Falling Short

As we welcome the arrival of autumn, we will be observing our Autumn Ohigan Service on Sunday, September 21 at 9:30 a.m. The Japanese Buddhist observance of Ohigan traditionally focuses on study and reflection on the Six Paramitas, a set of Buddhist virtues that, when perfected, lead us to cross over from “this shore” in the deluded world of birth and death to arrive at the “other shore” of liberation in Nirvana.

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word paramita is “Crossing over to the Other Shore.” In Chinese and Japanese translation, the term paramita is sometimes rendered as tōhigan到彼岸 “arriving at the other shore.” This imagery of crossing over to the other shore is the basis for Japanese Buddhist celebrations of Ohigan observed at the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. In many Buddhist communities, it is customary to hold seven-day observances of Ohigan, with the middle day dedicated to gratitude towards one’s ancestors and each of the remaining six days dedicated to one of the Six Paramitas.

The Six Paramitas are listed below along with a brief explanation of the meaning of each:

1) Generosity (Skt. Dāna, Jp. fuse 布施)

The perfection of generosity means to give freely without expecting anything in return, and to give thinking of the needs of others without considering one’s own benefit. Sakyamuni Buddha originally encouraged householders to practice dāna by giving in support of the Sangha and the poor. The Pure Land Master Nagarjuna (150-250 C.E.) describes three types of dāna: the gift of material goods, the gift of Dharma, and the gift of freedom from fear, so meaningful generosity is not limited to giving material gifts.

2) Moral conduct, upholding precepts (Skt. Śīla, Jp. jikai持戒)

It is common for those who aspire to live according to the Buddha’s teachings to observe the following ten Bodhisattva Precepts as guidelines for daily living: 1) Not killing, 2) Not stealing, 3) No harmful sexual activity, 4) Not lying, 5) Not becoming intoxicated, 6) Not talking of the faults of other members of the Sangha, 7) Not praising oneself and belittling others, 8) Not bringing harm through stinginess, 9) Not letting one’s anger lead to resentment, 9) Not disparaging the Three Treasures

3) Patience (Skt. Kṣānti, Jp. ninniku忍辱)

There are three aspects of patience in Buddhism: (1) not getting angry, (2) not clinging to hatred and grudges, and (3) not wishing for others to suffer. In order to become a truly patient person, one must let go of thinking that separates oneself from others and good from bad.

4) Diligence (Skt. Vīrya, Jp. shōjin精進)

In cultivating the perfection of diligence, one is called to put forth a spirited and courageous effort in seeking the path to enlightenment. To that end, one must strive vigorously to cultivate compassion and cease committing harmful deeds. One aspect of diligence is to refrain from indulging one’s self-centered impulses that cause harm to oneself and others. One must also make an effort to know oneself and come to a deep understanding of one’s own tendencies towards misguided thinking, speech and actions.

5) Contemplation (Skt. Dhyāna, Jp. zenjō 禪定)

In the practice of contemplation, one focuses the mind on a single point of concentration in order to become free from distraction. Through calming the activity of the mind in meditation (Skt. śamatha, Pali samatha), one establishes the ground for realizing insight (Skt. vipaśyanā, Pali vipassanā) and wisdom. Quiet sitting is a common method of cultivating the virtue of concentration in Buddhist practice. However, there are many other activities that are encouraged as forms of Buddhist concentration, such as chanting, walking, and copying sutras.

6) Wisdom (Skt. Prajñā, Jp. chie智慧)

Wisdom is the ability to distinguish what is true from what is false, and to clearly see the path to liberation from suffering for all beings. The mind of wisdom is able to recognize what is genuine and true by seeing the light of the Buddha’s awaking as it shines into this world of delusion.

As I find myself living within the Nembutsu during this Ohigan season of self-reflection, I cannot help but notice the gap between my own thoughts, words and actions and the Buddhist ideals I aspire to in the Six Paramitas. In the midst of this stark reflection, I find peace of mind in Shinran’s teaching that no matter how far short of the ideals of virtuous living I am falling, the Buddha is untiringly guiding me on my path to the Other Shore of awakening. Shinran taught that while I may find it very difficult to fully perfect these virtues through my own efforts, that through the Nembutsu, Amida Buddha guides me to acquire “all the paramitas from charity to wisdom.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 99).