—Shinran-shōnin (never said that)
Higan literally means the “Other Shore” and in Jōdo Shinshū Hongwanji tradition refers to the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, Sukhavati—the Realm of Ultimate Bliss, Nirvana, Supreme Enlightenment, and Oneness with Amida. In Japanese tradition, Higan marks the seasonal equinoxes. Higan is also referred to as o-higan, using the honorific prefix “o-” to express reverence and gratitude for the significance of the event. The Equinox occurs twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, when day and night are exactly equal. The Autumn Equinox traditionally marks the end of the heat of summer and start of the cold of winter.
Twice a year, we mark the Equinox as the perfect moment in our unrepeatable life to pause and sincerely reflect upon the balance between our spiritual and secular lives.
In our secular lives, we are always busy with all kine stuff at each stage of life: students are starting a new year full of hope, young people are discovering a brave new world, parents (and grandparents and uncles and aunties) are frantically running around and amazed how fast the kids are growing up, retirees are wondering how they’ll fill the day, caregivers are pondering how they’ll find enough time in the day…and life goes on. Which is why today, right now, higan, the Equinox, is the perfect time to reflect upon the reality-as-it-is of your unrepeatable life—just as it is—and who you are in this moment—just as you are.
One of the joys of living on the temple grounds of Makawao Hongwanji is the rare and wondrous presence of the kōlea Pacific Golden Plover birds who begin arriving in August to winter in Hawaii, flying thousands of miles from Siberia and Alaska in a single flight! The temple’s kōlea birds can be seen protecting their turf fearlessly from the chickens of Makawao, random magpies, and that Buddhist priest-ly guy who hangs around the temple.
For this city boy, whose childhood memories of birds are limited to sparrows and pigeons fighting for fast food french fries and hamburger bun crumbs on asphalt parking lots of Los Angeles, the idea that a bird would fly thousands of miles to winter in Maui is absolutely…understandable! Doesn’t everyone appreciate how amazing life in Makawao is in every moment of every day? Beaches and mountains and water falls! Birds! Chickens! Goats! Rabbits! Horses! Trees! Avocados! Papayas! Hibiscus! It’s eerily quiet as soon as the sun goes down but oddly noisy early in the morning—no need alarm clocks because the neighborhood roosters have a daily Zoom meeting at 3:35 a.m., always forget to “mute” their MICs, and refuse to admit they are hard of hearing so they cock-a-doodle-doo at maximum volume.
For Shin Buddhists, higan also marks a time for reflection, meditation, and re-dedication to living this life to the fullest, embracing the joys and sorrows of human life—and everything in between—just as it is. Shan-dao, the fifth of the Pure Land Masters revered by Shinran for revealing the doctrine of the Nembutsu path, teaches the Parable of the White Path as a metaphor for our journey in this unrepeatable life. A river of fire (anger) and a river of water (greed) separates this shore (shigan) (our lives in the “real” world) and the other shore (higan) (the Pure Land of Amida Buddha). The only way to cross the two rivers is a narrow white path, which is only four inches across. This is the Path of Nembutsu, NamoAmidaButsu, Mindfulness of Amida.
On this shore, you hear voices of Bandits saying, “You’ll never make it! Give up and stay where you are! You’ll never be good enough! You’ll fall off the path!” On this shore, you hear wild animals and beasts growling and fighting over who gets to eat you!
On this shore, you hear the calming voice of Shakyamuni Buddha saying, “Take refuge in Amida Buddha’s Great Love and Great Compassion, you are already embraced never to be abandoned, just as you are! Have no fear!”
From the Other Shore, you hear “Namo Amida Butsu”—the Calling Voice of Amida—“Proceed on the Path with singleness of heart. You will not drown in the River of Fire, or the River of Water. You will not be hurt by bandits, you will not be eaten by wild animals! You will cross to the Other Shore without fail.”
The White Path crossing the River of Fire and the River of Water is, of course, our lives in the “real world”—chased by bandits and wild animals, we desperately seek refuge but the path is narrow, we have doubts, we have fears, we get distracted, we are lost. On this Shore, our lives are filled with shouting voices telling us, “Buy this, want more, get ahead!” “Bandits”—corporations who want ALL of our money—yell at us, “Use this shampoo, you’ll always look young! Eat this, you’ll live forever! Invest in this, you’ll retire comfortably! Buy this, you’ll have peace of mind!” On this Shore, our lives are filled with wild animals and beasts growling at us, “Hate the other!” “Give into your anger!” “Destroy them!” The River of Water, our greed, tells us, “If I only had more money, I’d be happy!” The River of Fire, our anger, fear, and doubt, insists, “I’m right, they’re wrong!”
Shakyamuni Buddha teaches in a calm voice, “Life is a winding road filled with potholes of pain and suffering. Selfishness causes all the suffering in your life. Eliminate selfishness, and suffering ends. The way to eliminate selfishness is the Noble Eightfold Path.” Amida Buddha calls to us, “If the Eightfold Path is difficult, or if you are unable to achieve the perfection of the Six Paramita, take refuge in Namo Amida Butsu, and you will reach the Other Shore of Enlightenment, without fail, through Birth into the Pure Land.”
When we are brought to truly hear Namo Amida Butsu, the Calling Voice of Amida Buddha, the inconceivable power of the Vow to Save All is already working in our lives ceaselessly to guide us to the Faith of shinjin, the Heart of Great Compassion and the Mind of Non-Discrimination of Amida Buddha.
Higan, when day and night are exactly equal, is a perfect time to reflect upon the balance between our spiritual and secular lives. Everything we need has been given to us: Are we truly living the Life of Nembutsu, the Life of Gratitude, making the effort and taking the time to be humble, grateful, kind and gentle? Truly reflect upon the balance between your “real world” life and spiritual life, and you will realize everything is as it should be, the kōlea birds have come back, life goes on naturally unfolding to its own cadence, creating the rare and wondrous opportunity for you to truly appreciate and savor this moment of this day of this unrepeatable life!