2016-05-12

Rohatsu (meaning eighth day of the twelfth month) is the Japanese Zen celebration of Bodhi Day -- the day commemorating the Buddha's enlightenment, or, more accurately, awakening at the first glimpse of the morning star.  Beliefnet expert Arnie Kozak reflects on the retreat.  Read more at Mindfulness Matters

The Japanese Zen the tradition is to hold a sesshin, the Rohatsu Retreat, from 1 December to 8 December giving its participants to the opportunity to be like Buddha (or more accurately to realize their own Buddha nature). Monks will meditate through the night on the final night of the retreat.

As with Thanksgiving, I am playfully suspicious of commemorative holidays such as Rohatsu. Every day could be (should be) Thanksgiving. Every day could be (should be) Bodhi Day. The difference between Rohatsu and Thanksgiving is practice. On Thanksgiving we engage in gluttony right after the thanks. On Rohatsu, especially if you have sat the retreat, we commit to practicing awakening.

What's the difference between awakening and enlightenment? These are often used as synonyms but the implications are different. They are different metaphors. Enlightenment suggests a sudden illumination. In fact, depictions of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree show a halo of light around his head. Enlightenments feel special, exceptional, and rare.

The Buddhist teacher and scholar, Stephen Batchelor (author of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) points out that while enlightenment is a rare event, awakening is something we do every day. We awaken from the dream world of sleep into our waking life. However, we can also find ourselves going back to sleep as we move through our life. The Buddha encouraged us to awaken. And while he underwent an arduous journey to come to his insights, we can all walk our own path; we all have the potential for awakening. And this awakening can come in life's most ordinary moments. You don't have to sequester yourself on a mountaintop monastery; you don't have to undergo great privations. You may only need to watch a leaf fall from a tree and wend its way down to the ground.

We move in and out of awakening. We glimpse it for a moment and we go back to sleep. An awakened realization may come while meditating or it may come in the course of our day as we relate to the many things that we relate to in the course of the day: people, work, traffic, gravity. Stephen Batchelor cautions that the Buddha did not proclaim that he was having a privileged spiritual experience.

Awakening, waking up, is waking up to multiplicity, complexity, the world. And the Buddha’s teaching, I think, constantly tends in this direction. It tends away from some unitary experience, an experience of singularity, some privileged spiritual or religious truth or object, such as emptiness, Buddha-nature, you name it. And instead moves into complexity, moves into relationships, it moves into sets of ideas that are somehow connected.

We all have the opportunity to experience this awakened connectedness. The more we meditate, the more likely that we will taste these moments of awakening. When we abandon the hope for sudden and permanent enlightenment we are more likely to touch moments of awakening. Enlightenment is not a destination, it is a way of interfacing with this very moment.

We can become attached to notions of enlightenment, or idealize the Buddha's quest for the perfected state. If we give up this attachment (and all other attachments) and meet this moment as it is, unadorned by desire, rules, and expectations we can have a direct experience of what the Buddha called nibanna(AKA nirvana).

Nibanna translates to "blowing out" as you would a candle flame. When all the conditions that give rise to anguish cease, are blown out, there is nibanna -- awakening. These conditions come back a moment later and we slip into samsara again. Yet with persistence, we can once again let things go and wake up.

With practice, the frequency and duration of these awakened moments is likely to increase. Certain conditions will make the opportunity for awakening ripe -- such as the ones observed at the Rohatsu retreat.

I will have the opportunity to sit for some of these days at a tiny, Japanese temple-inspired Zendo in the remote reaches of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. There at Shao Shan, participants follow this schedule:

• 5:30am – 7:00am - Zazen & Kinhin (sitting & walking meditation)

• Breakfast

• 9:30am – 12:00pm - Zazen & Kinhin

• Lunch

• Food Offering Walk

• 2:30pm – 5:00pm - Zazen & Kinhin

• Supper

• 7:00pm – 8:30pm - Zazen & Kinhin

Extended practice is one of the ripening factors. There is certainly no one-to-one correlation between practice and awakening. You could devote your entire life to practice and never experience a moment of awakening (perhaps because that awakening was striven for with attachment); you could never have meditated in your life and experience the most profound awakening. However, somewhere in the middle, more practice will lead to more tastes of awakening. Having a break from the usual distractions of life is another helpful aspect of the retreat environment. While it is certainly possible, and preferable, to awaken right in the midst of our busy lives with deadlines, kids, and paying bills, we can often succumb to these stresses. At the Rohatsu retreat, or any Buddhist-based retreat, we devote ourselves to practice. The teachers and staff of the retreat provide a structured, safe, and supportive environment for practice. Your job is to practice. Meals are prepared for you and you have little in the way of responsibilities (other than, perhaps, a yogi job to practice mindfully).

This is not to suggest that the retreat is easy. Hour after hour we sit with our own minds and bodies. The support of the retreat cuts as a double-edged sword. The relief from daily responsibilities is also the loss of their distracting cover. When all the dust settles, the mind can quiet and moments of awakening can follow.

So, whether you sit a Rohatsu retreat this season or just embrace 8 December as Bodhi Day, I wish you a heartfelt awakening. We are all Buddha -- awakened ones--regardless of our religion. Happy awakening!


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