Keep Your Eyes on the Moment

A lesson in mindfulness for Rohatsu, including tips for beginners.

As a child I wanted to become a martial arts master. I remember spending inordinate amounts of time at my local bookstore, sifting through every possible martial arts book and magazine I could find. Since my parents did not have enough money to pay for lessons, I thought that by reading broadly and practicing at home what I saw in the pictures, I could bypass years of serious study. I also thought that the harder I wished it, the easier or more likely it would be for my goal to come true.

After a long stretch of such wishing, I encountered the Zen story of the martial arts apprentice who desperately wanted to be a master. The apprentice would often belabor his master with questions about what he should do to become an exalted practitioner. After much badgering of that sort the master finally said, "When you have one eye fixed on your destination there is only one eye left with which to find the way." This was a fitting lesson for me, and taught me that not only did I truly need diligence in practice, but perhaps most importantly, that I needed to pay attention to the here and now.

The Zen Buddhist holiday of Rohatsu brings us an opportunity to practice the truth embedded in this story. In various Zen traditions the first eight days of December are marked as a special period for celebrating the historical Buddha's enlightenment. Having spent years following rigorous ascetic practices that purportedly would bring him enlightenment, the Buddha vowed to sit under the Bodhi tree until he reached such a luminous moment. He sat for seven days and seven nights of increasing realizations, and on the morning of the eighth day he looked up at the brightest morning star and, recognizing the interconnected nature of all beings, achieved enlightenment. Today, Zen practitioners all over the world observe Rohatsu by emulating the Buddha's experience with a week-long sesshin, or intensive retreat.

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Many observe Rohatsu as a special time for much the same reasons practitioners of other religions might observe special days: it provides a focus for practice, infuses us with new energy, and highlights and honors a continuity with a long and noble history. Although not all those who practice Zen formally observe Rohatsu, many Zen practitioners look to it as a culmination of their practice to that point, an opportunity to break through to new levels of realization.

Rohatsu sesshins can be rather rigorous, an intensification of regular practice that may lead many to push themselves toward the attainment of an exalted state. On the morning of the eighth day of the Rohatsu sesshin, zen monks and lay practitioners alike long for a taste of the transformation the Buddha experienced. The danger is, Rohatsu can often acquire the feeling of intensity and single-mindedness advised against in the tale of the apprentice and the martial arts master.

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