Spring O-Higan

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Welcome everyone to our Spring O-Higan observance. O-Higan is that time of year, at the equinox, when the earth is at a unique point of balance. Day and night are of equal length everywhere on the earth. This happens twice each year at the autumnal equinox around September 21, in the fall, and around March 21 at the spring equinox. The extremes found in nature during winter and summer have given way to moderation and balance. This is the time when the direct rays of the sun are crossing and shinning directly at the equator. An image out of 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind. Everything on the planet is benefiting and is influenced by this time of balance.

If you are interested at all in Zen, you have to love this image of balance. It is big. It is on a broad planetary scale. It is like the earth is reminding us, and is saying, "Hello, anybody home, returning to balance is a natural activity," or, "Try It, you might like it." Something like this, anyway, the message for us is that we must cultivate returning to our point of balance. Extremes in nature are not the norm any more than extremes in our lives should be the norm. Many extremes may come and go but balance is the overriding norm that we find in nature. And for those of us that live on this planet, the equinox is the most striking image and example of balance that nature has to offer. The earth has been going through this ritual of returning to the balance of O-Higan for millions and into the billions of years. Yes, billions of years. The other day, I read that scientist had found a rock in Australia that contained grains of sand that were over 3 billion years old. They determined from this sand that the earth’s environment has been similar to what we have today for over 3 billion years. Nature’s consistency and determination here only further enhances the importance and meaning of O-Higan for all of us. As with the macrocosm so the microcosm. So again, from a Zen perspective, from a zazen practitioner’s perspective, you have to love O-Higan.

Need I say more? The earth is consistently and unmistakably reminding us that we should return to our natural state of balance. If we take a look at the degree of imbalance that we find in our lives, in our human societies, and that we are burdening upon the earth, I think that we will agree that the need for balance is great.

For example, I was reading the other day about the recent findings of some of our scientists who are studying the effects that man is having on our global environment. Things like the greenhouse effect from burning excessive amounts of fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming. Also, issues like massive deforestation, that can dramatically alter the earth’s climate and diminish the earth’s ability to absorb the excess carbon dioxide created from our increasing fossil fuel burning. Forests naturally absorb CO2 and return oxygen into the atmosphere. Animals breathe oxygen and return CO2 to the atmosphere. Another wonderful example of mother earth’s adeptness at achieving balance. However, we, the human inhabitants of the earth, are unsettling this balance. Some of the predictions regarding what is in store as the earth heats up are very unsettling to say the least. I hope that we can all agree that there are some very real issues here on many levels, personally, for our society, and for all things that depend on the earth. We need to look at this issue closely and put a real effort into helping the earth with this balance.

I have been somewhat encouraged with the efforts and agreements that came out of the Kyoto Protocol Conference, which would regulate carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, even though they have been criticized as being "too timid." However, I am concerned that recent short-term economic issues will work against efforts to correct this global imbalance.

In addition, the nonchalant, resigning attitudes like, "well, I guess global warming will be good for countries in more northerly latitudes, maybe we should move," and, "oh well our AC bills will go up again," or "I like hot weather," or "I guess we just won’t go out doors as much," etc., like runaway global warming is ok or unavoidable. These attitudes are so incongruous that you have to laugh. These fatalistic attitudes will only further encourage the unbalanced course we are on. Yes this is a big problem, but awareness of imbalance is the first step in bringing the situation back into balance. Awareness of imbalance at all levels is a wakeup call for action to overcome the imbalance.

Balance is so important at all levels of our lives. These planetary imbalances are a reflection of the imbalances in our human societies that stem from the imbalances in each of us. We get out of balance from many things, but it all comes from one thing our addictions, whether small or great, to things. Maybe it is money, success, materialism, drugs, or whatever we become attached to, can throw us into a state of imbalance. As Shakyamuni Buddha taught, the key issue here is attachment. Having money, having success, having materialism is not the issue; it is the attachment to these things that creates the imbalance. In Buddhism, we call this state of attachment "self-clinging," because at the center of this attachment is a clinging to ourselves. This is a state we are all familiar with, a state of self-centeredness, selfishness, putting my interests first, making sure I look good, etc., also known as being egocentric or egocentricity. We are attached to the self.

This is where the importance of zazen, Zen meditation, comes in; to shed light on the confusion and on the imbalance. Our Zen meditation practice is like looking at ourselves through a microscope. It provides great insights regarding our unbalanced condition. It illuminates the nature of our relationship with ourselves and our relationship with all things in the only context that is real: the present moment. Any other time, outside of the present, is illusive and subject to speculation. Of course it is OK to speculate about the past and the future. And, of course there can be value in such speculation, as long as we are grounded in the present, and understand the true illusory nature of the past and future time, and do not get attached, hung up, and trapped by our interpretations.

In our zazen practice we look at the most microscopic level of our relationships. We look at the objects that naturally and spontaneously arise in our awareness from our five senses and our mental faculty, and we investigate, via pure observation, our relationship with these objects of awareness. These objects could be sounds, sights, smells, feelings, tastes, or thoughts. If, in zazen, we begin to chase these objects when they arise, because of our attachments to them, our practice is to just let go of this chasing activity and return to our natural state of pure awareness. When we chase, grab, cling to or in any way discriminate with these objects of our awareness, this is where our imbalance in life begins. For as we are chasing these objects our connection with and awareness of the present is compromised and we are living in an illusive dream state instead of reality. The more that we chase these objects of awareness that arise spontaneously, whether we are on a cushion or not, the more we are living in a fantasy or dream world of self-clinging. We begin to manipulate these pure objects of our awareness and color them and distort them to the supposed enhancement of our own egocentric selves. This illusive condition can continue to feed on itself until the self-delusion can lead to significant imbalance in our lives and all the associated suffering. We are getting further and further from our own true natures, what we call our Buddha nature. Dogen Zenji, founder of our Soto Zen Sect of Buddhism, taught that true zazen practice is synonymous with oneness with our true nature when he said, "10 minutes of Zazen, 10 minutes a Buddha." Our original nature is complete and totally at one with all things.

Zazen is a vehicle which enables us to affirm and reconnect with our innermost complete nature. Zazen is an antidote for our self-clinging, and our self-delusions. Zen practice is about reality and looking at our lives without being self-deluded. Zazen is about restoring balance in our lives on this most important and fundamental level. Through continued sincere Zen practice our self-centeredness, our self-delusion, our self-clinging will begin to subside. As we learn to be more balanced in the present moment through our repeated cultivation of returning to the present in our zazen practice, this will become more and more a state of being that we awaken to. We become adept at letting go of our habitual self-clinging. This self-clinging which clouds our vision of who we are and our understanding of the fundamental oneness of all things. By letting go of our delusion we embrace our own true nature our own true selves. Through the repetition of our practice of zazen, like the repetition of the earth returning to O-Higan, we are able to practice letting go of our self centered attachments and truly experience the true emptiness that is expressed in the Heart Sutra. We embrace the true emptiness of self, which affirms the inherent fullness and oneness of everything. This is true balance. However, we are unable to see the truth of the oneness of all things because we are clinging to the illusion of self.

Let me paraphrase Dogen Zenji, who said:

"To study Buddhism is to study the self.
To study the self is to come to know the self.
To come to know the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be at one with all things."

So, the earth, twice each year, reminds us to cultivate balance in our lives. And the earth, from a macrocosmic level, has been returning to balance year after year for millions of years. I think that this is a wonderful image and encouragement for everyone, especially zazen practitioners, to return to our practice on a microcosmic level with the same determination and regularity on a daily basis. Through our zazen practice we embrace the truth of the oneness of all things and the truth of the cultivation of selflessness. The earth, like a great Bodhisattva, truly exemplifies this oneness and selflessness as she nurtures all things that depend on her. It is as if the earth is saying, "It is not about you, it is about us, and the us includes everything." The inhabitants of this earth need to wake up to this reality. We need to awaken and restore balance at all levels of our lives from the microcosm to the macrocosm. It is our self-centeredness on an individual level which is at the heart of our society's attachments and clinging to our ways of living that is resulting in our global imbalance. We need to work on all level to resort true balance.

Let us be inspired by this time of O-Higan and rededicate ourselves to our zazen practice and return to our natural, inherent state of balance for the benefit of all things.