Since Daylight Saving Time ended last month, I have really noticed that the days are getting shorter. Lately, it is often pitch dark outside by the time I return home from the temple for dinner. Spending more hours surrounded by darkness as winter approaches, I find myself feeling a deeper appreciation for light and illumination. Here in the United States there is a widespread custom of decorating homes and businesses with strings of lights, lending a festive mood to the long winter nights. As I reflect on this custom, I am reminded that many of the world’s religious traditions have winter festivals that celebrate light transforming darkness, such as Hanukkah, Christmas, Eid al-Adha, and Diwali.
In the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Bodhi Day, the day of Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, is observed on December 8. This service is a time when we reflect on Siddhartha Gautama’s heroic journey in search of the light of clear wisdom that shines through the darkness of ignorance and mistaken thinking. When he fully realized that light of wisdom in his mind, he became a Buddha, or “Awakened One,” who would come to be revered as Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakya Clan.
In the traditional telling of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, it is said that as the moment of his awakening approached, a brilliant light shone forth from the place where he sat in meditation. When Mara, the Demon King of Illusion, saw this light, he knew that Siddhartha was about to transcend the world of illusion and break free from Mara’s control in the unending suffering cycle of birth and death. Mara then summoned his army of demon hordes in an attempt to thwart Siddhartha and force him to stray from his path to awakening. Mara came at Siddhartha with the full force of his army of illusion in the hope of disrupting Siddhartha’s meditation. Undaunted in his wisdom and courage, Siddhartha saw through the illusions and refused to be swayed from his concentration. At that moment Siddhartha reached down and touched the ground, and it is said that the voice of the earth stated that upon realizing Buddhahood he would be of great help to people and he was welcome to sit where he was. With this show of determination and resolve by Siddhartha, Mara was forced to accept defeat.
Siddhartha vanquished Mara not by raising an army of his own, but rather by maintaining his calm and focused state of mind and seeing clearly the true nature of the threat that Mara posed. Often when we are confronted by a difficult situation in life, our first inclination to respond by pushing back and trying to bend the situation to our own will. Even in cases where we do not resort to physical force or strong words, we often have a hard time letting go of our set ideas of the way things should go. The character of Mara can appear in our lives any time misunderstanding or stubborn thinking leads us down a mistaken path in life. Sometimes we feel as if we are under attack by a demon army when in reality the cause of our suffering is our own misguided thinking.
The Buddha shows us that the way to overcome difficulties in life is not to try to power through, relying on the force of our own will. Rather, by remaining calm in the face of adversity, we can find strength and clarity in the light of awakening. At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, we often hear the words, “Namo Amida Butsu.” One way of translating the meaning of this phrase is “I take refuge in the Buddha of Immeasurable Light,” which is to say that no matter how deeply we may find ourselves immersed in the darkness of ignorance, the light of awakening is always shining into our lives. When we are faced with a difficult situation, rather than charging ahead according to our own ideas of how things ought to be, we are encouraged to pause for a moment and calmly assess all the possibilities that present themselves. Approaching life’s challenges in this way, we will likely find that the light of wisdom is illuminating a way forward that we had never considered before. In the words of Shinran (1173-1262), the true teacher of our tradition, “Although I too am within Amida’s grasp, Passions obstruct my eyes and I cannot see him; Nevertheless, great compassion is untiring and illumines me always.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 73)