merit generated by reciting these poems to all the teachers, including our present-day teachers, the Buddha, and the 7 Buddhas before Shakyamuni buddha, that came before us.  It’s, first, a way of remembering the transmission of the Dharma throughout the ages, and of developing gratitude for those who have dedicated their lives to passing it on for our sake.  Second, in reciting their names each ancestor becomes present in spiritual form, here and now, or, at least, the practitioner imagines them to be so.  In dedicating the merit to the Zen ancestors, some feel that the ancestors can in turn help us in our present life.


It’s believed in the Zen tradition that, while from a historical angle Shakyamuni Buddha is the “founder” of Buddhism, and the original teacher, there were many awakened people before him that deserve credit and are thus symbolized in chanting the names of the seven Buddhas before Buddha.  It is agreed upon that, within the Zen tradition, these seven Buddhas are not historical people.  It’s important to note that the lack of empirical evidence for the existence of the people named in the lineage is irrelevant to most people who chant it.  In fact, many Buddhist scholars believe that the lineage post Buddha was also largely fabricated in order to make Buddhism more adaptable to Chinese cultural norms. 

To destroy any species is to destroy our own Enlightenment.

In any case, Shakyamuni Buddha’s name is chanted, followed by all the Buddha Ancestors in India, including Bodhidharma who carried the Dharma flame to China, then all the Chinese ancestors up to Great Teacher Tendo Nyojo Daiosho, who then passed on the Dharma to that first Japanese Great Teacher Eihei Dogen who carried the flame to Japan, and then all the Japanese ancestors up to my Dharma grandfather, Great Teacher, Noda Daito, then to my immediate master, an American, Great Teacher Daien Bennage.  Obviously, many of the more recent generations of ancestors are not fictional characters.  I and all my Dharma brothers and sisters who trained with and received the precepts from Daien Roshi are a part of the spiritual lineage of masters that extends not only to the Buddha Shakyamuni, but to the 7 Buddha’s before Buddha.


Every day I chanted these names in a monotone key, offering candlelight, sandalwood incense, water, food, and bowing to them, my whole body and mind reverberating with the vibration of these teachers, like bees swarming in their hive.  I learned, further, that there were stories of Enlightenment attached to each of these ancestors.  I continue to be nourished by these stories and by the ritual of chanting the names of the ancestors, as it has been emotionally moving for me, personally.  However, I will now turn to two problems I see in it and consider initial ways to rethink it.


The first issue I take up is that, aside from my teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, all the teachers in the lineage are male, and the second is that they are all human.  The fact that they are all, but one, male, denotes the patriarchal nature embedded within Buddhist ritual.  The fact that we limit our “spiritual” ancestors to human beings betrays an anthropocentric bias.

In response to the first problem, some Zen centers, including my teacher’s, have resorted to including a second list of names comprised of notable female Zen ancestors that are chanted after the male names.  For many women and some men this has been a deeply meaningful addition, as it affirms the capacities for all genders to attain Enlightenment.  However, in a male dominated culture, historically, women have mainly been marginalized, and this chanting of all men’s names is one way that has been woven into ritual and institutionalized.  In Japan, for example, male clergy far outnumber female clergy.  In the United States, too, if we include Asian-American practitioners, the number of men that are playing the role of priest/clergy/monk/teacher far out-number the women who play that same role.  Not to say there aren’t women practitioners, just that their roles are marginalized in the form of “support” for the teacher.  Thus, chanting the female ancestors has been a way to address the way women have been made invisible in Zen history through the lineage, and it has empowered many people to work for and realize gender parity.


The second problem is that of anthropocentrism.  While, as mentioned previously, Zen teachings go above and beyond our western religious sensibilities with regards to feeling an intimate connection with the natural world, the Zen lineage falls into the same trap as the Abrahamic traditions because it stops short at human Enlightenment.  It is the humans and their Enlightenment that are memorialized in the ceremony, not that of frogs, stars, or bees.  This, to me, is a short coming that, like the addition of female ancestors, can be improved upon.  Just as the ritual of reciting the names of the Buddha and Ancestors has helped me feel a deep connection with these amazing teachers and their Enlightenment, and that I too am part of that flow, including non-human ancestors may also help us to establish that Enlightenment is not just the purview of humanity, but that it extends to all creatures.  To destroy any species is to destroy our own Enlightenment.


There are countless stories within the Zen tradition that affirm the Enlightenment of both sentient and non-sentient beings.  As such, even walls and pebbles can be a teacher.  In Dogen Zenji’s, “Self Fulfilling Samadhi,” he states,

The trees, grasses, and land involved in [realization] all emit a bright and shining light, and preach the profound and incomprehensible dharma, and it is endless. Trees and grasses, walls and fences expound and exalt the dharma for the sake of ordinary people, sages, and all living beings.

Furthermore, the Buddha was Enlightened under the Bodhi tree.  Upon seeing a star, he attained Enlightenment.  Buddha was born in a forest and died in a forest.  What if, as a way to “green” this ritual, the names of these beings were incorporated into our lineage?  Can we imagine the chanting the name, Great Teacher Bodhi tree?  Should not the star (or planet) the Buddha saw at the moment of Enlightenment also be considered our ancestor?  What about the grass that the Buddha sat and walked upon?  How about the deer in the park where he resided?  What about the Ganges River that he lived nearby?  Could they not also be included in our sacred lineage?

These questions are meant to stimulate further discussion and envision possibilities as to the greening of our lineage ceremony.  What or who might this lineage include one hundred years from now?  Could we not include the names of our local region – the Des Moines River – and animals – the Red Fox – and trees – the Cottonwood?  What or who might our lineage include 1,000 years from now?  How about 10,000 years?  100,000 years?  1,000,000 years? 

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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