As per tradition on the blog, I like to give a little sermon every Ohigan holiday. Ohigan (お彼岸) meaning “the Other Shore” is a holiday that started in early Japanese-Buddhist history and is celebrated every Spring and Autumnal Equinox which is a comfortable time of year in between the muggy, hot summers and bitter, cold winters. Started by the pious Emperor Shomu, the holiday was meant to give Buddhists a chance to pause and reflect upon their practice.1And, let’s face it, we could all use a little reminder from time to time.
Today’s “sermon” was inspired by a number of Roger Zelazny books I was reading while I spent some quiet time reflecting and grieving. If you’ll indulge me a moment, you’ll see how this relates to Buddhism…
Take a look at this quote from Roger Zelazny’s novella Home is the Hangman:
“Without guilt, man would be no better than the other inhabitants of this planet….Look to instinct for a true assessment of the ferocity of life, for a view of the natural world before man came upon it. For instinct in its purest form, seek out the insects. There you will see a state of warfare that has existed for millions of years with never a truce. Man, despite enormous shortcomings, is nevertheless possessed of a greater number of kindly impulses than all the other beings, where instincts are the larger part of life. These impulses, I believe, are owed directly to this capacity for guilt. It is involved in both the worst and the best of man.”
In the story Jack of Shadows, one of the (nearly) immortal Darksiders named Jack is now undisputed ruler of the Dark Side of the Earth. However, he is forced to confront his own terrible actions by an old lover that he had spurned, named Rosie:
“I told you long ago that the Baron was always kind to old Rosie. You hung him upside down and opened his belly when you took his realm. I cried, Jack. He was the only one who’d been kind to me for a long while. I’d heard much of your doings, and none of what I’d heard was good. With the power you have, it is so easy to hurt so many; and you have been doing it. I thought that if I went and found you a soul it might soften your disposition.”
Finally, Roger Zelazny explores this same subject again in his famous book Lord of Light when the main character, Siddhartha (not to be confused with the historical Buddha) is possessed by the king of the Rakasha demons. In time, after days and weeks of demonic debauchery, Siddhartha’s will triumphs over the demon and he says:
“Know then, that as we existed together in the same body and I partook of your ways, not always unwillingly, the road we followed was not one upon which all the traffic moved in a single direction….You have learned a thing called guilt, and it will ever fall as a shadow across your meat and your drink. This is why your pleasure has been broken. This is why you seek now to flee. But it will do you no good. It will follow you across the world. It will rise with you into the realms of the cold, clean winds. It will pursue you wherever you go. This is the curse of the Buddha.”
All of these quotations have the same theme of course: guilt is a painful feeling that counterbalances pure instinct and emotion. It’s uncomfortable but tends to make us reconsider our actions, and sometimes gain wisdom from it.
Now, a lot of people who come to Buddhism usually do so leaving another religion, and with that, any moral guilt that is imposed. This is not the same kind of guilt I am talking about. This is guilt from without. It is there to make you feel inferior and keep you in line. What I am speaking of here is a kind of guilt from within. This is a kind of guilt that arises from the wisdom of knowing right from wrong, and reflecting upon one’s actions. In another sense, it is emotional maturity.
But even more than this, the capacity of self-reflection and guilt are seen as part of one’s “Buddha nature”, that intrinsic quality that all beings have to realize full awakening and to break out of the cycle of life imposed by one’s condition, accumulated habits and circumstances.
Jōkei, a Japanese-Buddhist scholar/monk from the 12th century, wrote of himself:
If I desire to enter the vast and great entrance to the mind, my nature is not equal to the task.
If I want to practice just a little bit of cultivation, my mind is difficult to rely on.
By means of none other than my foolishness, I know my posession of the Great Vehicle [Mahayana] nature.
If there is not even a state of [two-vehicle] extinction, how could I possibly be lacking the [buddha]-nature?
—Living Yogacara by Shun’ei Tagawa, trans. by Professor Charles Muller
Here, Jokei, a Buddhist monk reflects on himself, and realizes that although he wants to a good and dedicated monk, he struggles with his himself to stick to even basic Buddhist practice. This is human nature of course, but what Jokei says here is that the very fact that he reflects on these things and knows right from wrong means he possesses the Buddha-nature, and thus maintains hope for the future.
Happy Ohigan everyone!
1 Culturally speaking, it is also a time in Japan to return to one’s hometown and pay respects to one’s ancestors and reconnect with family. As it is a public holiday, the Buddhist aspect is not necessarily foremost on their minds, just as many Americans tend to focus on Christmas shopping than the actual message of Christmas. Such is the way of Man.