December 8: Bodhi Day, Sad Day

River_Buddha2bToday is Bodhi Day, which in Mahayana Buddhism is set aside for commemorating the day the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautauma (Shakyamuni), attained enlightenment. From what I have seen it is predominately the Japanese Buddhist traditions that observe this day, known as Rohatsu, literally “eighth day of the twelfth month.” In the Tendai sect, the celebration is called Jodo-e or “completing the path to becoming a Buddha (through attaining enlightenment) [Jodo but with different characters means “pure land.”].

There are different accounts of what supposedly happened that morning when the Buddha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana River, most of them portray the event as some mind-blowing, almost psychedelic experience. I doubt that was the case. Regardless, all the accounts agree that what happened was a result of meditation.

Here is what the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki had to say about Bodhi Day, the Buddha’s enlightenment and meditation in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

I am very glad to be here on the day Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bo tree. When he attained enlightenment under the Bo tree, he said, “It is wonderful to see Buddha nature in everything and in each individual!” What he meant was that when we practice zazen [meditation] we have Buddha nature, and each of us is Buddha himself. By practice he did not mean just to sit under the Bo tree, or to sit in the cross-legged posture. It is true that this posture is the basic one or original way for us, but actually what Buddha meant was that mountains, trees, flowing water, flowers and plants–everything as it is–is the way Buddha is. It means everything is taking Buddha’s activity, each thing in its own way.

But the way each thing exists is not to be understood by itself in its own realm of consciousness. What we see or what we hear is just a part, or a limited idea, of what we actually are. But when we just are–each just existing in his own way –we are expressing Buddha himself. In other words, when we practice something such as Zazen, then there is Buddha’s way or Buddha nature. When we ask what Buddha nature is, it vanishes; but when we just practice zazen, we have full understanding of it. The only way to understand Buddha nature is just to practice zazen, just to be here as we are. So what Buddha meant by Buddha nature was to be there as he was, beyond the realm of consciousness.”

It is highly unlikely that the Buddha spoke the words Suzuki attributes to him, of course, but it doesn’t matter. The spirit of the words is what is important.

For many of us, each December 8 comes with a touch of sadness, for on this date in 1980, 34 years ago, John Lennon was shot to death outside his apartment building in New York City.

Turn off your mind, relax
And float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

That love is all
And love is everyone
It is knowing
It is knowing

That ignorance and hate
May mourn the dead
It is believing
It is believing

But listen to the
Color of your dreams
It is not living
It is not living

Or play the game
Existence to the end
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

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