Crossing the river—twice a year—to the other shore

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The spring equinox is a joyous day for the people living in the Northern Hemisphere as it signifies the end of long dark winter nights with daylight hours, which have been slowly getting longer day by day since the winter solstice, finally catching up with and overtaking nighttime hours as the day passes. With the Sun crossing the Earth’s Equator, the Northern Hemisphere is now blessed with warm sunlight showering over fields and gardens, inviting trees to shoot out their buds and flowers to come out of the earth.

For the Japanese, too, this astronomical event a joyous occasion that signals the official arrival of spring. In fact, it is designated as a national holiday as “the day to praise nature and love living beings”. But the spring equinox, along with the autumn equinox, is also an important occasion for the Japanese to be reminded of their Buddhist heritage.

In Japan, an equinox is also known by its traditional term, higan (彼岸). As an equinox occurs twice a year, with hot summer and cold winter in-between the two equinoxes, the Japanese often talk about “atsusa samusa mo higan made”, which can be translated as: “No heat wave, or cold spell, lasts beyond the equinox”. This popular saying attests to the keen awareness on the part of the Japanese of the passage of seasons, which they also exhibit in their haikus. For example, Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), known for his novel Rashomon, composed the following haiku on the occasion of the spring equinox: “take no me mo akane sasitaru higan kana” (Bamboo buds, too, start reddening with the light of the spring equinox).1

As used by the Japanese, higan does not refer to a single day but to a seven-day period around an equinox, with three days before and three days after the equinox. The first day of higan is called higan-iri, or “the start of higan”, and the last day higan ake, which means “the end of higan”. The spring equinox in 2015 in Japan occurs on March 21, meaning that higan for the Japanese this year starts on March 18 and ends on March 24. During the higan week, the Japanese are expected to perform their duties and obligations as Buddhist practitioners. An equinox’s connection with their Buddhist heritage comes from the meaning of its traditional term, higan, which means: “the other shore”.

For the adherents of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, the spring equinox is designated as the day on which they visit the graves of their ancestors, who are in “the other shore”, or the Pure Land for them, which is believed to be in the west, the direction in which the Sun sets on the day of the spring equinox. The custom of visiting graves of ancestors on the day of the equinox, in spring and in autumn, is said to have begun during the Heian period (794-1185), when the Pure Land Buddhism gained influence among the Japanese against the background of great social strife and turmoil, which led them to believe that they were living in the latter days of Buddhism.

For Buddhist practitioners in general, higan signifies the period during which they remind themselves of their resolve to accomplish the goal of “reaching the other shore”, whose Chinese expression tohigan (到彼岸) comes from the Sanskrit term “paramita”. Paramita is also translated as “perfection”, suggesting that the term refers to the final state of accomplishment in Buddhist practice. During the higan week, practitioners are supposed to go through six paramitas, three paramitas of danaparamita (generosity), shilaparamita, (morality) and kshantiparamita (patience) before, and the remaining three paramitas of viryaparamita (diligence), dhyanaparamita (meditation) and prajnaparamita (wisdom) after the day of the equinox, which is set aside for rest and reflection. The reason six paramitas are chosen for this occasion is because they are regarded as the key practices in Mahayana Buddhism, known as the six bodhisattva practices for crossing to the other shore. The practice begins with danaparamita (generosity), which the Buddha uses in Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, known as The Diamond Sutra, as an example to show Venerable Subhuti how the happiness beyond conception and measurement can be obtained from the practice of generosity without relying on any form, sound, smell, taste, tactile object, or dharma.

The custom of practicing six paramitas during the equinox week, according to Nihon Koki, an official history of the country compiled during the early Heian period, begun in 806. It was this year that the higane (彼岸会), or “a Buddhist prayer service during an equinox”, was held for the first time in Japan. The occasion was to pacify the spirit of Prince Sawara, a younger brother of Emperor Kanmu (737-806), who starved himself to death on the way to his exile in Awaji in protest against the charge that he was involved in the assassination of Fujiwara Tanetsugu, the chief architect of the Emperor’s new capital at Nagaoka. With the death of the Emperor’s wife and other family members and a number of natural disasters such as pestilence and volcanic eruptions that followed the death of Prince Sawara, Emperor Kanmu was compelled to hold a proper Buddhist ceremony to honor Prince Sawara, who was a devout practitioner of Buddhism, by inviting Buddhist monks to recite The Diamond Sutra.

Some may consider the custom of practicing six paramitas just twice a year during the equinox weeks another evidence of the decline of Buddhism as a spiritual guide for the Japanese. On the other hand, there may be others who argue that practicing six paramitas twice a year may be better than not practicing at all, for what is important is the Mahayana idea of crossing the river together to the other shore in a large vessel. What is most challenging for Buddhist practitioners today everywhere, not just in Japan, is the widening of the river that separates this shore from the other shore. Standing, as we do, on this shore full of violent conflicts and confrontations in the globalized world today, we need to practice six paramitas every day of the year if we are to cross to the other shore, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests: “The practice of the paramitas can be the practice of our daily lives. We are on the shore of suffering, anger, and depression, and we want to cross over to the shore of well-being. To cross over, we have to do something, and that is called paramita. … We can practice “perfection” every day.”2

  1. The original Japanese expression are as follows:「竹の芽も茜さしたる彼岸かな」
  2. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, New York: Broadway Books, 1999, p. 192.