ROHATSU – Celebrating Buddha's Awakening

As we approach the end of the 38th year of the founding of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, established in 1977, we enjoy a spirit of celebration. At year's end, most societies, however "primitive," observe some sort of ritual recognition of the passing of the old year; as well as the potential represented by the new.

In the Christian tradition, the birthday of Jesus Christ is celebrated in December. But in Buddhism, it is Siddhartha Gotama's Awakening, instead. Then, in the spring, Buddha's birthday is celebrated, as is the resurrection and ascension of Christ into heaven, believed by the faithful to have happened after his crucifixion, 2000 + years ago. Notably, both of these seminal events — of Christ's passion, and of Buddha's enlightenment — occurred when each was in his mid-thirties.

But Buddha lived to an old age, of some 80 years, and died of natural causes, or, as one legend has it, of tainted pork. Which poses a challenge to those who think, or believe, that Buddha and his followers were vegetarian. We have to be somewhat circumspect as to these kinds of details, some 2500 years later.

It may appear, on face value, that the celebrations and observances around these events, from the recorded story of different religions, represents the same kind of dynamic for adherents of the various traditions. But comparing and contrasting attitudes, and the activities they inspire, may illustrate the difference.

In Zen Buddhism, our attitude is more one of respect for Buddha, than of worship, as compared to Christ. And if not skepticism, at least a modicum of pragmatism, in terms of the inerrancy of historicity of the events in question.

Buddha is highly respected, even revered, for his discovery, or insight, without benefit of an experienced teacher; rather than worshiped as divine, or half-divine, half-human, as is Christ. The nature of commemorative activities we engage in, are likewise differentiated by this basic distinction.

In Zen, we do not approach the observation of Buddha's spiritual awakening with the kind of reverence that elevates him to a plane that is out of reach for ourselves, and therefore can remain only a matter of wonder and awe. Instead, we take his admonition, to "do thou likewise," to heart — and so we sit in meditation overnight, as he legendarily did, after a week of extended meditation.

In other words, whether we believe the story or not, we literally replicate Buddha's actions, as they are recorded, and as we understand them. And more importantly, we imitate his intensity in the pursuit of the truth, which we understand as experiential in nature, rather than merely an article of faith.

This activist, do-it-yourself approach, bespeaks a kind of faith in our own buddha-nature, and in its realization, as exemplified by the historical Buddha, rather than faith in a belief about someone else's experience.

This attitude may be regarded as egocentric by followers of worship-oriented systems. But those of us who practice Zen meditation, especially under the extreme constraints of Rohatsu, know, from personal experience, that there is little or no ego left, at the end of such a rigorous ordeal.

Buddha sat in desperation, according to the story, as all of his prior efforts leading up to this time, expended over the thirty-plus years of his life, had come to naught, in his view. It is said that he resolved to sit there and die, if necessary, to solve the conundrum of living in this suffering world. Rohatsu represents a unique, annual opportunity to test our own resolve, in approaching the same dilemma that inspired his efforts, and with a like level of intensity.

While we sit for extended periods in the week leading up to Rohatsu, traditionally set on December 8; and then sit up overnight that last day, or the closest to it that the current calendar allows. But we do not imagine that ours represents an experience that is identical to Buddha's, at least in its outward circumstances.

First of all, whatever date December 8 represents, on the calendar that was used in the India of Buddha's time, we can be sure that the weather was nothing like that we usually experience at this time of year, in this hemisphere and latitude. Often, the temperature is near or below freezing, but we still sit outside, at least some of us do, in order to witness the morning star (Venus), which was said to have triggered Buddha's Awakening. So we are usually bundled up, in multiple layers, against the cold. This can appear pretty silly, to the uninitiated.

Also, we do not really do this overnight thing as a group, although we encourage everyone to try it.
That is, when you and your sangha sit from six in the morning, say, to six in the evening, a feeling of group coherence can be maintained.

But as you continue sitting into the evening, from six to nine, nine to midnight; and then continue from midnight to three am, and from three to 6 am the next morning, you tend to individuate, becoming isolated, on your own. While others are doing the same thing, ostensibly, you are totally alone in your quest. As was Buddha.

Of course, the buffet that we usually put out was probably missing in Buddha's experience. One year, some wag commented that it looked like a bunch of dopers, with an unlimited budget, went on a snack binge.

My main point, here, is that each person begins to lend whatever structure they can, to their approach to the all-night sit. Someone generally rings the gong once each hour, and we take turns in the watches of the night.

This lends a minimum of order, to the passage of time; but does not signal that anyone should necessarily do anything in particular, at that time. So what begins as a relatively normal, and orderly, group process, slowly degenerates into a kind of chaotic non-process, where, pretty much, all bets are off.

Which is probably about the way Buddha felt, out there on his own. He had been abandoned by his fellow monks, for the unforgivable transgression of taking something nourishing to eat, purportedly ghee, or goat's milk. After that, they wanted nothing to do with him.

But after his transformation, when they ran into him again, they couldn't resist asking him, "What the?" And he replied, "I am awake. I am fully awake." So after a long night of sitting upright, instead of going to sleep, as one might expect, he had awakened, instead. But fully, which gives us a clue.

So when we approach this rather elaborately contrived, annual hell week of Zen, we do so as if we are undergoing hazing for a very special fraternity, or sorority, or both. It reminds me of when my great-uncle and grandfather invited me to go fishing with them, when I was maybe seven years old. It was a rite of passage.

I had a rather vague idea of what it entailed, though I had never gone before. We would wake up early in the morning, head out to the lake, catch some fish. But it looked a lot different, being dragged out of bed around three in the morning into a cold room, and dressing by the wood stove in the kitchen, to get warm.

I think I woke up about an hour later, sitting in the middle of a rowboat, colder still, owing to the damp atmosphere of the lake. I don't even remember the sunrise. But I will never forget the amazing sandwiches they brought. Made of strong onions, with horseradish and mustard, on rye bread. Or the hot coffee, with lots of cream and sugar, that they gave me to drink. Then, at last, I was really warm; but from the inside out. Whether we actually caught any fish or not, I have no idea.

Rohatsu is like this, I think. We go into it with vague expectations at best, and then are surprised at what actually happens. One of our senior priests, who has attended every year in memory, captured the sentiment perfectly, saying, "Rohatsu - When a little miserable just doesn't cut it"

But — in spite of the intimidation, and trepidation; and regardless of the slow slide into ambiguity, that comes from our approach of allowing the later periods to descend into anarchy, otherwise known as "free sitting" — there is that coffee and sandwich at the end. Or somewhere in the middle. And the next day, nothing is the same. Nothing is ever the same, ever again. This is Rohatsu.