In Japanese culture, the sprint and fall equinoxes both mark a special time called Ohigan (お彼岸) which means “the Other Shore”. The holiday was originally promulgated by the pious Emperor Shōmu as the weather at the time was very pleasant, neither too hot nor too cold, and so it was a time to reflect and renew one’s Buddhist faith. In practice, it is also a time when Japanese frequently return to their ancestral hometowns (jimoto, 地元) to pay respects to ancestral graves (ohakamairi, お墓参り), cleaning them and making offerings.
The term “Other Shore” refers to the Buddhist concept, first elucidated in an old sutra in the Pali Canon which described cross a river on a raft, from one shore to another. This analogy took on increasing importance in later generations, and even appears in Buddhist art, such as the famous Parable of the Two Rivers.
This analogy of the river and the other shore describes our state versus the state of awakening, and the need to “cross over”. This shore we are on is marked by strife, unease, and various challenges in life, while the other shore represents liberation, peace and awakening. The Dharma,1 the teachings of the Buddha, is like the proverbial raft that helps one cross.
On the spirit of reflection for Spring Ohigan (you can read the Fall Ohigan post here) I like this passage from the book Living Yogacara: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism by Rev. Shun’ei Tagawa (translated by the awesome Professor Charles Muller):
Buddhist practice must be based on the repeated examination of one’s past activities. But if this examination is not carried out through a clearly defined principle, then it will end up being nothing more than a bit of indulgence in one’s memories, which does no one any good. Instead, without falling into self-recrimination, we should strive to examine ourselves using knowledge learned in the teachings of Buddhist scriptures. It will be at that time that we first experience a Buddhist form of self-reflection….while taking this kind of sincere reflection, we create and develop a way of living our lives henceforth, remembering the Buddhist teachings and committing to them as a way of bettering ourselves. (pg 109)
Further, he says:
But the number of Buddhist teachings is vast, and the content and meaning of each has a wide range of varieties and permutations. By focusing on a consolidated set of practices, such as the six pāramitās2 (donation, observation of the precepts, forbearance, zeal, meditative concentration, and wisdom) and the four methods of winning people over (donation, kind words, altruistic activity, and working together with others), we find a stimulating engaging method of self-examination and Buddhist practice. (pg. 110)
To reemphasize, self-reflection is about examining one’s own conduct against some objective standard, and in Japanese Buddhist culture the Six Paramitas tend to be associated with Ohigan. They set a pretty high bar, but they also exemplify Buddhism at its best. Self-reflection should neither fall info self-indulgence, nor self-criticism. It’s more about stepping back and looking at your actions scientifically, and comparing them against a known standard (the paramitas for example).
But why bother? Most people just want to have a good time, enjoy the cherry blossom season with friends and maybe a little drinking.
Cherry blossom season in Japan is no better time to observe the impermanence of life. As Rev. Tagawa writes:
To restate the truth taught by Śākyamuni [Buddha], all things are brought into existence based on a wide range of causes and conditions. All things (all dharmas),1 whether they be psychic or material phenomena, occur because various elements harmonize temporarily in specific conditions. Not being established for more than an instant, they absolutely do not exist as fixed, unchanging substances. Therefore, once the provisional combination disintegrates, all phenomena disappear at once. In this way, all dharmas are in a continual state of flux. (pg. 117)
Even in my own yard, the two thundercloud plum trees quickly sprout blossoms, and within a few weeks, the blossoms rain down, giving way to leaves. There’s no fixed point, it’s just a constant state of transition. This becomes more and more apparent as one gets older because you can afford to look back and see how much has changed around you.
Thus, Ohigan is a good time to reflect, reset and get your mental “house in back in order”.
A blessed Ohigan to you all! 🌸🖖
1 The Buddhist term dharma takes on multiple meanings, even in this blog post! The Dharma (capital “D”) usually refers to the Buddha’s teachings or in a general sense “the way things are”, while dharma (small “d”) usually refers to all phenomena, both abstract and concrete. Buddhism did not invent these terms, they were appropriated from the existing religious culture at the time.
2 The six pāramitās or six perfections tend to be a more Mahayana-specific teaching, but they are found in Theravada Buddhism as well.