In March we celebrate the Spring Ohigan. Ohigan is a Japanese Buddhist holiday that marks the equinoxes. The equinox days--one in spring and one in fall--are the times when the days and nights are of equal length. At the equinox the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west almost exactly 12 hours later. It is a time of balance, of harmony, when it is not too hot or too cold, not too bright or too dark. It is a time of fertility and growth in the spring and of abundance and harvest in the fall.
The Japanese term “higan” (彼岸 or ひがん) actually means "other shore" and refers to the realm of enlightenment, of freedom from suffering, the state of being and of understanding that Buddhists aspire to. The opposite of "Higan" is "Shigan," which means "this shore," our current life of suffering and delusion. Monks in Japan consider the equinoxes to be the ideal time to meditate and engage in spiritual practices to help them move from this shore (Shigan), our current lives of samsara, to the other shore (Higan), the shore of Nirvana, the realm of perfect understanding and bliss.
As we enter the 3rd year with COVID and we watch the unfolding of the war in Ukraine, it is a good time to reflect on the relationship of darkness and light, of bad and good, of grief and joy, of ignorance and Enlightenment in our human lives. Master Shinran, the founder of our Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, describes this relationship between light and dark this way:
The light of compassion that grasps us illumines and protects us always;
The darkness of our ignorance is already broken through;
Still the clouds and mists of greed and desire, anger and hatred,
Cover as always the sky of true and real understanding.
But though the light of the sun is veiled by clouds and mists,
Beneath the clouds and mists there is brightness, not dark.
(--excerpt from the Shoshinge by Shinran Shonin)
Shinran points out that darkness and light exist together in our lives. And in Buddhism, we are NOT asked to pick EITHER the light OR the dark. The darkness and the light do not contradict each other; they exist together. If we had not experienced darkness, then we would not know what light is. If we had not been through the cold of winter, we would not appreciate the warmth the spring sunshine. If we had not seen the dead grass covered in snow, we would not appreciate the bulbs sprouting and blooming in our yards, poking their green shoots up between the brown leaves. Their existences depend on each other.
Image: Quilt square created by ladies of the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple Buddhist Women's Association
As spring begins, our Buddhist teachings are telling us to look at the light without forgetting the darkness. We need to hold them both in our hearts at the same time. If we just focus on the darkness of our current state--the virus, the conflicts, the despair, the many human and environmental tragedies--we will become overwhelmed by the darkness of greed, desire, anger, and hatred. But if we do not see and acknowledge the darkness, we cannot appreciate the light. And more than that, we will not be motivated to share light and compassion with others. We must balance the dark by focusing on the light of generosity, appreciation, compassion, and love. As Buddhists we accept that we would not know the joy of the light, if we had not experienced the darkness. As so we are grateful for both the dark and the light.
As ordinary humans we live at the intersection of this shore Shi-gan and the other shore Hi-gan, the intersection of east, the rising sun, and west, the setting sun, the intersection of light and dark. In our Buddhist worldview we do not pick just one perspective. Ohigan is a reminder that darkness and light exist together in every moment of our lives.
Perhaps considering this balance will help you reflect on your own path through the world of light and dark during this Ohigan season.
In Gassho (with palms together)
Rev. Anne Spencer
Assistant Minister, Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple