Once upon a time I lived in Alabama and had a 52-mile daily drive to work at a NASA facility in Mississippi, which gave me a lot of time to think. At one point on the trip you pass eight churches in ten miles — a friend referred to that stretch as “The highway to heaven” — and seeing weddings, funerals, and other gatherings at those churches led me to think about life, death, and spirituality.
I was very aware that I was a spiritual being since I was 16, but despite that I never cared for a religious framework; every church I’d ever been to seemed superficial compared to what I had experienced. That being said, I always thought prayer was a good thing — it helped to create a proper state of mind — so I tried to come up my own prayer, something I could believe in.
One idea I came up with was to write some sort of prayer that would honor the ancestors that led to my life on Earth. But, I thought, a problem with this approach was that my ancestors weren’t all that honorable. My mom is probably the nicest person in the world, so there was no problem there, but without getting into details, my dad, my grandparents, aunts and uncles ... there weren’t many people I was concerned about honoring.
Fast-forward twenty years where I found myself at the Providence Zen Center (PZC) in Rhode Island. One day after some hard labor I was limping around looking at all the old stuff they had and I came across a plaque that showed the lineage of all the Zen Masters who preceded Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS), the PZC founder. Name by name, I followed his lineage back through 78 Zen Masters, all the way back to 480 B.C. and the Buddha himself. Suddenly I realized that all of these teachers were my spiritual ancestors, people who passed the teaching down from one generation to the next. ZMSS was my spiritual father, Ko Bong was my crazy grandfather, the Dalai Lama is an uncle (down a slightly different branch of the spiritual family tree), and 76 generations later there was Great Granddad Buddha himself. I shivered as a cold chill ran throughout my body.
I won’t go through the whole list, but I try to think of various people like ZMSS, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass, and Thomas Merton as my teachers and spiritual ancestors, and though I rarely succeed, in my better moments I try to honor them. (And after my worse moments I tell them what an idiot I was, usually starting with, “You guys won’t believe what I did today.”) And in a strange twist of fate, by doing this I find that I have much more compassion for my genetic ancestors.