​​​​​Obon- Gathering of Joy

By Rimban William Chugan Briones

"There is a difference in compassion between the Path of Sages and the Path of Pure Land.  The compassion in the Path of Sages is expressed through pity, sympathy, and is for all beings, but truly rare is it that one can help another as completely as one desire.

The compassion in the Path of Pure Land is to quickly attain Buddhahood, saying the nembutsu, and with the true heart of compassion and love save all beings as we desire.

In this life no matter how much pity and sympathy we may feel for others, it is impossible to help another as we truly wish; thus our compassion is inconsistent and limited.  Only the saying of nembutsu manifests the complete and never ending compassion which is true, real, and sincere."

                                                                                                                 Tannisho, Chapter 4

I was so fortunate to have an opportunity to study in Japan.  In Kyoto, where I called home for three years, the beginning and end of each season is well defined.  The summers are dreadfully hot and humid.  Winters are extremely wet and freezing.  In the fall the hills and streets of Kyoto are ablaze with autumn color.  In the spring the cherry blossoms can be seen covering mountainsides, lining streets and riverbanks.  I was always in awe with the beauty and grandeur of each season. 

In Japan people seem more aware of the changing of the seasons and because of this place more emphasis on the Vernal and Autumn Equinox.  You can see this in their literature, art, festivals and it even dictates when the air conditioner can go on or off and the exact day when the air conditioner can go on or off and the exact day when to change into your winter or summer apparel.

Unlike Japan, we Californians especially here in the Southland seem to have only one season.  The seasons here are not as well-defined as in other parts of the country and as for equal day and night, well... like the rest of America we change our clocks forward and back to accommodate our work and play time. 

As this fall equinox approaches, Jodo Shinshu Buddhists throughout the world are observing Ohigan.  However, this concept of Higan being a time when day and night are equal and the weather is neither too cold or too hot may not ring too true for some of us.

Not only that but I believe the metaphor of the "other shore," higan and "this shore," shigan is unique to Eastern philosophy.  A good example is the famous parable of "The Two Rivers and White Path" by Shan-tao the fifth Jodo Shinshu Patriarch.

When I think of "shore" I think of Lake Tahoe's North Shore (great skiing) and South shore (gambling)..... I picture sandy beaches, children making sandcastles and running from the waves.

Seriously, we Westerners do have a different perspective of nature and our environment and how we relate to it.  Which, of course, is neither good or bad.

So what does Ohigan mean to me, or at least how should we understand Ohigan within the context of Jodo Shinshu in America.

Ohigan is a Buddhist holiday unique only to Japanese Buddhism.  It is a very old Buddhist tradition that was well established by the time of Prince Shotoku around the sixth century.  An Emperor by the name of Kanmu issued an edict ordering priests throughout Japan to read the Diamond Sutra during the weeks of the of the Vernal and Autumn Equinox.

It is customary in Japan for people to return to their homes and visit their family cemeteries and temples to pay respect to  their ancestors during this time.

The Japanese term higan literally means "other shore," in contrast to shigan, "this shore" of the mundane world.  Therefore, higan refers to the Pure Land of Perfect Enlightenment, which exists far from "this Shore" of samsara.  The word higan is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit work "Paramita" which expresses the idea that the Buddha guides people from this ordinary world to the other shore of the Pure Land by means of the Six Paramitas.

​Paramitas of course are those practices and disciplines of monks and nuns to attain enlightenment.  The paramitas being 1) Giving or sharing, 2) Conduct, 3) Effort, 4() Patience, 5) Meditation, 6) Wisdom.

In the Larger Sutra, it states that a Dharmakara Bodhisattva made 48 Vows to save all sentient beings.  By practicing all the disciplines, including the Six Paramitas, for an immeasurably long time.  He realized His Vows and became Amida Buddha.

It's this realization, crossing over the river, if you will, by way of practicing the Paramitas, that one awakens to truth/reality.

However, it is extremely difficult for lay people and more so for priest and ministers with school, work and family obligations to fully live up to the high ideals of the paramitas.  Never-the-less, the Paramitas point us in the right direction and clarify the Buddhist ideal for us. 

​The passage from above is from the 4th Chapter of the Tannisho.  It tells us about the difference between the practice of the "path of the sages" such as saints and bodhisattvas, monks and nuns and it tells us of the path of Pure Land devotees like you and me.  It's about other power versus self power.  It's about realizing our inability to attain enlightenment by means of doing good deeds or following the paramitas, because, based on Shinran's realization, all our good deeds are based on our ego and self-centeredness.  We expect to receive rewards from our good actions.  In contrast, the Pure Land Way makes us aware of our human limitations and frailties. It reveals our motives and actions as ego-centered and evil.  

For this reason, as Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, all we have to do is entrust ourselves whole-heartedly in Amida's Vow and to utter His Name in gratitude, instead of practicing the self-power of the Six Paramitas.  We believe that entrusting ourselves in the Nembutsu of the Other Power is the only possible way for regular people like you and me to be freed from samara and attain "the other shore" of nirvana.

Furthermore, the reason for this possibility is that the virtue of the Six Paramitas practiced by the Dharmakara is manifested in Namo Amida Butsu, or the realization of his long discipline.

So saying the Name, Namo Amida Butsu is only the expression of gratitude to Amida Buddha for making us aware and guiding us from "this shore" of samara and leading us to the "other shore" of Nirvana or Pure Land.

While "this shore" of samara and the "other shore" of nirvana sounds like worlds apart, the truth is, higan is right here in this, the shigan world.

The place and direction of Pure Land is only a metaphor.  The Pure Land exists everywhere, transcending space and time.  We only have to realize it.  Realizing Pure Land lies in our deep reflection and awareness of our true selves and how we live our daily lives living in gratitude.

And so as summer changes to fall almost unnoticed, let us remember that Ohigan is yet another opportunity to listen to the Dharma and to reflect upon our limited self, seeing ourselves clearly through the Buddha Dharma.  Only then can we live our lives with true gratitude and joy.  

Namo Amida Butsu

This Dharma Message was reprinted from Dharma Talks of the Four Seasons No. 2, which is available for purchase from Hongwanji Place.  Rev. Briones is currently the Rimban at the LA Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. 

​​​Dharma Message- September 2019

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