In Japan, the Spring and Autumnal Equinox, called "higan", are celebrated by virtually all the Buddhist sects. The practice started with Emperor Shomu in the 8th century CE. A devout Buddhist, he was also the person responsible for the construction of the famous Daibutsu statue at Todai-ji temple in Nara. Today, the two dates - one in Spring, the other in Fall - are national holidays.
In Buddhism, higan - when the sun is directly overhead at noon at the equator, and day and night are of equal length - is viewed as analogous to crossing over from this life of ignorance and suffering to the "other shore" of enlightenment and peace. Higan is a place on the mythical Sanzu river where people go after they die. So celebration of this holiday consists of giving thanks to those who have "crossed over" before us - our ancestors.
People visit temples and offer prayers, incense, water, flowers and sometimes food at the graves of their ancestors. It is a time of self-reflection and gratitude. (Some time ago, the practice of leaving food was discontinued at our local Shingon Temple, as it was becoming food for crows.)
Most sects focus on the six paramitas, or spiritual perfections and a renewed determination to practice them. This is mentioned in the local priest's chalkboard message. These are: dana - generosity to others; shila - moral virtue and discipline; kshanti - patience and forbearance; virya - effort, heroism; dhyana - contemplation; and prajna - wisdom. These being cultivated in order to attain enlightenment.
However, in Jodo Shinshu, the most popular sect in Japan, one's own efforts are not what determines enlightenment. Rather, it is only the wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha, who has promised enlightenment to all sentient beings in the universe who entrust themselves to him, which provides the "ship" for crossing over to the Pure Land where enlightenment awaits. So the message is to aspire to practice the six paramitas, but entrust your enlightenment to Amida.
There is a bulletin at the entrance to our local temple, which as I have mentioned is of the Shingon tradition. The priest wrote a message to remind everyone of the holiday and encourage them to pray and be thankful. There is also a poster on the board which shows hands held together in "gasho" and describes the various reasons for doing this. Faces have been added to indicate the emotions one feels in each instance. Pretty cute, yeah?
The blue writing in the center says "hands together". The red says "Namu daishi henjyou kongou" which is a prayer of thanks for the founder of the Shingon sect.
The left side's hands (top to bottom) say "arigatou" - thank you; "Namu daishi hen jyou kongo" - the Shingon prayer again; "korekarawa..." - from now on... ; and "yasurakani" - rest in peace.
The right column reads "itadakimasu" - literally, I receive this, said before eating a meal; "okagesama" - thanks to you or thanks to Buddha (note the beads or onenju over the hands); "onegai!" - please! (making a wish); "konnichiwa" - good day, hello.
Happy Ohigan! Thanks to K for translating some of the kanji characters. Thank you for reading Pacific Islander.