New Years is a time when many people still make “resolutions,” even while most of them know that they will manage to keep only a few of them, if any at all. I’ve always liked what the English sculptor and artist, Henry Moore once said, “I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the years’.”
And I also like the Tibetan word for “new year,” which is losar. Lo is “year, age”; sar “new, fresh”. So despite that a new year is just a turn of the page on the calendar, it can be a time for fresh beginnings. New is merely something not previously known, but fresh is not old or spoiled; fresh is pure and clean. We should strive to make this new calendar year a fresh year.
The Buddha asked his followers to consider this question, “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term well-being and happiness?” If some behavior or way of thinking is not helping someone find well-being and happiness, then of course, it should changed. The importance of having the ability to consciously direct and manifest change in our lives cannot be overstated. Change is good, and in recognizing its great benefit, we can say that every day is a new year. Every day is a fresh start. Every day is a time for resolutions, a time to embrace change.
As far as New Years the holiday is concerned, most Buddhist countries celebrate the New Year according to the Chinese calendar. It coincides with Lunar New Year (last year January 31 and this year February 19). An exception is the Japanese Buddhist schools who tend to observe New Years on December 31. However, this is a relatively new tradition, only in place since 1873, when five years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar. Prior to that, Japanese Buddhists celebrated the Lunar New Year.
And that was certainly the case in the 13th century, when in the first day of 1241 at Kosho-horinji Temple in the Uji district of Yoshu, Eihei Dogen, the Tendai priest who had brought the teachings of the Chinese Caodong school (Soto Zen) to Japan, entered the assembly hall and gave the following talk, which along with 531 others has been preserved in Eihei Koroku (“Eihei or Dogen’s Extensive Record”) and translated by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura.*
They have titled the talk “The Advantage of New Years” and explain that the phrase “Lost the advantage” means “that the speaker did not express the Dharma as fully as the monk in this dialogue, and was bettered by the monk.”
Today is the beginning of a new year , and also a day with three mornings. I say three mornings because it is the beginning of the year, beginning of the month, and the beginning of the day.
Jingqing said, “There is.”
The monk asked, “What is the Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year?”
Jingqing said, “New Year’s Day begins with a blessing, and the ten thousand things are completely new.”
The monk said, “Thank you, teacher, for your answer.”
Jingqing said, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”
A monk asked Mingjiao Zhimen Shikuan, “Is there Buddha Dharma
at the beginning of the new year, or not?”
Mingjiao said, “There is not.”
The monk said, “Every year is a good year, every day is a good day; why isn’t there [Buddha Dharma in the beginning of the new year]?”
Mingjiao said, “Old man Zhang drinks, and old man Li gets drunk.”
The monk said, “Great Elder, [you are like] a dragon’s head and snake’s tail.”
Mingjiao said, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”
The teacher Dogen said: [Both teachers] say the same, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”
Hearing such a story many people say, “These are good stories about [teachers] losing advantage [in a dialogue].” This mountain monk [Dogen] does not at all agree. Although Jingqing and Mingjiao speak of one loss, they do not yet see one gain. Suppose somebody were to ask me, Kosho, if there is Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year, or not.
I would say to them: There is.
Suppose the monk responded, “What is the Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year?”
This mountain monk would say to him: May each and every body, whether staying still or standing up, have ten thousand blessings.
Suppose the monk said, “In that case, in accordance with this saying, I will practice.”
This mountain monk would say to him: I, Kosho, today have advantage after advantage.
Now please practice.
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* from Dogen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku, Eihei Dogen, translation by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, Wisdom Publications Inc, 2010