Today, all over the world, Zen Buddhists are celebrating the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Known in Japan as “Rohatsu” (literally, the 8th day of 12th month) this Bodhi Day marks the defining event in the legend of Shakyamuni Buddha: his enlightenment experience.
After sitting through a night of doubt and temptation — in the form of the many kinds of mental obstacles that cover the whole gamut of unskillful thoughts and images that the human mind is heir to — Shakyamuni Buddha looked up as the planet Venus came into view, and gazing at this morning star, broke through the agony of the nightlong struggle, and realized the nature of the self, the cause of mental suffering and its remedy.
In honor of this momentous awakening, many Zen Buddhists sit in meditation for an entire week’s retreat, culminating with an all night sitting on Dec. 7 into the dawn of the 8th, watching their minds. As the minutes, then hours, go by, the mind becomes quieter, and they are able to bear witness to the marvelous quality of being that Shakyamuni experienced: an embracing of reality as it is in each moment. In a sense, this very intense annual ritual helps each of us to realize that it is not so much what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens that determines whether or not we create suffering — our own and that of others.
The legend says that as he gazed at the morning star, he said, “How marvelous, I, the great earth, and all beings are naturally and simultaneously awakened.” This phrase teaches us the great lesson of interdependence, that we are not separate from all that is, but rather we are interconnected, a piece of the grand whole of the universe. And at the same time, this very piece, this “I” sitting here is an integral and vital component of the whole. When we take care of this “I”, we can take care of the whole universe.
So, even if we cannot devote a week or a full night but are only able to meditate for a few minutes on Bodhi Day, it can be a reminder of the wisdom that is naturally available to us, the wisdom of cultivating our minds and recognizing our relation to the whole.