In addition to the well-known Obon Season that occurs every year in Japan, there is also a lesser-known Buddhist ceremony often observed in the summer: segaki (施餓鬼). This is a special ceremony that appears anywhere from May to September and involves a ritual to feed the hungry ghosts in Buddhist cosmology who must wander the earth starving for their strong cravings in a previous life. Some of those hungry ghosts could be one’s ancestors, so there’s a special nuance of helping those who might have helped you, but also to extend the same courtesy to all people suffering.
Most of my knowledge of Segaki comes from Jodo Shu Buddhist sources, but Wikipedia has a nice, general summary as well. In George J. Tanabe’s collection of essays in Religions of Japan in Practice, one essay by Richard Payne describes a Shingon Buddhist ritual for Segaki still performed in modern times called segaki ryaku sahō (An Abbreviated Ritual for Feeding the Hungry Ghosts), which in outline looks like so:
- The Shingon cleric stands in an appropriate location, and performs the rite of protecting the body.
- Next, the Three Refuges (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) are recited.
- Next, the cleric recites a special hymn for giving the food, which says in part: Fulfulling my vow, abandoning attachment to my body, [I pray that] they may speedily escape the hell-realms, start on the good path, and take refuge in the Three Jewels, thereby generating the aspiration for enlightenment and in the end realizing the highest awakening and merit without limit. Til the end of time, may all sentient beings be equally filled with food. (trans. by Nakagawa Zenkyō)
- Next the mudra and mantra for gathering all hungry ghosts.
- Next the mudra and mantra that empowers the food and drink.
- Next the mudra and mantra that transforms the food and drink into ambrosia for the hungry ghosts.
- Next the mudra and mantra for offering the food and drink to hungry ghosts.
- Next the ritual for disbursing the food and praising the names of all Buddhas.
- Next the mantra for inspiring the aspiration for Enlightenment.
- Next the mantra for the Esoteric Precepts.
- Next the Mantra of Light.
- Next the cleric recites the Heart Sutra.
- Next the cleric recites the mantra for taking leave, ending the ceremony.
- Finally the cleric dedicates all merit to all sentient beings.
I believe other Buddhist groups in Japan have adapted similar, though simplified structure to their services as well.1 In Jodo Shu, one recites the nembutsu, Amitabha’s Name, on behalf of those suffering as hungry ghosts. This comes from a passage I believe in the Immeasurable Life Sutra:
“For the beings who encounter this light [of Amitabha Buddha], their three defilements of greed, hatred, and ignorance will vanish. They shall become gentle in mind and body. They shall rejoice and jump for joy, and a heart of goodness shall be born. If those who are in the three most painful places of rebirth see this light, they will have rest and there will be no more pain. After their life ends, they will be completely free [from suffering].
(Quoted from here)
In every ceremony though, food like rice and water are offered, and a special prayer or mantra for the well-being of hungry ghosts is recited. I’ve heard that devout lay Buddhists will do this at home too by leaving a small bowl or rice and/or water outside their doorstep and offer a small prayer. Hungry ghosts are thought to be cursed to lurk in shadows and other cold dreary places, and rarely get to eat, so even this small offering may help hungry ghosts who happen to be nearby.
If nothing else, it’s a nice gesture, and a chance to think outside one’s own life to those who might be suffering, and to reflect on those who supported you in the past, even if they were not perfect beings themselves.
Namu Amida Butsu
1 I know a few Buddhist clerics read this blog, hoping someone can provide some additional input.