The Japanese Buddhist holiday of ohigan starts around this time. It coincides with the first day of Spring and he first day of Fall, so there are two ohigan holidays each year. Since the weather is more mild, traditionally in Japan, devout people had more time to review their Buddhist practice and strive again. The name of ohigan is written as お彼岸 in Japanese, which means “the Other Shore”. This shore, in Buddhist literature, symbolizes life here with its impermanence and suffering, while the other shore represents things like Awakening, Enlightenment, or liberation from this world.
This is no less true in Pure Land Buddhism. In Pure Land Buddhism, one of the most important patriarchs was a Chinese monk named Shan-tao, or Zendō in Japanese (善導), who lived in the 8th century. He wrote a famous parable about the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha called the Parable of the Two Rivers and White Path, or niga byakudō (二河白道).*
I always liked this parable because of the way that Amitabha Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha work together. Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in this world, pointing the way across to liberation, while Amitabha Buddha dwells in the Pure Land calling people across. They work in tandem, in other words.
With the Two Rivers and the White Path, you can see again that there is this notion of crossing to the other shore, which in this case is none other than the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha:
The wonderful painting above is from the temple of Komyoji** in Kyoto, which is closely associated with Honen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan. Honen had been a devout follower of Shan-tao, despite being separated by 400 years. It also is the main temple for the Seizan-branch of Jodo Shu, founded by Honen’s student, Shoku, who is one of my favorite Buddhists in Japanese history.
So, for this coming Ohigan, you can reflect on the parable above, and the painting above and see how it might apply to your practice, regardless of whatever practice you follow.
Namu Amida Butsu
* – Found in Shan-Tao’s Commentaries on the Commentary on the Contemplation Sutra.