Many spiritual traditions have holy days during winter when the world is darkest. Hanukkah, Christmas, and the Winter Solstice all celebrate light as a symbol of hope and renewal. In Buddhism, we observe Bodhi Day which commemorates the great Enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha on December 8.
This season is a time to reflect on the intangible gifts of the spirit and the light that we receive throughout the year. On Bodhi Day, and we rejoice in the promise of universal liberation through the Dharma—the spiritual insights into the nature of life that the Buddha discovered. We are fortunate to receive this gift of the Buddha’s teaching which enables us to awaken to the dynamic working of Wisdom and Compassion in our lives. When we receive the life-giving and life-transforming Dharma as a spiritual gift, we naturally share our appreciation, joy, and light through our thoughts, words, and actions.
It is said after spending the long dark of night under the leaves of the Bodhi Tree, Siddhartha Gautama would realize enlightenment when the morning star appeared in the eastern sky. Dispelling his spiritual darkness he would become the Buddha, the Awakened One declaring, “At this moment all beings and I awaken together.” This promise of universal awakening from the darkness of our greed, anger, and ignorance is the hope that the Buddha offers to us unconditionally.
In Shin Buddhism, we understand this promise of spiritual transformation as the Vow of Amida Buddha embodied in the Nembutsu. In the Tannishō, Shinran Shōnin shares “But with a foolish being full of blind passions, in this fleeting world—this burning house—all matters without exception are empty and false, totally without truth and sincerity. The nembutsu alone is true and real.” Namo Amida Butsu is the fulfilled promise of Amida that lights our way in the darkness of this world of suffering—this “burning house.”
In The Fire Sermon, Shakyamuni Buddha famously teaches how everything is “…burning with the fire of passion, the fire of hatred, the fire of delusion. I declare that it is burning with the fire of birth, decay, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair.” However, through the insight gained from his awakening, the Buddha offers us a way to quench these fires through the cooling light of wisdom which illuminates our spiritual darkness.
Doesn’t it seem like we have been dealing with hotter fires and a deeper darkness in our world? From our climate crisis to our politically polarized society to the destructive forces of hate and discrimination which threatens to consume us, we are struggling to find hope and light in the long shadow of our spiritual night.
My thoughts of loving kindness turn to the victims of the recent mass shooting at an LGBTQIA+ nightclub in Colorado Springs. A place of safety was violated, and innocent lives were lost because of anger and ignorance. Yet we do nothing to curb the epidemic of gun violence plaguing our communities and we actively cultivate the conditions for hate and violence towards others. Our unexamined inner darkness is consuming us, and we need to bring light into those dark places.
In my rumination on the state of our world, I recently rediscovered the words of the author L.R. Knost who wrote,
Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.
All things break. And all things can be mended.
Not with time, as they say, but with intention.
So, go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.
Her words remind me of how the Buddha roused himself from the bliss of his awakening under the Bodhi Tree to re-enter this burning house of samsara to offer hope through the light of the Dharma. In similar fashion, I am reminded of how Amida Buddha’s light of Wisdom and Compassion continually pierces through my darkness revealing my own inner light. Of how the heart of reality embodied in Namo Amida Butsu unconditionally embraces and transforms my foolish self.
The Buddha’s Enlightenment was truly a journey within himself in which he discovered the potential for awakening that everyone possesses. We are all equally able to encounter and appreciate Wisdom unfolding as Compassion within our lives. Therefore, no experience is ever wasted. There is always opportunity for learning and growth in all that we encounter throughout our lives.
Rev. Kenryu Tsuji shares a profound understanding of how Enlightenment is truly a process of continual growth in his book The Heart of the Buddha-Dharma,
It is a common belief that Enlightenment occurs suddenly and that it is the single great religious experience in life, but Enlightenment is a growing experience that never stops. Each day we experience the joys and sadness of life, and with each living experience we come to a deeper understanding of the totality of life—its beauty and ugliness, success and failures, victories and defeats, birth and death. Every activity of life has absolute meaning, for every motion, however significant, is the Enlightenment experience.
The world of Awakening is present in each moment of our ordinary everyday lives. We are so fortunate the Buddha shared the way to keep our heart and mind open so we can fully experience this gift of life and discover the light within ourselves.
We can mend our brokenness through the practice of the Buddha-Dharma. We can heal our broken world by embodying Amida’s Vow of Compassion. Each of us is the light of the living Nembutsu in this darkened world carrying the “great torch” of Namo Amida Butsu in the “long night of ignorance” as Shinran teaches.
So, during the dark of winter at the close of this year, let us rekindle hope by entrusting in the dynamic working of All-Inclusive Wisdom and All-Embracing Compassion that illuminates our lives. Namo Amida Butsu.
Happy Bodhi Day!