The old monk sat by the side of the road. With his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, he sat. In deep meditation, he sat.
Suddenly his zazen was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior. "Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!"
At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But gradually he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing second.
"You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?" replied the monk at last. "You who are so unkempt. You whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is all rusty and neglected. You who are ugly. You would ask me of heaven and hell?"
The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned to crimson and the veins on his neck stood out in bold relief as he prepared to sever the monk's head from its shoulders.
"That is hell," said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent.
In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared to risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-flight and his eyes filled with grateful tears.
"And that," said the monk, "is heaven."371d36d75e05eda735858f8e467be99c
Suffering is our best teacher. It will not be persuaded by any pleading of misery to let go of us. If we may say to a human teacher, I don't feel well...., the teacher may reply, "I am very sorry, but if you want to go home, then you must go. If we say to suffering, "Look, I don't feel well.... I want to go home," suffering says, "That's fine, but I am coming along." There is no way to say goodbye to it unless and until we have transcended our reactions. This means that we have looked suffering squarely in the eye and see it for what it is: a universal characteristic of existence and nothing else. The reason we are fooled is that because this life contains so many pleasant occasions and sense contacts, we think if we could just keep this pleasantness going suffering would never come again. We try over and over again to make this happen, until in the end we finally see that the pleasantness cannot continue because the law of impermanence intervenes.... So we continue our search for something new, because everybody else is doing it too.
~ Ayya Khema, When the Iron Eagle Flies.
Trying to find a Buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space. Space has a name but no form. It's not something you can pick up or put down. And you certainly can't grab it. Beyond this mind you'll never see a Buddha. The Buddha is a product of your mind. Why look for a Buddha beyond this mind?
- The Zen teachings of Bodhidharma
The Buddha's enlightenment is, of course, of paramount significance throughout all Buddhist schools. In gaining enlightenment, the Buddha saw things clearly for the first time, brought an end to his own suffering and destroyed within himself all taints and defilements. The experience of Nirvana was the experience of perfect peace in which the fires of greed and hatred had been wholly extinguished. It was this knowledge that Nirvana was possible and that there was a pathway to it that the Buddha then decided to share with the world.
Significant to the Buddha's gaining of enlightenment was meditation. The Buddha practiced austerities for many years, mistakenly believing that this would bring about the answers to his spiritual searching. They did not. It was only through the practice of perfect morality and meditation that he was able to gain release from suffering and the cycle of birth and death.
The Morning Star
Buddhism has quite a number of meditation techniques, ranging from concentrating on the breathing to visualizations. In Zen Buddhism meditation is known as zazen or 'sitting' meditation. Paradoxically, zen meditation has no aim. What is the point of trying to get something that one already has? Nirvana is here and now, we just don't see it. Zazen, therefore, is not about trying to do anything other than to simply sit, without desire, without attachment. The essential purity of the mind is there, it just has to be experienced.
The rohatsusesshin, then, is about bringing about this realization through intensive practice, with the Buddha as an example of what is possible. Tradition has it that the Buddha gained enlightenment just as the morning star rose on the eight day of the twelfth lunar month. Likewise, monks will stay awake on the night of the 7th, meditating intensely and thereby emulating the Buddha's own enlightenment experience.