At the beginning of December we celebrated Buddha’s Enlightenment. Then two days later we began the seven-day intensive retreat that’s traditionally associated with the enlightenment ceremony. That’s interesting, because in Zen Buddhism, ceremonies are usually associated with actual practicing. That is somewhat unusual in conventional religious life. Zen’s direction is not just to impart the kind of good feeling that can come from participating in a ceremony, or to give you a special understanding, but to actually lead you to an attainment of what is being celebrated. In other words, Zen is always pointing you toward practice, so that you can understand yourself completely and then help other beings. That’s the meaning of Buddha’s Enlightenment, and also the reason for all our ceremonies and retreats.
During the Enlightenment Day ceremony we heard many stories about the Buddha’s enlightenment. The stories all revolve around one question: What led to the Buddha’s great enlightenment? It is written that one day his servant took him outside the protected environment of the palace grounds, whereupon he saw four things: a sick person, an old person, a dead person, and a mendicant seeker after truth. What he saw profoundly affected him. Suddenly a great doubt gripped him. What are human beings here for anyway? Even though he had a very good life situation it suddenly paled in the face of this big question. He had a very good body; he had a wonderful wife and family; and he was going to be king. However, even though he had a very good situation and was well educated he still didn’t understand what a human being was. “Why do we suffer? What is this? What am I?” Because of this big question–and a very strong try mind–he was naturally led to enlightenment.
It’s the same with us. We are human beings, so we’re cast, willy-nilly, into this world. Often Zen Master Seung Sahn will say, “Being born is already a mistake!” That phrase sounds funny to us but at other times it really grates on you. Everybody has experienced the truth of this statement to some degree. It’s the first noble truth: life is unsatisfactory. A poem in the Temple Rules reads, “Shouting into a valley, big shout, big echo, small shout, small echo.” The Buddha’s question, and his search, is this big shout! In fact the shout was so big that we can still hear the echo reverberating even today. We heard it at the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day ceremony . . . and we hear it now inside our own hearts. It still encourages us to come out of our sleep, our dream, and wake up, to find out what this is really all about anyway. Actually, the question is very simple, and yet how many people will really confront it? What about you?