Ohigan Holiday Explained

One of my favorite Buddhist books of all time is a little-known book called Raft from the Other Shore by Sho-on Hattori. I’ve owned this book for years, and keep going back to it from time to time. This is an older book published by Jodo Shu Press, and provides a nice introduction to Jodo Shu Buddhism, with a nice scholarly feel, but without being overly technical. But what I have always really liked about this book is how it broadens the teachings toward the end to explain some basics about Japanese Buddhism overall. The book was originally written for a Japanese audience, I believe, so it’s not filtered for Western audiences and what they typically want to read about, but at the same time, it’s so straight forward and simple, that Western audiences have no trouble understanding it either.

Toward the end, Hattori covers basic Buddhist holidays in Japan, including Ohigan. I spoke on Ohigan at depth recently, but wanted to review some basic points as Professor Hattori explains it. As stated in the previous post, Ohigan stands for the Buddhist notion of crossing over to the Other Shore (i.e. Enlightenment), away from This Shore of impermanence, stress and dissatisfaction, and is traditionally observed during the spring and fall equinoxes because the weather is more pleasant and people more time to rest and reflect.

Professor Hattori adds:

Shayamuni Buddha [Founder of Buddhism] was born in this world, on this shore. Observing profoundly the sorry of this world of illusion, he reached that distant shore of nirvana. He showed all humankind the means of crossing the ocean of darkness to the realm of light on that shore, higan [彼岸]. These are called the six pathways (Skt. paramita, Jp. haramitsu 波羅蜜) to nirvana.

Often times in English, we call them the Six Perfections, but Hattori calls them the Six Pathways to Nirvana. In some ways I think this is more readily clear to me, even though the Sanskrit term does translate more closely as “perfection”. Here, what Professor Hattori is saying is that if one gradually perfects these 6 qualities, one will assuredly reach Nirvana and transcend all misery, but also create a lot less misery for other people. The Six Perfections are (with Sino-Japanese included):*

  1. Generosity – danna (檀那)
  2. Right Conduct – shira (尸羅)
  3. Endurance – sendai (羼提)
  4. Endeavor – biriya (毘梨耶)
  5. Meditation – zenna (禅那)
  6. Wisdom – hannya (般若)

For Generosity, Hattori explains:

This does not merely mean to give money, but to give support to others in various ways, such as with material goods, helping by physical strength or spiritual inspiration.

For Right Conduct, he says:

When we earn a great deal of money or rise to a higher position in society, we are prone to be lax and fail to maintain proper conduct. This is why the part of right conduct (sila in Sankrit) is set forth in the second paramita.

Of Endurance:

In the third, the path of endurance (ksanti in Sanskrit) shows us that we should be patient with each other to live together in humanity.

He explains Endeavor this way:

In the fourth, the path of endeavor (virya) teaches us that we should not be lazy but should make every effort to attain contentedness.

For Meditation he says:

In the fifth, the path of meditation (dhyana) suggests that we should not be upset by trivialities and the things of this shore, but should be calm as we consider and try to understand our problems.

And finally for Wisdom:

In the sixth, the path of wisdom (prajna) indicates that, since there are often misunderstandings among people and these misunderstandings lead us to hate one another because of false or wrong knowledge, we should endeavor to gain true or right knowledge.

I like this interpretation of the Six Perfections because it is practical, and true, and yet without the dry textbook explanation. Finally, Prof. Hattori says in closing:

The six paramitas constitute the universal way for humans to attain ultimate peace, but it is not easy for us to keep them in mind and carry them out, because we are busy living and working everyday. For this reason, we set aside a special day twice a year, in Spring and Fall, so that we may reconsider these teachings, reflect upon ourselves, and pay respect to the innumerable people from the past to the present who have come into our lives and in some way or other influenced it to be better. This is the basic concept of the higan observance.

Thanks Prof. Hattori!

Namu Amida Butsu

* – The above are actually just transliterations of the Sanskrit words, the regular, day-to-day Japanese words would be (in order):

  1. fusé (布施)
  2. jikai (持戒)
  3. ninniku (忍辱)
  4. sōji (精進)
  5. zenjō (禅定)
  6. chié (智慧)

2 thoughts on “Ohigan Holiday Explained

  1. Prof Hattori makes a great point, especially concerning generosity (charity 布施). I was recently asked what free generosity is (無財) and I looked it up and it seems to be making the rounds in speeches by priests in Japan of all sects (無財の七施).The seven types of free generosity as listed in 雑宝蔵経 (I am sorry I have no idea what it is in English) are
    眼施 eyes, have kind eyes, I lose out on this one a lot
    和顔施 harmonious face, hard to keep
    愛言施 loving words
    身施 body, using your physical strength to help others
    心施 soul, just understanding someone else is a form of generosity
    壮座施 giving up your seat, even before there were trains this was recognised
    房舎施 lending your roof, or even your umbrella

    Japan especially has the idea that most things can be solved with money, so maybe especially here the seven free forms of generosity is being stressed.

    Just thought I’d share.

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