I gave this talk, as guest teacher at the Greater Boston Zen Center, on Saturday, December 11, 2021. You’ll find the text and a video of the talk below. If you prefer to listen, you can access the audio recording on GBZC’s website.
We’re approaching the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Our days are shortest and our nights are longest this time of year.
This is the season when most of the wisdom traditions that originated north of the equator have a festival of light. Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains celebrate Diwali. Jews celebrate Hanukkah. Christians (and many secular people) celebrate Christmas.
In each of these traditions, we find narratives of light breaking through darkness. Good triumphs over evil. True knowledge dispels ignorance.
In Zen we also have a holiday this time of year, as you know: Rōhatsu, or Bodhi Day, which was this past Wednesday. It’s the day on which we recall and honor Siddhartha Gautama’s great realization. Legend has it that the historical Buddha spent the whole night meditating. As the morning star arose, he finally found what he had been seeking. We Westerners later called that moment his enlightenment. Rōhatsu often is observed by meditating all night, as the Buddha did.
We don’t really know whether things happened according to legend, of course, let alone whether the Buddha’s great realization occurred at this time of year.
So what are we to make of Zen’s winter holiday, in which we recall and reenact the Buddha’s experience of enlightenment as dawn broke? Is this another traditional festival of light?
I suppose each of these holidays is meant to inspire hope in some sense. In Zen, “hope” might best be understood as bodhicitta, the desire to realize our own enlightenment for the sake of all beings.
But metaphorical references to light are slippery in Buddhism, particularly in Zen.
Let’s take a close look at some of the sources that tell us about the Buddha’s enlightenment experience, on the one hand, and about how light and dark are conceived in the Zen tradition.
Let’s start with the Pali Cannon, the ancient Buddhist scriptures, which include teachings attributed to the Buddha himself. There, we hear the Buddha say that “liberation of the mind is like the quenching of a lamp.” The Pali word translated as “quenching” is nibbāna; Nirvana in English.
If we accept this passage as the gist of what the Buddha taught, he is telling us that his great realization—and our own—is like a light being extinguished. There are many other passages throughout the sutras in which the Buddha uses this simile of Nirvana, of a light going out, to describe his own experience of liberation. This image is the opposite of light in darkness.
Scholars agree that bodhi, the word Westerners translated as “enlightenment,” implies direct knowledge, understanding, or realization. But it doesn’t imply conceptual sorts of knowledge; if anything, it implies the cessation of them. Enlightenment as Buddhists use the term should not to be confused with the Western Enlightenment tradition, which is about rational thought, among other things. Buddhism isn’t in the least bit opposed to rational thought, but that’s not primarily what it’s pointing us toward.
Bodhi and Buddha come from the same root word; a word that’s associated with awakening. But, again, scholars agree that word does not suggest “light” or “illumination,” like the sun rising at dawn as one awakens.
So what’s the Zen tradition’s take on light and darkness?
There are many references to light and darkness in Zen, including in “in the light recall this; in the dark recall this” in the Kannon Gyo and “infinite realms of light and dark convey the Buddha mind” in one version of our dedication chant.
Harmony of Relative and Absolute, one of our most important texts, is another example. There, we read:
Light is also darkness, but do not think of it as darkness.
Darkness is light; but do not see it as light.
In the West, we’re so used to associating light with special insight and darkness with ignorance. But that’s not what they mean in Zen. As Suzuki Roshi explained:
Light means the relative, dualistic world of words, the thinking world, the visible world in which we live. Darkness refers to the absolute, where there is no exchange value or materialistic value or even spiritual value—the world that our words and thinking mind can’t reach.
Of course, the verse goes on to tell us:
Light and darkness are not one, not two,
like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.
So what’s known once the lamp is extinguished? What do we awaken to in the darkness?
I don’t know. It’s mystery.
We awaken to the intimate mystery that we are; the intimate mystery that this is. And we begin to live from that realization.
Light and darkness are not one, not two.
I invite you to close your eyes for a moment. I’ll tell you when to open them.
Picture a vast, boundaryless, empty realm that’s half light, half dark. You are observing it from the sidelines, so to speak, midfield, looking down the plane where light and darkness meet. On your left, it’s all light. On your right, darkness.
Now imagine a person beginning to step out of the dark half, seemingly from nowhere, into the light half. But she stops protruding from dark into the light at her own center line. She remains there, looking a bit like one half of a plastic mold of a human figure. Her front half, the half visible to us, is in the light and looking ahead, into the light.
We are like that.
This is like that.
Except there are no halves.
You can open your eyes now.
Looking into the light, it’s easy to become completely captivated by and engrossed in what we see: other beings; mountains and waters; our own thoughts and feelings; and especially our own “self.” If that is all we know, however, we will never be at ease in the light. We will see shadows everywhere. I will cast a shadow that haunts myself and others. And I will constantly be hiding in and jumping at shadows.
We become at ease in the light by awakening to the darkness that engulfs all light and shadows.
As the days begin to grow longer, may we know the dark in what we see as light. May we experience not knowing in our knowing.