This talk is based on talks that Eihei Dogen, the 13th century founder of the type of Zen that we practice here at Sakuraji gave between 1240 and 1248 in his temple in Northern Japan. When I read Dogen’s recorded dharma talks I often imagine living in that unheated stone temple without electricity or any form of central heating. In the case of these talks, Dogen and his monks had been doing so in the dead of winter. Imagine how, under these conditions, he and his students would welcome the return of the long days of light.
Before getting into the heart of this talk, I want to briefly review the Asian understanding of darkness and light, of yin and yang. It is most important to know that in the Asian view, darkness is not equated with evil; and light is not equated with good, like it is in our western cultures. All too often I’ve read and heard that yin, darkness, is the negative energy and yang, light, is the positive energy. This is a very westernized interpretation. To the Asian mind, darkness is a time when we can know the oneness of all things because we can’t visually distinguish one object from another. It’s all one. It is only when light arises that we make the distinctions that we have to make in order to physically sustain our lives. In a way, darkness gives us an opportunity to know the oneness of all reality; and the light gives us an opportunity to know that each of us is just a unique expression of that oneness.
Dogen begins his winter solstice talk in 1240, by quoting the Tao Te Ching, a text that was written about 1500 years earlier by Lao Tzu in China. “Attaining oneness, heaven is clear; attaining oneness earth is at rest.” Dogen interprets these words for his students. He says, “Attaining oneness a person is at peace, attaining oneness the time becomes bright. “ This idea of attaining oneness is best explained by a classic Zen metaphor. I won’t go on and on about it, but I do want to give you this image.
Imagine that all of reality is as big as a prairie sky. Now imagine looking at that sky through a plastic straw. This is the usual way we view our lives, but if we truly realize that we are, in fact, the whole sky, we realize oneness. Realization of our oneness with all phenomena grows and sustains our best intentions as the days grow longer. And within this growth of light we have an opportunity to arouse awakening mind, to invigorate our spiritual practice, to engage the way with wholehearted effort, and to attain realization of our profound interconnectedness. With clear realization that we are all one body, with and within each other; with and within the earth; and with and within the whole universe, we have no need to express greed (which creates poverty and ravages our planet for wealth), hatred, (wages wars), or delusion (that we won’t get enough, and that happiness is something to seek outside ourselves.)
Dogen teaches that we have already attained the power and vitality that is within this growth towards full realization of our oneness with all being. He says we are all born with original enlightenment. We need only polish this jewel through practice to make it shine. At 9:49 pm tonight, we begin our journey back into the light. This arising of yang (that is the slow increase of daylight) is an auspicious occasion. This is our opportunity to begin our lives anew. Of course every moment brings us that opportunity, but winter solstice is a special time for renewal.
2600 years ago, an ordinary man named Siddharta Gautama sat under a bodhi tree for eight days and abruptly changed his brain through the simple practice of meditation. Like a butterfly, he underwent a complete metamorphosis. His transformation was so complete, enduring and repeatable by all humans that he is still remembered as the Awakened One. He awoke to a complete understanding of how to reduce suffering and increase happiness, and then spent the rest of his life teaching what he had learned. Winter solstice is an awakening of the entire planet.
All year we have been sustaining our lives as best we can. The number of ways in which we can do harm, no matter how small, to ourselves and others in our endeavor to survive is inexhaustible. We can’t survive without diminishing the life of some other sentient being, be it plant or animal. These harmful acts of body speech and mind leave traces – and on one side of your piece of art, you have depicted those traces. Solstice is the time to reach a new maturity.
Today the long length of night departs. In just three hours, we will be at the darkest moment of the year. We will be immersed in oneness. Yin will have reached its fullness. And then, with one tilt of the earth’s axis yang arises. At this moment our state of body and mind changes and we will already be moving toward the growing length of days. As we release our karma by burning our pieces of art in the fire and empower our best intentions for the coming year, we can celebrate with a boisterous clamor. We can feel happy and know that this planet sustains us. We can dance with joy.
On this auspicious occasion of the first arising of yang I respectfully wish you all ten thousand blessings in every area of your life. This is, indeed, an auspicious day and we now enter an auspicious season with ten million changes that begin with the warming of the earth and end at Equinox with the sprouting of greens in our gardens. After we have burned our pieces of art, we can eat the solstice feast and, later enjoy a deep renewing sleep.
Happy Enlightenment Day. Happy Solstice!nter Solstice Dharma Talk 2015