Good evening. First of all, I’d like to thank you for inviting me to your Fall Ohigan Service. It’s always pleasure to come to West Covina Buddhist Temple. I always admire your dedication to listening to the Dharma and to maintaining your fine Sangha. Also, I appreciate your warm hospitality.
Most of you are probably already familiar with the word “Ohigan” or “Higan.” I’m sure you have learned the meaning of the word, or what the word signifies and so forth. But let me explain briefly about the meaning of the word “Higan.” “Higan” means “the farther shore” or “the other shore.” On the other hand, “this shore” is called “Shigan” in Japanese. “Higan,” signifies the world of nirvana or enlightenment, which is also known as the Pure Land. On the other hand, “Shigan” symbolizes our ego-self, the world filled with anger, greed and ignorance. We reflect upon our ego-self from the perspective of Higan, and reconfirm our aspirations for the Pure Land at this time of the year, when the sun rises directly from the east and sets directly in the west, which reminds us of the world of the farther shore. The observance of Higan is a very old Buddhist tradition and one of the most important Buddhist events for Jodo Shinshu followers.
Also, Higan, the autumnal or vernal equinox, is a time of balance, when the length of day and night is the same, with mild and comfortable weather. As people in Japan say, “The summer heat or winter cold doesn’t last after Higan,” it is the turning point in the year. This special service in this time of the year reminds us to keep the balance and walk the Middle Path, as our minds are filled with many anxieties, anger and greed so we can lose balance very easily in our daily lives. I think it is a very interesting point.
It is said that Higan signifies the world of nirvana, where all causes and conditions that constitute our ego-self disappear. Higan is a totally different world compared to Shigan, our world of ignorance, and it is supposed to be located very far from here. In the Amida Sutra, there is a passage where Sakyamuni Buddha tells one of his disciples how far the Pure Land is located. He says, “West of here, a hundred billion buddha-fields or “lands” away, there is a world called “Supreme Bliss.”” Of course, we understand this as a metaphor, but the metaphor signifies that it is impossible for us to liberate ourselves from our ego-self and to attain enlightenment by our own efforts. It is so far away, which is why it is called the “other shore.”
However, it can also be said that Higan, the world of enlightenment, is always trying to awaken us right at this moment. It is always working toward us as the voice of “Namu Amida Butsu.” Sometimes I feel that the voice is coming from the innermost depth of our existence. It’s not coming from heaven or somewhere above us. Higan is billions of miles away, but it can actually be closer than anywhere else on this planet.
Let me talk a little about why it is so difficult to attain enlightenment by our own efforts alone. First, I think we would all agree that our lives are all different. We all have different faces, different personalities, different living conditions, and so forth. We are all different, because of the causes and condition that constitute us. Also, our lives are impermanent, and we are all going to die someday. It might be today or tomorrow. We are getting closer to death every moment. Every moment we are living is different. However, we have one thing in common; it is Life that is living us right at this moment. Other words for “Life” could be the “Primal Vow of Amida,” in other words, the working of the Wisdom and Compassion of the Buddha. No matter what kind of situation we are living in, Life is always living us. Life is the only thing we can share, regardless of nationality or ethnicity. This appreciation for Life is the very basis of Sakyamuni Buddha’s and Shinran Shonin’s teaching.
Of course, in reality, we cannot always appreciate the preciousness of Life. There are too many blind passions in our mind to appreciate our precious Life. For example, we have many anxieties in our daily lives, such as issues of living expenses, stability of employment, medical condition or relationships with people. Let me give an example from my own experience. I’m living in the Newport Beach temple building. As the temple's minister, it is not only my workplace; it is also my house. As a temple, it’s about 18 years old, and it’s still young. But the building itself is said to be more than 30 or 40 years old. So, many parts of the building are broken now. The other day, the drainage of our shower room was completely clogged and it was filled with dirty water. And the next day, one of the garbagedisposals attached to the kitchen sink went down and the sink was filled with dirty water too, and it smelled really bad. Also, all of the refrigerators stopped functioning. Moreover, the ventilating fan of the kitchen broke. My mind was filled with thoughts of, “Oh, what’s next?”
And we get angry in our daily lives, at home, at work. We can get angry at someone who accuses us of trivial things, or at someone who are irresponsible at work and so forth. At the Newport temple, we have many groups, such Judo, Kendo, and Karate. They use our facility at nighttime for their lessons and practice. When they leave, they are supposed to make sure all the doors are locked and close and lock the main gate. But they often forget it. They often leave the door or gate open. No matter how many times I tell them, they often forget it. I get mad. My mind is filled with, “Oh, I’ll get them!!” An enormous surge of anger moves through my entire body, and on the next day I rush to the telephone at 6 o’clock in the morning and call the group leader and yell at him, “Be sure to lock the key before you leave!” It takes a few cups of coffee to calm me down.
And also, we are ignorant. We are living in a very advanced civilization and know many things thanks to the advancements of technology and science. But we still don’t know anything about our life and death. From the Buddhist perspective, we are still ignorant. And the darkest ignorance we have is not being aware of our own ignorance. Anxieties, greed, anger and ignorance are going through our mind everyday. However, the source of these blind passions is just one thing; it is our ego-self.
When we were born, we were all babies. We start our life as a baby. When we turn 2 or 3 years old, we start using language and start thinking. To start thinking means to start having the consciousness of “I” or “me.” We distinguish ourselves by contrasting ourselves with others. Our consciousness of “I” can exist only because there are others, which are “not I.” This is the beginning of ego-self, and the beginning of our suffering from “birth and death.” By thinking, our ego-self gradually takes form. When we were babies, we didn’t have any such ego-self. In other words, when we were babies, we were a kind of the embodiment of Life.
As we get older, we start to regard Life as belonging to us alone, and we tend to think, “This is my life,” or “This is your life.” To develop our consciousness of self, we have to contrast everything, and see everything dualistically. As we get older, we are often separated from other people, and from Life itself. And we start to regard death as our enemy, because it brings an end to “my” life. Even though Life is still living us in the same way as it was when we were babies, our consciousness totally separates us from Life, and we cannot see things as they really are.
I think this separation from Life is why Sakyamuni Buddha described the location of the Pure Land as “a hundred billion buddha-fields away.” What divides Higan and Shigan is our own self-consciousness. As long as we have our ego-self, we cannot go across the ocean to Higan by our own ability.
However, at the same time, the voice from Higan is always coming toward us as the voice of “Namu Amida Butsu.” When we listen to the Nembutsu and recite it, we can appreciate Life, which is living us, even if our mind is filled with greed, anger and ignorance. Because our mind is filled with greed, anger and ignorance, the voice from Life is embodied as “Namu Amida Butsu.”
According to the Meditation Sutra, Sakyamuni Buddha asks Queen Vaidehi, “Do you know that Amida Buddha is not far from here?” In the sutra, this is the moment when the voice of Higan reaches Vaidehi’s mind through the crack of her hard-shell ego-self. Like Vaidehi, if we can hear this calling of the voice of Higan, of the words of the Buddha, we too can cross over to the other shore of enlightenment.
Thank you very much for listening. Thank you very much again for inviting me.
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