Twice a year the time of the equinox comes around. The equinox is that time when the sun crosses the equator and the length of day and night is equalized. The first is the vernal equinox, usually around March 21. The second is the autumnal equinox usually around September 23. These are times of transition between the timeswhen darknessandcold dominateandtimes whenlight andwarmth dominate.
Agrarian people all over the world held such times to be very significant because the cycles of planting and harvesting and storing up for winter depended upon being attentive to such transitions. Also, because a time of transition is a time where one is neither here nor there, so to speak, it was also considered a time when the veil between the worlds became thinner. The equinoxes were therefore a time when the living and the dead, the sacred and the profane could cross over into each other.
The equinoxes, the spring and fall Ohigan, are therefore times to remember our ancestors and those who have passed beyond the veil of this world. It is also a time for thinking about what “lies beyond.” And in fact, the word “Ohigan” means “the other shore.”
In Buddhism, however, “the other shore” does not actually refer to a realm of life after death. Rather, it refers to the transcendence of birth and death entirely. “This shore” is the shore where there is repeated birth and death.
From the Buddhist point of view, “this shore” encompasses not only this world of the living but also the heavens, hells, and otherworldly places that we imagine the dead may go to. And of course Buddhism teaches that we can be reborn into this world. So from the Buddhist point of view, this life may in fact be the afterlife of a past “self” that we don’t remember.
Before I return to the idea of the genuine Buddhist meaning of Ohigan, I’d like to talk about the idea of the six worlds of birth and death a bit more. In Buddhism we teach that one can be reborn as a hellish being, a hungry ghost, an animal, a fighting demon, a human being, or a heavenly being. In the past this idea was taken very literally. Today, most of us are a bit more skeptical. But Buddhism also teach that these are states of being which we pass through every day, every moment even, in the way that we relate with ourselves, others, and the world around us.
The hellish being is obsessed with his or her own suffering to the exclusion of all else. It is a state characterized by intense anguish, lashing out in unthinking rage, self-pity, despair, and self-destructiveness. The hungry ghost is obsessed with satisfying a craving that can never be quenched. It is a state of self-destructive addiction or fixation where the desire itself has become an unceasing source of suffering. The state of animals is a little better, but is a state wherein one looks only for immediate gratification and short-term gains, and is heedless of consequences. The fighting demon is dominated by pride, arrogance and competition and is obsessed with the idea that someone else may get ahead of them or have more than they have. The state of humanity is a state of enlightened self-interest, capable of applying reason and insight in order to attain the objects of desire. Humans think things through and at least aspire to an ethical standard of conduct. The heavenly state is one of heedless bliss for one who has at least temporarily gained the object of desire – whether material or spiritual. But it is also a state prone to complacency, self-satisfaction, and even self-righteousness and is no more lasting than the other states. Again and again we cycle through these states, and together they compromise “this shore.”
Just as the year cycles through its seasonal changes, so too do we cycle through these inner seasons though in no particular order or for any set period of time. As I mentioned, we cycle through them day-to-day and even moment-to-moment. If the equinox is a time to be aware of the transition of the seasons and the thinning veil between worlds, then we should also include an awareness of the transitions we make between these six worlds of birth and death.
Other religions consider heaven and hell and other such realms as “the world beyond.” But we consider them “this shore.” So what is left out that Buddhism considers “the other shore.” Furthermore, what is it we are hoping for when we say that our ancestors, family, and friends who have passed on have gone to this“other shore” if the “other shore” is not the heavenly “great beyond” that many people in other religions think of. And furthermore, what does this “other shore” have to do with us?
In Buddhism, “the other shore” is not the place you go when you die. Rather, it is an awakening to the true state of affairs of the six worlds of birth and death. It is awakening right here and now to what is right here and now. It is seeing through the sham of the futile cycle of birth and death and the ways in which we perpetuate it. We grow up. We see our obsessions and fixations for what they are and start looking beyond our own pain and pleasure and instead see the big picture – a picture free of selfishness but filled with a boundless light of wisdom and a boundless life of compassion.
This other shore is filled with those who hear the Buddha’s teachings and take heed and put them into practice; with those who really look at things as they are; with those who are filled with compassion for others; and ultimately with the buddhas, the awakened ones, who see that beyond birth and death and all its suffering is an underlying peace and joy to which nothing need be added and from which nothing can be taken away.
The awakened ones see that which is Unborn and Deathless. It is the true “other shore” which is no mere afterlife but the true nature of all that is. All of us cherish the hope that those who have passed on have found their way into circumstances that are happier, and more joyful. From the Buddhist point of view, the best possible rebirth would be one in which one could wake up from the delusion of birth and death in the rut of the six worlds.
And so at this time of the equinox, the time of transition, we express our faith that those who have passed on have not merely passed on to another round of the six worlds of “this shore” but have actually attained the awakening that is the “other shore.” More importantly, however, at this time of transition, balanced as we are between the dark and the light, we should remind ourselves to make the transition from“this shore” of the six worlds to the “other shore” of awakening. That would be the best possible way to commemorate Ohigan both for ourselves and for all others, whether in this world or beyond. In that way, we will truly come to be at one with those who have arrived at “the other shore.”