The Other Shore

Sunday, March 24, 2002

Good Morning everyone, welcome to the Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago’s annual observance of Spring O-Higan. O-Higan comes twice each year at the spring and fall equinox. At O-Higan time there is great balance in nature, and this balance is on a planetary scale. The sun is directly above the equator causing the days and nights to be of equal length, thus influencing the overall earth climate to be more moderate and balanced. When compared with the extremes of winter and summer, O-Higan is a strong image and influence for moderation and balance. As Zen practitioners, we reflect on this balance and reaffirm the balance we have in our lives by rededicating ourselves to our Zen practice.

The observance of O-Higan is unique to Japanese Buddhism, where it has been observed for hundreds of years. Higan, in Japanese, literally means the "other shore gathering." This "other shore" means the other shore of nirvana or enlightenment, that is, awakening to our own true nature, in contrast to this shore of samsara or delusion. It is a time for followers of the Buddha to gather together and rededicate ourselves to our meditation practice and to the practice of the Six Paramitas, which aid us in reaching and awakening to the other shore that is inherent within in all beings.

Our Temple founder, Matsuoka Roshi, was especially fond of the O-Higan time of year and its deep significance. I want to share an excerpt from one of Sensei’s O-Higan talks from 1963, which further helps illuminate the original importance and meaning of O-Higan.

"Throughout Japan, this is the time of year for the observance of O-Higan. O-Higan is the Japanese Buddhist holy day, which is held in the spring and in the fall. It is said that at these times, the weather is best for crossing over from the shore of this world to the shore of Enlightenment. On O-Higan, we renew our determination to enter into the enlightened world, and especially by following the Six Paramitas, or spiritual virtues, of charity, perseverance, diligence, patience, meditation, and wisdom. They are also called the six Nobel Deeds of Zen. On O-Higan, we especially think of our intention to live enlightened lives in imitation of the Historical Buddha. Then we can see things as they really are. We can see through the illusion of this world and enter the world of enlightenment."

I especially appreciate the line, "at these times, the weather is best for crossing over from the shore of this world to the shore of Enlightenment." It is as if we are getting a report on the weather and an indication that this is a good time for our trip. Weather both evokes images of favorable conditions in nature, in the macrocosm, and the influence on favorable personal emotional states in each of us, the microcosm. These are favorable states of being for awakening to the other shore. Not the extremes of summer or winter. Not the extremes of greed, hate and other delusive conditions. Of course we bring these states of being to ourselves through our self-grasping habits. And, we get hung up on our own illusions.

I am reminded of the Zen dialog between Nobushige and Hakuin from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: "Is there really a paradise and a hell?" "Who are you?" inquired Hakuin. "I am a samurai," the warrior replied. "You a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin, "What kind of a ruler would have you as a guard? Your face looks like a beggar." Nobushige became so angry that he began to drew his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head." As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!" At these words the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed. "Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin. This is a good example of our common human condition on the near shore. We truly make our own heaven and hell. We ultimately choose our own attitudes. We do not know what will come to us in life. We only have control over how we respond. A sailor cannot cause the wind to blow a certain way, but he can trim the sails. My Grandfather had a saying, "Well, that was a cheap lesson." No matter what would happen, no matter how costly the experience both in physical and emotional terms, he would always use this expression. He chose to accept things the way they were and learn from them and move on. This is the approach we need to sustain our Zen practice. O-Higan is when the weather conditions are best for crossing over to the other shore, and this has significance on many levels.

I would like to say a little more about the paramitas. Paramita in Sanskrit literally means, "that which has reached the other shore." It means to transcend our ordinary, self-centered, state of being. The paramitas were refined out of the Mahayana traditions that began in the first century, AD. The Bodhisattva represents the essence of Mahayana Buddhism; one who cultivates his own awakening for the benefit of and to help all beings. The paramitas are also known as the perfections or qualities that are developed by a bodhisattva. The paramitas have a great influence on our annual O-Higan observance. The paramitas are basically simple in themselves, but difficult to practice with perfection. The six paramitas are (1) Dana-paramita (charity or generosity) which consists of beneficence and giving in both the material and spiritual sense. This includes being compassionate and kind and not keeping accumulated merit for oneself but rather dedicating it to the liberation of all beings. (2) Shila-paramita (diligence or discipline) includes proper behavior conducive to the elimination of all self-centered passions. (3) Kshanti-paramita (patience) refers to the patience and tolerance that arises from the insight that all the problems of beings have causes that need to be understood. (4) Virya-paramita (perseverance, energy, exertion, or, my favorite, enthusiasm) is resolute effort that does not permit itself to be diverted by anything. (5) Dhyana-paramita means meditation as the way of cutting through the illusion of an ego and of not experiencing oneself as separate from other beings. True Zen meditation practice is the cultivation of all paramitas. (6) Prajna-paramita is the realization of supreme wisdom. Prajna literally means, "to arouse the mind without resting it on, or clinging to, anything." In essence, all the paramitas are contained within the prajna-paramita and culminate within the prajna-paramita. Our inherent wisdom is manifest, it reveals itself, through the perfection of the paramitas.

This is affirmed in our Hannya Shingyo, our Heart Sutra. The full title of which, in Sanskrit, is Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra, which means the heart or essence of the great wisdom paramita teaching. This sutra expounds the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. This heart or essence is the teaching of emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit), meaning the truth regarding the inherent, egoless, selfless state or nature of all things. We can only know our own true nature by letting go of self-centeredness. We can only know big mind by letting go of small mind. The Heart Sutra also emphasizes the importance of our zazen practice as central to our efforts to awaken to this truth of egolessness, and assisting us in awakening to our true nature and reaching the other shore. All self-clinging is based on ignorance and only produces pain and suffering. The other shore is not some mystical place, it our own true innermost nature to be rediscovered.

Because of the wonderful image in nature at this time of year, O-Higan is a particularly favorable occasion to reflect deeply on our own true nature, reflect on the balance in our lives and rededicate ourselves to our Zen practice. The theme of cultivating selflessness is echoed again and again in the meaning of O-Higan. Each of the paramitas emphasize letting go of self-attachment and self-clinging.

I recently was very interested to learn of an ancient Mayan culture that lived in the area that is now Ecuador. The Mayans were skilled builders and engineers. They also knew a great deal about cosmology and celestial patterns. They would watch the annual cycles of nature. They would watch the lengthening and shortening of shadows from their buildings, monuments, and natural surroundings as the sun moved north and south each year. Their most significant time of year was at the equinox when the shadows of their supreme sun god would disappear completely when he descended to earth. So, for the Mayans, the equinox was a time of oneness with god.

So, the stage is set. To borrow a phrase from Rev. Suirin Witham, "now the real work begins." Let's take advantage of this opportune occasion to reaffirm our purpose in Zen. Central to this practice is letting go of our attachments to our deluded self-concepts. In Zen, our practice is refined to an art form. The Heart Sutra emphasizes the reality that "form is emptiness and emptiness is form." In Zen, through the repetition of form we find true emptiness. Through the practice and repetition of the form of the gassho we perfect this selfless expression of mutual respect and gratitude for all things. Through the practice and repetition of chanting the sutras we refine and perfect our selfless efforts for the benefit all things. Through the practice and repetition of reciting the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows we perfect our selfless resolve to help all beings. Through the practice and repetition of our zazen practice we refine and perfect our ability to see things selflessly, just the way that they are. Through the practice and repetition of form we find true emptiness.

In our zazen practice, we cultivate letting go of all self-clinging. We cultivate complete mindfulness in the present moment. No mater what arises in our awareness we are aware of it, but our practice is to not in any way clinging to it. We practice non-attachment. No matter what arises, we continue to let go. This is our practice that we mature and perfect over time. It is a challenging practice. If it were easy there would not be any reason to practice. I recently had a first time student attend one of our zazen services. When it was over he came up to me and said he was sorry that he would not be able to practice with us further because he could not keep his mind still. This student did not understand that we do not start at a point of mastery. We are not concert pianists the first time we sit down at a piano. We all start where we are. We have no choice. Through repeated practice, skill in mindfulness and wakefulness results. Zazen is the practice of waking up. Through repetition of this form we begin to grasp the reality of true emptiness. We cultivate this form in our daily practice at home, when we come to the Temple, and whatever we are doing we cultivate this non-clinging approach. This is our fundamental practice. Zazen is our fundamental vehicle for awakening to the true nature of the self, awakening to the other shore.

Let me say a few words about the importance of sesshin. Sesshin is the most concentrated form of our practice. Sesshin offers a wonderful opportunity to refine our practice. It adds an intensity that is invaluable. As we keep coming up against issues of self-clinging, we continue to practice letting go and experience pushing through to the other side, the other shore. From moment to moment, from one object to the next object of awareness, our resolve and determination increases. We can strengthen our resolve to just practice shikantaza, just to sit, nothing but sitting, no self-centered chasing, by not picking up any object of awareness no matter what it is. Through this kind of resolve we experience the true emptiness of the zazen form and continue to break through to emptiness each moment. Through this experience our practice and confidence strengthens. The more we practice the more it grows. We must always be vigilant, for as practice slackens, there is a subtle tendency to forget its importance and our resolve for our practice weakens. Just as the Chinese proverb states, "without practice there is decline." Also, remember the affirmation, "to always continue practice is right practice." Through repetition of the zazen form we gain insights into our own true nature. We truly experience returning to the source. We become aware of what is possible as we learn to get out of our own way. And this continues to be strengthened through repetition of our practice. Zazen shows us the way to true emptiness. Zazen practice shows us the inherent wisdom that is within each of us. And, for a true zazen practitioner this continues endlessly.

True zazen is about finding the other shore of O-Higan each moment. Zazen is our vehicle, our form, which enables us to go beyond our own limited, self-imposed, self-centered views and see the other shore of true reality and freedom. So, at this time of O-Higan, like Great Bodhisattvas, let us reaffirm our commitment to our Zen practice, and dedicate our efforts to the benefit of all beings.