Fall Ohigan

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

In Japanese culture, the spring and fall equinoxes are both marked by 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 a Buddhist concept, first elucidated in an old sutra in the Pali Canon, of crossing a river 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.

The term “Other Shore” refers to a Buddhist concept, first elucidated in an old sutra in the Pali Canon, of crossing a river 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.

On the spirit of reflection for this Fall Ohigan (you can read the Spring Ohigan post here), I’d like to talk about a fundamental teaching in Buddhism that’s repeated over and over again, and encapsulated here nicely in a famous passage from the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings attributed to the Buddha:

186-187. There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. For sensual pleasures give little satisfaction and much pain. Having understood this, the wise man finds no delight even in heavenly pleasures. The disciple of the Supreme Buddha delights in the destruction of craving.

translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita

Take donuts, for example. I love donuts (probably too much), especially chocolate donuts. Who doesn’t? It takes an act of willpower not to eat one, so we give in, or we compromise by cutting out a small portion with a knife (and then come back for more later). But after you eat it, and what do you feel? Guilt? Heaviness? Sugar-crash? Longing for more donuts? Personally, I find one donut is rarely enough. 😜

The donut itself isn’t the problem, it’s how it makes us feel, and when we feel good like that, we want more. That’s what Japanese Buddhism calls bonnō and part of being human.

And of course, it’s not just limited to donuts. You can extend it to just about any other pleasure you can think of. A good song, a good series on Netflix, a hot bath, intimate partners, etc, etc. There’s inevitably a thrill, a rush, follow by longing afterwards, and the bending of our thoughts towards it again. And what happens if something gets in the way of our happiness? We get angry, frustrated, full of despair.

When I think about this, I am reminded of a Japanese rock song from a few years back. The video (longer version here) was a collaboration between famous rocker, Kuwata Keisuke, and the venerable cartoon, Chibi Maruko-chan:

The main lyrics are 1000000年ほどの幸せを掴もう (hyakunenman hodo no shiawase wo tsukamou) meaning “Let us embrace the kind of happiness that only happens once in a million years”, and features a lot of really nice, nostalgic scenes of Japan, its seasons, family and friends. The lyrics are wonderful, and it’s one of my favorite rock songs in Japan.2

It would be really great if life was like this, but well, it isn’t. No matter how hard you chase after dreams like this, they slip through your grasp. Even that moment of happiness found once in a million years has to come to an end at some point, and coming down from that can’t be fun. That’s just one of the bittersweet things about life.

Thus, the Buddha pointed out that people, as well as living beings of all kinds, inevitably fall into this constant rat-race of chasing after those things that make us feel good, and avoiding things that make us miserable. Everyone does it, both great and small, smart and humble. It’s mentally exhausting, clouds one’s judgement and has no clear end.

Thus, in the Dhammapada, the Buddha stated:

185. Not despising, not harming, restraint according to the code of monastic discipline, moderation in food, dwelling in solitude, devotion to meditation — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita

Even though most of my reading audience are probably not renunciants (monks and nuns), the message is the same: if we wish to create peace and happiness for ourselves, it has to come from within, and it has to come from the peace of mind that arises from self-restraint and goodwill towards others. This is easier said than done (full disclosure: I am lousy at it), but the alternative is just a life of aimless wandering.

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 within Buddhism. 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 My other favorite is Golden Bomber’s memeshikute (女々しくて). Whenever they perform the song live, they always do some goofy sketch in the middle of the song.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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