Meeting Our Ancestors of the Future

Taigen Dan Leighton
Published in "Shambhala Sun," September, 1996, as "Now is the Past of the Future."

When we can fully see our own time in the dynamic fullness of time, without being blind to cause and effect, without being caught by limiting views of time itself, we can begin to be the present time in the depths of time, to presence the deep time that includes and honors the presence right now of our ancestors.

Those of us who have connected to a spiritual tradition have a natural inclination to appreciate and venerate our ancestors, the persons we look back to as having blazed the way for us. Thus I wish to include in these reflections the past, by honoring the ancestors who I look back to for enduring inspiration, whose wisdom and insight, efforts and generosity, help show me how to be more human, how to be more fully myself.

But how can we also include the future, embodying faith that there is a future, and respecting the persons out there in the future who are also our ancestors? For although I do not know their names, although I might find their worlds as unimaginable as our own twentieth century world would be to the ancestors I venerate from distant past centuries, still I trust that these persons of the future will find their own appropriate ways to carry forth the principles and livelihood that motivate me. Inasmuch as they recognize the dynamic and total interconnectedness of all being, and act accordingly with kindness and clarity, these future beings are also our ancestors, and actually are supporting us now.

I realize that I can speak only for myself, from my own very personal, particular context and web of relationships and lineage. But I also feel responsibility to acknowledge, honor--and in some way represent--a great many very specific beings and groups of beings. By speaking of my own personal truth and karma, I seek to pluck the chord that unites us all, that brings together the web of past and future.

These reflections have been sparked by the work of Joanna Macy, the American Buddhist scholar, teacher, and activist. I thus intend to include here the purposes of Joanna and the Nuclear Guardianship Project which she initiated, and in which I have participated.

The realities of the nuclear technology activated in our time force a wider view of time upon us. No matter what else we may do or say in our lifetimes, the deadly poison of the nuclear waste our species has left on the earth in the past fifty years will be our most significant physical legacy to future generations. The nearly inconceivable extent of time in which these materials will remain toxic (dozens and even hundreds of millennia), necessitates our rethinking our awareness of time. Our ancestors of the future are looking back on us, waiting for us to act and take up guardianship of nuclear waste, and of the planet they will inherit.

To fully meet our ancestors, we must envision a new dynamic relationship to time itself. The eighth century Chinese Zen master Shitou said, "I humbly say to those who study the mystery, Don't waste time." A century later, the great master Zhaozhou (Joshu in Japanese) said to a monk, |I use the hours of the day, you are used by the hours of the day."

This not wasting time, or using time's hours, is not a matter of efficiency or productivity indices. Zhaozhou used time by being fully present, by fully sensing the immediate intimacy of his present being with all other beings in space and time. Not wasting time is to take care of the one who is not busy, the one who uprightly faces the present with steadiness right in the midst of the whirling sands of time.

The Huayan School of Buddhism in China, based on the Flower Ornament/ Avatamsaka Sutra, gives a rich depiction of the multidimensional quality of time. It speaks of ten times: the past, present, and future of the past, of the present, and of the future, respectively, and finally the combination of all these nine times.

The past of the present may also be the past of a future. The present of the future will be intimately connected to the future of our present, yet is not necessarily predetermined or limited by our present future. We can reclaim the past in the present, and thus change our past and present, for the sake of the future. History is the changing process of defining the past for the present. We can rewrite the history of the future in the present as well as in the future.

In the realm of "being time" that is elaborated in the writings of the great thirteenth century Japanese Zen master Dogen, time does not only flow from past to present to future. Time moves in mysterious ways, passing dynamically between all ten times and beyond. Time is not some intractable external container we are caught in. We are time. When we fully express ourselves right now, that is time. We cannot help but fully express our deepest truth right now. We cannot avoid being time. Even a partial, half-hearted exertion of our being time is completely a partial being time.

When we realize that we are ineluctably being time in this very body and mind, we can choose to be and act from our deepest and noblest intention. We can choose to express our being of time in a way that connects with all beings here now, and also connects with all beings, all of our ancestors, throughout the generations of past and future. We can intend to be a time that accepts the support and guidance of all beings of all times.

Having a wide, inclusive view of time deepens our appreciation of this present time. Such a range of time is expressed by Dogen's twelfth century Chinese predecessor, Chan Master Hongzhi, "This is the time and place to leap beyond the ten thousand emotional entanglements of innumerable eons. One contemplation of the ten thousand years allows all the changes, and you emerge with spontaneity." When we emerge from denial of the vast depths of time and are willing to contemplate the whole ten thousand years, then finally we can dynamically and freely exert our present being time.

However, it is not that we should exclude the common, linear view of time. This being time in congress with all time does not at all deny or violate our conventional truths, our everyday notion of time being hours, minutes, and seconds. We must see how, right in the middle of our ordinary time of walking down the path, the ancestors of past and future walk together with us. Reenvisioning time, we can reinhabit time. Reinhabiting time we enrich our lives by reclaiming our intimate relationship and connection to beings of the past and beings of the future.

We have a multiplicity of ancestors to recognize, including our spiritual lineage, our diverse cultural heritage, and our genetic karma from our biological ancestors. As illustrations of the richness of our ancestries, and to recall past ancestors for future ancestors, I cite my own personal ancestors in these different realms. As a Zen priest I represent a lineage of practitioners and ancestors reaching back through Japan and China to Shakyamuni Buddha, twenty-five hundred years ago in India. I gratefully revere the whole lineage of Ancestors, from the Buddha, to the famed Sixth Ancestor in China and the subsequent great masters of Tang China, to Dogen Zenji and other fine teachers of Japan. Being in the first generation of American Zen priests, I clarify our situation to my Japanese counterparts, many of them the offsprings of generations of temple priests, by pointing out that there are not yet American Buddhist priests who are sons or daughters of priests.

Contemplating the connections of generations, I also esteem the many Western Ancestors to whom we are indebted. Many people of great spirit and dedication have strived to express the divine wonder of our human life. As just a tip of the iceberg, I personally venerate Bach, William Blake, Van Gogh, Rumi, Rilke for such expression. From our American homeland we can recall those who have cared and acted for the planet and for human liberty, for example: Thomas Jefferson, Chief Seattle, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, John Muir, Jackie Robinson. I am sure that readers will have their own lists of culture figures who act as inspirational ancestors, from literature and legend as well as history.

We Americans also all have particular, dramatically diverse genetic, ethnic backgrounds, whether from Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, or Asians. As it happens, my own personal genetic karma and ancestry is all from Eastern European and Russian Jews. Any words I offer thus necessarily reflect generations in their ghettoes of diaspora, including peddlers, craftsmen, rabbis, and students of talmud, all looking back to the ancient temple of Jerusalem, and all yearning forward to the Messiah. Though severed from the possibility of visiting their communities by the Nazi holocaust, I am deeply connected through them to an ancient heritage which maintained concern for the human condition and its future destiny. We each have such rich ancestries, known or unknown.

We may also imagine more arcane and subtle heritages, for example those derived from our past lifetimes. Just as we have this multiplicity of past ancestors, lurking in the future and connected to us are members of our spiritual, cultural, and genetic lineages, whom we may meet as future ancestors.

When I lived in Kyoto for two years, collaborating on translations of Dogen and immersing myself in the ambience and practice life of ancient Buddhist temples and artifacts, I learned the Japanese word keiko. Signifying diligent practice or training, keiko literally means to search out, study, and contemplate the way of the ancients. In modern Japanese it is a common term for "practice" while training in arts and sports, as in practicing tea ceremony, the piano, or karate. This was also an important term for Dogen, referring to practice modeled on penetrating study of and reflection on the ancient sages and their standards. Respecting the ancestors we learn to respect ourselves, and we more thoroughly become ourselves, more fully connected to our place in the web of time.

It is not that we slavishly follow the exact traditions and forms of the past. Rather, we learn from the spirit of the ancestors qualities of attention and caring, of awareness and steadfastness. In his "Writing on Arousing the Vow," Dogen said, "Ancient buddhas and ancestors were as us; we shall come to be buddhas and ancestors. Venerating buddhas and ancestors, we are one with buddhas and ancestors; contemplating awakening mind, we are one with awakened mind." Thus we join the ancestors.

Might we also apply keiko, the enactment of appreciation of the ancients, not only to respect for past ancestors such as those I have invoked for my own life, but also to our respect for our ancestors of the future? How can we search for and study the examples and spirit of our future ancestors? I sense they are watching us now, looking back at our responses to the difficulties and dangers of the present era. Perhaps they have high hopes for us.

Our faith that there will be a future is vital. As Joanna Macy and others have pointed out, the great unrecognized disease of our time is the real possibility of the end of our species, of the end of time. The potential perils of nuclear catastrophe, along with other threats such as the effects of deforestation, global overpopulation, and pollution of land and sea, also exact a devastating and often hidden psychic toll. The ageless apocalyptic inclination is now rampant, reinforced by scientific evidence and the impending end of the millennium, and our consciousness is impaired by hopelessness with this dull awareness. We must open to the meaning of our suppressed despair, and find ways to recognize and act in concert with the people of the future, to imagine the continuation of our best efforts.

During my two years living in Kyoto, I also did some presentations of the Nuclear Guardianship slide show. I would encourage myself as I set out on these ventures by imagining a young American Buddhist, five hundred years hence, on her own pilgrimage to Kyoto to connect with our common roots. I saw her wandering like me between the thousand-year-old temples, pagodas and cemeteries on Mount Yoshida, and wondered which old buildings would be left to see, wondered what bits of human civilization would remain, what would be recognizable in the twenty-fifth century.

I knew that our present humble efforts to establish guardianship of nuclear wastes, and of our planet, were vitally important to her. I felt supported and encouraged by her. And I felt her request to us.

We have such a relationship to all beings of the future. Our responsibility is to all creation. As humans we now wield a powerful sword that can take or give life to many other species of life and to many rich forms of expression.

Our ancestors expect something of us. It is not enough for us to know of our connectedness. We can honor the ancestors by giving immediate attention to educating the current generation and the next generation about the richness of time. We must encourage ourselves to see time as alive and multifaceted, not merely as dead, objectified clock-time.

Our connection to all time is also our connection to the Earth. The ground of our being is the same ancestral ground which plants us in time. We uncover our ancestors in the earth we inhabit. This truth is strikingly depicted in a story in the Lotus Sutra. Myriad bodhisattvas, enlightening beings who have arrived from other realms, strange dimensions or distant solar systems to hear Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching, ask if he needs their help to maintain this teaching in the future. From our vantage point, 2500 years later, I imagine the question: "In the distant age of television, automobiles, and nuclear waste, how will those people hear the true teaching of universal awakening?"

The Buddha tells them not to worry, and suddenly from out of the empty, open space under the ground, spring vast multitudes of noble, gentle beings, dedicated to the emancipation of all creation. The Buddha declares that these bodhisattvas practice diligently within the earth, forever guiding confused, worldly people. Moreover, they have all trained intently with him, even though many apparently are ages older than the Buddha himself. He is the ancestor even of those from his past.

Our ancestors, great beings awakening us to important realities, are always nearby, coming from strange unexpected realms. In 1854 in what is now the state of Washington, Chief Seattle of the Duwamish people issued a prophecy that resonates remarkably with the story of bodhisattvas emerging from the earth in the Lotus Sutra. (Seattle's words unfortunately are best known through a questionable contemporary adaptation, and even the old eye-witness account might have been somewhat embellished. But the essence of Seattle's originally recorded message is reliable and congruent with the spiritual vision of all indigenous peoples.) Seattle eloquently described his people's intimate relationship with the land. They saw each feature of the earth as sacred and wondrous, and especially venerated the resting places of their ancestors. Seattle marvelled that the white men uncaringly wandered far from their ancestors' graves. We have forgotten and neglected our ancestors. But the spirits of departed native braves, maidens, mothers, and children still love the beautiful land, and Seattle predicted that in the future, when the white men's grandchildren walk their city streets, the native spirits will return, emerging from the ground to exert their influence.

Today still, the answers to our dilemmas are in the open earth right beneath our feet. When we dig deep this very ground supports us, and awakened ones from future and past generations, forgotten or not yet conceived, become our teachers and ancestors. The answers to our life questions, our natural vitality, and our self-realization are all here in this place and life, not in some fantasy world in some other realm. My faith is that what is needed is here, and available to us. Our essential transformation is a matter of becoming more fully true to ourselves, rather than in becoming something other than what we are.

In time, our connection to earth is the connection to its natural rhythms. With patience we can find our own expression of these rhythms. Despite all of our tantalizing technologies, we cannot control or manipulate the deeper rhythms of the earth. As has been said, the earth does not belong to us, but we are part of the earth, and we move to its rhythms. As we attune ourselves to these rhythms, appropriate actions will become clear. With such a readiness we can do what must be done. Our multiplicity of ancestors have bequeathed us valuable guidance in finding our footing in this ancestral time-ground. For example, the Iroquois people of America's past enacted all policies and programs only after considering their impact for the next seven generations. How can we also learn to act with such a range of vision, rather than depending on quarterly profit margins?

The American Zen pioneer Gary Snyder has said that Zen practice comes down to sitting and to sweeping the temple, and it is up to us to decide the boundaries of our temple. As in space, so in time. Gary Snyder also says we must act immediately with full urgency, knowing how critical are the threats to our planet; and simultaneously, we must act as if we have all the time in the world, moving with dignity, care, and patience. We must be determined to sustain our gaze and our response to the challenges before us.

How shall we apply our spiritual or philosophical insights to the concrete realities at hand? Among the many crises and dilemmas facing our world and its ecosystems, I return to consideration of nuclear issues and the guardianship of nuclear waste. I focus on this not because other issues are unworthy of consideration, but because useful things clearly can be done now concerning nuclear problems. Our most consequential physical legacy to beings of the future is the seemingly endless poison from the nuclear wastes that we are accumulating. We have a responsibility to take care of our own garbage. The almost inconceivable time-frame of nuclear waste forces us to envision a new model of guardianship. Joanna Macy's insight is that this danger is actually a wonderful opportunity to enrich our relationship to time and to beings of the future, and to deepen the experience and worthiness of being human, by taking on guardianship of our world.

The current international nuclear policy makers seem unable to grapple with the time spans involved, as they plan burial of nuclear waste deep within the earth in containers that will inevitably leak and release their contents into the biosphere, long before the poisons have become neutralized. Responsible nuclear guardianship requires, instead, that nuclear waste be contained in retrievable, monitorable storage, so that leaks can be repaired and so that future technologies may be applied to reducing and containing their radioactivity.

Other principles of ethical nuclear guardianship include eliminating all unnecessary transports of nuclear waste, with their incumbent risk of disastrous accidents and leaks, and the rapid phasing out of production of all nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The accumulation of nuclear waste already confronting us from the past fifty years is a formidable challenge. To continue with further production of these materials would be a reckless assault on future generations, even more so considering how unnecessary these enterprises are to our own well-being.

To help realize the aim of discontinuing production of radioactive poisons, a strong international effort to utilize sustainable, renewable energy sources should be supported. A variety of such technologies such as solar, wind, and biomass energies are already available. With a concerted campaign employing our research and development resources, these technologies could be implemented on an international scale, obviating the need for the perilous nuclear activities that so threaten future generations.

Apart from larger policy issues, in our everyday lives we can find ways to include and relate to our friends in future generations. Meeting our ancestors of the future involves appreciating our multiple lineages, and deciding how we will intentionally act to maintain and convey the essence of these traditions to their future ancestors. We also can imagine, visualize, dream, and send messages to our future ancestors, and even forge personal bonds, recognizing the support they give us now, as they look back at us and consider our lives. We may realize that we need our future ancestors. As we take responsibility for the world around us, and do whatever we each can to make it a welcoming place for those who follow, they are watching us. Our ancestors of the future are waiting to give us their gratitude.