A Sangha Meets Birth and Death Ceremonially
By Tova Green
In recent newsletters from Valley Streams Zen Sangha in Sacramento, California, I learned about two unusual ceremonies, one marking a birth and the other commemorating a death. I wanted to learn more about how these ceremonies originated. Jim Hare, the residing teacher, put me in touch with sangha members Doralee Grindler Katonah and Barbara Baccei, who agreed to meet with me by Zoom.
The Beginning of a Life
In the spring of 2020, after Valley Streams began to meet online, a new couple began participating regularly in sangha meetings. Sangha member Doralee reached out to them and offered them zazen instruction. During the pandemic they became pregnant with their second child. Doralee was excited to realize that there was a baby Buddha sitting with the sangha! Most Valley Streams members are older and it had been many years since a sangha family had given birth. The pandemic has brought in a younger generation of practitioners.
Doralee wanted to find a way for the sangha to welcome the new baby. She had the idea of adapting the Jizo Ceremony, usually offered at times of grief and loss, to this occasion. Her idea was to embed the ceremony in a half-day sitting. The Sangha practice committee endorsed this Idea and asked Doralee to give a dharma talk about the meaning of the ceremony.
Doralee had read in Jan Chozen Bay’s book Jizo Bodhisattva that in medieval times Jizo was seen as a protector of children. In Japan there are “Jizo clubs” for pregnant women. Doralee consulted two Bay Area Branching Streams teachers, Chris Fortin and Val Szymanski, who had experience with Jizo ceremonies. They confirmed Doralee’s sense of the significance of a child being born into a family that already knows the Buddha way.
In preparation for the ceremony, Doralee met with the couple and their 11-year old daughter, guiding them to open their hearts and let their hands create an offering to Jizo (from craft materials), thus expressing their wish for a healthy birth. The family practiced bowing and learned the Jizo chant – Om Ka Ka Kabi San Ma Ei So Wa Ka. The ceremony was held after sitting in zazen all morning. During the Ceremony each sangha member offered a blessing and later these were written on prayer flags and sent to the family. The mother gave birth on April 25th and sangha members are looking forward to greeting baby McKenzie.
The End of a Life
During the course of progressive illness with ALS, in June 2019, Bruce Baccei received the Bodhisattva precepts in a Jukai ceremony. As a consequence of his illness, Bruce was unable to speak at that time. In a moving ceremony, the phrases the initiate usually speaks were voiced by a “chorus” of Sangha members who had already received Jukai.
Bruce entered in-home hospice later that year and passed away on April 18, 2020. During the months of in-home hospice, sangha members came to chant with him and Barbara at their home once a week. The sangha supported Barbara with a cremation ceremony and a 49-day memorial ceremony,
As the one-year anniversary approached, Dharma sister Sarah O’Gara, who was visiting Barbara said, “We’re all missing Bruce,” and they began to plan for an event in his memory. Bruce had loved outdoor activities, especially biking and sailing. They decided to invite sangha members to bike or hike a three-mile path that Bruce had biked to and from his job every day.
This memorial event on April 18 iwas the first in-person sangha gathering in over a year, due to the pandemic. Sangha members met in a grove on the Sacramento State University campus, walked or biked the route, and then picnicked in the park and shared memories of Bruce. Due to Covid restrictions sangha members wore masks and brought their own lunches. Barbara had been in grief and recovery for a year. She described the gathering as heart-opening and healing. Many sangha members had experienced loss during the last year. She said, “Connecting with the suffering of others opened me up to a new ability to be responsive to others’ pain.”
The weather was perfect. What could have been a day of sorrow for Barbara and the Valley Streams sangha became a day of joy.