O-Higan

[This text was first published in The Diamond Sword, a collection of talks by Kongo Roshi, Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago, first edition 1987, second edition 1992, pp 53-59.]

Welcome to Spring O-Higan. Today we celebrate the Spring Equinox, the time of year when the sun crosses the equator making night and day equal in length all over the earth. The significant factor for Zen Buddhists at this time of year may be summed up in one word: balance. Hence, as Zen students, it is important that we take this great example and reflect upon our lives and manifest a resurgence in our faith in Zen Buddhism, and consequently in our practice of zazen.

Everyone is familiar with the Oriental concept of yin and yang, the positive and negative principles. However, to maintain a balance of the two in daily life is extremely difficult. This is compounded because all too often as we grow older and become more materially stable, more settled, there is a corresponding decline in our spiritual lives and in our spiritual practice. When growth, inner growth stops, life stops. There is either movement in life - or stagnation. So we find that as wise as we imagine ourselves to be, a deepening state of imbalance gradually develops. This develops to such a degree that we find ourselves victims of a spiritual distress. Zazen become less and less important in our lives, less and less meaningful until it disappears completely. Gradually we find more difficulty in motivating ourselves. Will power now becomes will weakness. Will power now becomes won't power.

I think in general, as human beings, we assume too much about ourselves - too much as far as the element of time is concerned. Dogen Zenji, founder of our Soto Zen Sect of Buddhism, often used the phrase, "Time flies more swiftly than an arrow." And indeed we know this is true. Still, we like to think that we have plenty of time - for everything. But as time passes and we review our lives in retrospect, we wonder what went wrong. The ego runs rampant and we begin an intellectual balancing act in every aspect of our lives. We shift blame from her to him, from him to her, from there to here, from this to that, and it is endless. In this process, in this intellectual balancing act that we become so clever with, we lose our most precious ability: that is introspection. Introspection is a very interesting word. The dictionary indicates that introspection is "the examination of ones own mental and emotional state." If we lose this ability, we are talking about losing something really essential; in essence, we are losing ourselves. This process continues until we have become shadows of our real potential. Our ideals go down the drain with the dishwater. We allow ourselves to become ghosts, walking the earth, waiting to die, not knowing that we are already dead and just forgot to fall over. Do I paint too bleak a picture? If you think I do, just look around - chaos abounds - it's nothing new. The tragedy of life itself has become a cliche. When we talk about a winnable nuclear war, you know that life has become ludicrous. Just look around, though I think, really, most of us should look into the mirror. This would be good and healthy for everyone.

So what am I saying? What am I implying? Is this an accusation and does it pertain to me? Is it justified? Don't be offended by this line of questioning. Pondering these issues will make life much more interesting for each of us. You must admit, self-introspection is a much more challenging line to follow than we do most of the time in our everyday lives; and like the kyosaku, it doesn't hurt too much.

I have been associated with this Temple now for over twenty years in some form or another: as an attendant, a disciple, a priest and then as Matsuoka Roshi's successor. As the years pass, I see many people come and go, come and go. I have observed how, for the majority of them, Zen discipline has become passe! But I know there are a good number of you hard-liners that have stuck through thick and thin with zazen. I look around and see many faces that I remember having had a great number of questions, a great number of doubts throughout the years. And I am happy to see that through my encouragement, a good number of you have continued with your zazen practice until you see for yourself the true value it offers, without having to take someone else's word for it. However, for the majority, as I have said, Zen practice has become passe. It is something one grows out of, and maybe comes back to for an occasional dip into the deep. Or it was a crazy idea that was part of ones growing up. I have seen much, much, too often the subsequent spiritual disaster that occurs when life becomes just a material quest, a kind of gluttony: just acquire, acquire, acquire. And all for the sake of being comfortable. Too often we confuse comfort with maturity because we have learned to be more relaxed with ourselves, with our view of ourselves. Often we consider this to be maturing when often it is no more than just relinquishing.

The first of Buddha's Four Noble Truths is that life is pain, life is suffering. The second is that the cause of suffering is unquenchable thirst. We want to suck up, drink up everything we see, touch, smell, and taste, not realizing that we can't find reassurance in material acquisition alone. The grass indeed is always greener on the other side. No, the other side - No, over there - over there. It is endless.

I hope you don't consider these ideas to be irrelevant to you personally, because this can be very dangerous for someone interested in spiritual development. Don't allow yourselves that leeway. Rather, assume that each word stated here applies to you directly. This kind of thinking makes one stronger because then each individual, each one of us, must adopt the theme that "the buck stops here." Assume full responsibility for your life condition and start afresh. And this starting afresh is O-Higan. O-Higan is after all a time of the year when we review our lives, look at our whole situation, our whole condition and then march on. Seven times down, eight times up. This is Zen Buddhism.

Frederich Nietzche asked, "How does one grow stronger?" And he answered, "By coming to decisions slowly and by clinging tenaciously to what one has decided, everything else follows." Decide on a matter slowly, carefully, intelligently and then cling tenaciously to what you have decided. If something is decisive in your life; it is firm - then so be it, and from that point march on. I spoke earlier today in a talk that I gave during the Discipleship Ceremony these words: "Now that you have entered onto this path of the Buddha's Way, look neither to the left nor to the right, but walk on straight ahead." Look neither to the left nor to the right. You have reached a decision. Then as Nietzche says, "everything else follows! But how many of us decide and then undecide? Then we decide again and undecide again and continue on this way until our life is a perpetual vacillation. We swing this way and that way and we can't decide on anything; this becomes habitual.

A young man in his early twenties came and talked to me a few weeks ago, and in our conversation, he made an astounding statement; and I say astounding because of his youth. He said, "I feel like I'm stagnating." If a person at this age could bring himself to practice zazen tenaciously, he wouldn't have to worry about making such a statement again at thirty, forty, fifty or sixty. There is a profoundly deep reservoir of power to be tapped in zazen that will not be made apparent through an intellectual process alone. You can't think this out. You can't tap - touch - the very core of your being through intellectualization. Intellectuals will argue this point to the death, but it will always remain just bubbles on the surface. The impression that we can reach such conclusions by thinking alone is the ego's delusion. This delusive "I can do it on my own" attitude creates a barrier within us that prevents us from accepting zazen as a doorway through which one may march in step to nothing less than the rhythm of the universe. How many times have you heard me say that the universe itself is a macrocosm and a human being is a microcosm: a universe in miniature with the same qualities. How to actualize and live this point is the gist of Zen Buddhism. The cohesion that occurs between mind, body and spirit through the practice of zazen produces a being of such unity that absolute self-confidence becomes the foundation-stone of life. What more could we ask of any philosophy? Indeed we should settle for nothing less from ourselves. Much of the time we exist in a world of ought rather than a world of IS. The positive charge created through zazen reverses this condition, doing away with the habit of merely limping through life.

At this time of O-Higan, giving this talk to you, believe me when I say my only intention is to encourage you to resume or intensify your zazen practice, which may have become like a flabby muscle. Let us work harder at polishing this spiritual diamond that we have inherited from the East. In Zen Buddhism we are afforded the means whereby we may maintain a balance, an equilibrium within ourselves. This balance must not be rigidly adhered to, but must be acknowledged. I think we too often forget this. This is why a sense of isolation, a sense of loneliness, occurs in each human being. We don't see ourselves as having these positive and negative qualities, and that this balance within ourselves must be maintained just as it is in the universe. The universe doesn't limp through existence. What could be smoother than the workings of nature, the universe? But we insist on asserting ourselves, doing our own thing. It seems that we are so afraid of losing our sense of individuality that we have to put so much stress on doing our own thing. If you practice zazen, your own individuality, your own personality comes to the fore naturally. A tree doesn't have to work at being a tree. Only humans have to work at what they conceive themselves to be. We don't think we can just exist naturally. We have to think about who we are and very subtly squeeze ourselves into this container. What is natural about this? This attitude comes about through an intellectual process and not through zazen. This is a big mistake. Zazen touches much more deeply to the core of our being, so that there really comes a time when you don't feel the necessity to make tiresome assertions to yourself or to anyone else.

So we have O-Higan, and O-Higan is one of my favorite holidays. I have personal attachments to this holiday; I remember that I was initiated on O-Higan and that I became a disciple on O-Higan. But also it allows us a chance to stop and reflect, to take stock in ourselves and make an attempt to look at ourselves honestly and openly, and to realign ourselves, realign our lives. Most of you know that they have recently rerun the series "Shogun." I remember in the last episode how Anjin-san (Blackthorne) is so down, so depressed. And this kind of attitude is so foreign to the samurai spirit of a man like Toranaga. I was deeply moved when Anjin-san, with his long dogface look and weepy expression, is standing there and Toranaga approaches him and says, "Are you still alive?" Then he throws his paper at him, walks away and adds, "Then act alive!" I thought that was perfect.