We will be observing our Spring Ohigan Service on Sunday, March 22 at 9:30 a.m. Ohigan is observed twice a year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when days and nights are of equal length and the sun sets directly in the West. The Pure Land Sutras describe the Pure Land of Amida Buddha as a realm of enlightenment located in the west, so Ohigan is an ideal time to reflect on the direction of our lives and reorient ourselves on the path to liberation from suffering.
The following passage from the Amida Sutra describes how the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is located in the western quarter: “Beyond a hundred thousand kotis* of Buddha-lands westwards from here, there is a land called ‘Perfect Bliss.’ In that land there is a Buddha called Amida who is expounding the Dharma at this moment.” (Section 2) Once, after I gave an Ohigan Dharma talk on the subject of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land in the western quarter, one of the Sangha members approached me and asked, “If the Pure Land of Amida Buddha is located in the Western Direction, can I travel there on spaceship?” At the time, I was so caught off guard by the question that I had no idea how to respond. While I am certain of the existence of Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, I do not believe it is the kind of physical place that one could fly to on a spaceship.
Some time later, I had the opportunity to meet with Rev. Sasaki Giei, one of my teachers from the Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin Buddhist Seminary where I studied for the ministry. In our classes, Sasaki Sensei always provided clear and understandable explanations of the essential aspects of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist teachings, so I asked him how he might respond to that question about the spaceship. In reply, he shared with me the following explanation, which is found in his book Naruhodo Jōdo Shinshū (Now I get it! Jodo Shinshu):
The light of the beautiful stars that we see shining in the night sky must travel hundreds of millions of light-years to reach us, such that by the time we see those stars here on earth, some of them have already ceased to exist. Therefore, not all the stars we see in night sky are in existence.
All things that come into being eventually pass out of existence. This is true of the stars in the night sky and it is true of our lives on this planet. If the Pure Land were a world that could be seen with a telescope, then just like the stars in the night sky, it would eventually cease to exist.
Among all things of this world, there is nothing that continues forever. That is why the sutras tell us that the Pure Land is a “realm of enlightenment” that differs from this world of ours in that it cannot be apprehended in our limited way of seeing and thinking. Thus, the Pure Land is a realm that exists in order to liberate us who dwell in this world of impermanence and bring us to the realization of enlightenment.
(Naruhodo Jōdoshinshū, p. 13, H. Adams translation)
Just as the sun that rises in the east will eventually set the west, all of us who are born into this world will one day die. The Dharma taught by the Buddha teaches us that those who realize awakening are liberated from the continual cycle of suffering in the realm of birth and death. The realization of awakening and liberation from suffering is the goal of Buddhism. It is taught that the Buddha provided 84,000 Dharma gates that provide paths to liberation. The Buddha also taught the Pure Land gate, which assures us that those who entrust in Amida’s compassionate vow to liberate all beings from suffering will surely enter into the realm of enlightenment in the western quarter at the end of this very lifetime. Ohigan is our precious opportunity to reflect on the direction of our lives as we journey westward toward the realm of enlightenment.
Namo Amida Butsu
*koti: A term used in ancient India to express a high numerical value equivalent to one hundred thousand, ten million, or one hundred million.