Rohatsu – Celebrating the Buddha’s Enlightenment at Hokkai Dojo 2018

Noah Rei Mon Uhrig

Tradition has it that Siddhartha Gautama, abandoning years of extreme ascetic practice, resolved to sit under a bodhi tree and mediate until he found the root of all suffering and how to become liberated from it.  It is said, that as the morning star arose in the eastern sky, Siddhartha Gautama lifted his eyes toward it and awoke to non-separation with all things and was Buddha.

Rohatsu, in Japanese, literally means the eighth day of the twelfth month.  It commemorates the day the Buddha awoke and became enlightened.  The date became fixed on 8 December when the Japanese adopted the western instead of the lunar calendar.  Many zen groups formally organise a sesshin for rohatsu that lasts several days, culminating in a final night of zazen often spanning sunset to sunrise. This year, the sangha that practices at Hokkai Dojo in Wells-next-the-Sea celebrated rohatsu with a single night sesshin from Friday 7th to Saturday 8th December.

Gathering shortly after sunset, we resolved ourselves to silence and with an inward focus dedicated ourselves to practice.  We readied ourselves with Ryaku Fusatsu – though ours was an abbreviated version of the monthly full-moon ceremony undertaken in monasteries to renew the bodhisattva precepts.  Our Ryaku “demi”-Fusatsu took the form of repentance, calling upon the buddhas and bodhisattvas, affirming the bodhisattva vows, and taking refuge in buddha, dharma and sangha.  After a final period of zazen that took us past midnight, we retreated to our beds for a short rest before returning to the dojo for morning zazen and ceremony.  The sesshin finished at midday.

Bodhi Day - Rohatsu - Buddha's Enlightenment ObservedI find rohatsu sesshin to be intense.  Some years ago, the last time rohatsu itself fell on a Saturday, the Hokkai Dojo sangha practiced diligently without sleep straight through the long winter night, trekking to the wind-swept nearby beach just before dawn for a final period of zazen under an inclement December sky.  Then, my mind went delirious at 3am and I felt nothing but respect for the heroic endeavour of the Buddha in his search for liberation from suffering.  My own sense of liberation was far away and all I desired was a hot bath and my bed!  The brief rest over the wee hours of the night we allowed ourselves this year on the other hand, for me became the middle way, an abandonment of extreme asceticism, and recognition that liberation from suffering can only be had through fortification for the endeavour.

Like most people, I wrestle with desire all the time.  However, there is something about the rohatsu practice of zazen that renders it qualitatively different from other time spent in meditation.  First, there is a more profound hush of things through the night.  Then, there is a point of redoubled intensity when, like a long-distance runner, I break through the wall of exhaustion.  And, there is the sangha’s collective dedication to the heroic task.  For me, these combine into a fine exclamation point about which nothing hangs in nothingness full of everything all at once – just as it has always ever been.