Rohatsu: A Celebration of the Buddha’s Enlightenment

by Vicki Garlock on December 9, 2013


Buddhist Half-Prostration

On Saturday, in the midst of my afternoon Christmas shopping, I took a break and attended a lovely Zen Buddhist ceremony for Rohatsu. Never heard of that holiday? That’s not surprising, especially since it falls smack in the middle of America’s craziest time of the year. Rohatsu is a Japanese word meaning “the eighth day of the twelfth month,” which makes it easy to remember when the holiday is celebrated, at least in Japan.

Rohatsu, or Bodhi Day, commemorates the day the Buddha became fully enlightened. During his deep meditative state, he realized that the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is never-ending and discovered all of his past lives. He discovered the ancient path, practiced by all previous Buddhas, that would lead to wisdom and self-awareness. He recognized the root causes of suffering, and he gained insight into practices that could liberate us from that suffering. He became fully awakened, unfettered, and at one with his true nature.

In Japanese Zen monasteries, Rohatsu is preceded by a week-long sesshin dedicated to deep meditation. During sesshins, several silent meditation sessions are held daily, interspersed with meals, short periods of work, teachings (teisho) and/or private meetings with the Zen master (dokusan). Monks often sleep less than six hours a night during a sesshin, and there is a commitment to mindfulness in all activities. The night before Rohatsu, monks (and laypeople who are adequately prepared) stay up all night meditating. My little celebration of Rohatsu was decidedly more simple.

The ceremony I attended was held in our local Buddhist center in downtown Asheville. It was led by Zen priestess and Dharma teacher, Teijo Munnich, of Great Tree Zen Temple and Sangha, which is located about 20 minutes north of the downtown. The ceremony was quintessentially Buddhist and fairly short – only about 20 minutes in length – making it perfect for kids. Some Buddhist teens/tweens were there with their families, but even the kids who were under the age of six were able to participate.

We began with the sounding of the gong. The priestess then performed several prostrations, dropping to her knees and placing her forehead on the floor in front of the Buddhist statue in the candlelit shrine. Traditionally, three prostrations are done – one to the Buddha, one to the Dharma (his teachings) and one to the Sangha (the Buddhist community) – but I wasn’t really keeping count. She may have done more than three. The rest of us simply bowed.

Zen students and practitioners often begin a meditation session with numerous prostrations. A common number of prostrations under those circumstances is 108, and I’ve seen a couple of reasons given for that number. Here’s one version that makes sense to me. We have six doors of perception (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and thought), there are three aspects of time (past, present, and future), there are two conditions of the heart (pure and impure), and there are three possible attitudes (like, dislike, and indifference).

6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 108

In the Christian tradition, bowing, kneeling, and genuflection are usually signs of veneration and/or humility. The same could be true for prostrations in Buddhism. After all, a prostration puts the practitioner’s head below the Buddha’s feet. But other reasons are also given. Prostrations help to connect the body and the mind which prepares practitioners for their meditative practice. Prostrations can be purifying, helping to rid one’s self of negative emotions and destructive attachments. Prostrations can serve to acknowledging the Buddha nature of all living things. Prostrations offer reminders of the kindness and compassion shown in the Buddha’s teachings.

After the ringing of the gong and our prostrations/bows and the ringing of the gong, our Rohatsu ceremony continued with the chanting of the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is one of the most commonly chanted teachings in the Buddhist tradition, which is interesting since it’s one of the few sutras not attributed to the Buddha. As one Buddhist nun said to me, “The Heart Sutra is ubiquitous.” This is especially true in Mahayana Buddhism which includes the Zen tradition. The Heart Sutra describes the wisdom and insight attained by the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, during deep meditation. Here are a few lines from the version of the sutra we used. (Prajnaparamita is roughly translated at the perfection of wisdom):

Excerpt from the Heart Sutra

With nothing to attain, The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita. And the mind is no hindrance. Without any hindrance no fears exist; far apart from every perverted view, The Bodhisattva dwells in Nirvana.

In the Three Worlds, All Buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita. And attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.

During our chant, a bell was rung as particular intervals. The bell is used to remind people of where they are in the chant and to enhance mindfulness. Many bell recordings are available on-line at no cost to assist in meditative practice. The bells sound in various tones and are rung at various intervals, so you can choose which recording most effectively assists your practice. You can even set your computer to sound a bell at various intervals throughout your work day. The bell serves as a reminder to check your posture, take a brief walk, stretch, recall something positive, or simply take a deep breath and smile.

This is a difficult time of year for many people. Unhealed wounds are revealed. Loneliness, anger, and grief become amplified. Even for those who enjoy the holiday season, shopping for gifts, managing the crowds, and socializing more than usual can be taxing. It’s hard to find that peaceful, loving, compassionate place in ourselves amidst all the stress and anxiety swirling around us. A Buddhist ceremony is a great counterbalance to all that. And Rohatsu, celebrated on Dec. 8, comes at the perfect time. Since it can be a short ceremony, it’s also a great one to keep in mind for your interfaith kids.

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