Ohigan 2003

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This Dharma talk was given in March 2003, at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple.

Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei

Ohigan 3/23/03

“Ohigan” means the “Far Shore” and refers to the far shore of liberation as opposed to this shore of suffering. In India, whenever one wished to get very far in any direction one would have to ford a stream or use a raft to cross a river. So the analogy of crossing over to the other shore in order to escape harm was something that the Buddha’s followers could easily relate to. One story in particular uses a series of analogies to illustrate the seductive and yet painful conditions of human life and culminates in the analogy of crossing over to the other shore. This story is found in the Samyutta Nikaya of the Pali Canon (pp. 1237-1238) and also in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (pp. 551-561):


                      O good man! For example, there is a king who keeps four vipers in a casket and makes a man feed them, take note of when they are awake and when they sleep, rub and wash their bodies. It is made known that if any of the serpents gets angry, the man in charge must be executed by the law of the city. Hearing the king’s stringent order, the man if afraid. He abandons the casket and runs away. The king then sends five outcaste servants after the man. The outcastes, brandishing their swords intend to make the man obey the king’s order. Looking back, the man sees them and runs away. The five outcastes then decide to use a cunning trick. They hide their swords and one goes to the man and feigns a friendly attitude, saying: “Let’s go back” But the man is wary. He goes to a village to hide. Arriving there he see that all the houses are empty and abandoned. Even the pots are empty and there is nothing to sustain him. With no one around and no food to be had the man sits dejectedly on the ground. Then a voice from nowhere says, “O Man! This village is empty; none live here. Tonight, six robbers will come. If you meet up with them you may not escape with your life. How can you hope to get out of this?” Then his fear increases and he flees that place. On the way he runs into a river. The current is swift and strong and there is no ship or raft to carry anyone across. Fearful, he gathers wood and grass and makes a raft. Again he reflects: “If I stay here, I will be attacked by vipers, the five outcastes, men who try to trick me through false friendship, and the six great robbers all of whom wish to harm me. If this raft is not to be trusted, I shall drown. Still, it would be better if I were to die attempting a crossing than to be bitten by poisonous snakes.” He then pushes the raft of grass into the water. He rides on it, paddles with his hands and legs, and crosses the stream. Gaining the other shore, peace awaits him there and he has no more worries. His mind is put at ease. Such is the case with the bodhisattva-mahasattvas ... Fearing the serpents of the four great elements [earth, air, fire, and water], the outcastes of the five groups [form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness], the attempts at false friendship [delight and lust], the empty village of the six sense spheres, the evil robbers of the six sense fields, he comes to the river of illusion, and practices the ways of the precepts, concentration, wisdom, emancipation and the knowledge of emancipation, the six perfections, the thirty seven elements of enlightenment, making these his ship he rides on them and crosses over the river of delusion.


                      I found it interesting that the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra attributes this story to the bodhisattva, whereas the Samyutta Nikaya uses this parable as an illustration of the arhat. Both cross over by a raft that they have made themselves and which would not be able to carry over anyone but themselves. It strikes me as a better illustration of the pratyekabuddha, or solitary buddha, who attains enlightenment on his or her own and is only able to cross over by themselves. The sravaka, or disciple of the Buddha, at least has the benefit of crossing over on a raft prepared for him by the Buddha. Or at least the Buddha provides the instructions and the Sangha provides the materials so that one does not have to start from scratch. The bodhisattva, however, is supposed to create a large vessel for crossing over. Or perhaps, they should at least build a ferry boat so that they can go back and forth carrying their fellow sentient beings as passengers over to the other shore. The Nirvana Sutra does, however, indicate that the bodhisattva is thinking of others in the follow up to this parable:


                      The other shore gained; there is nirvana, which is eternal and blissful. As the bodhisattva practices the great nirvana, he thinks: “If I can not stand the sufferings of body and mind, I can not enable all beings to cross the river of delusion.” Thus thinking, he silently endures the sorrows of body and mind.  Because of this forbearance, there is no leaking. How can a Buddha Tathagata have any such leaking? So all Buddhas are known as those who have no leakings. (p. 562)


                      “Leakings” in this sense refers to the outflows of passionate grasping and deluded projections that plague ordinary people. But the Buddha’s mind and heart see things as they are without wishful thinking or fearfulness, and they do not cling to or grasp at things. They are self-contained in that sense. Therefore they do not leak and this means that the vehicle they use to cross over is safe for themselves and all beings that they ferry across.


                      In a letter attributed to Nichiren called “A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering” the analogy of using a ship to cross to the other shore is taken to new heights in the context of the Lotus Sutra and the teachings of the T’ien-t’ai school:


                      The Lotus Sutra speaks of “someone finding a ship in which to cross the water.” This “ship” might be described as follows: As a shipbuilder of infinitely profound wisdom, the World-Honored One of Great Enlightenment, the lord of teachings, gathered the lumber of the four flavors and eight teachings, planed it by honestly discarding the provisional teachings, cut and assembled the planks, forming a perfect unity of both right and wrong, and completed the craft by driving home the spikes of the one true teaching that is comparable to the flavor of ghee. Thus he launched the ship upon the sea of sufferings of birth and death. Unfurling its sails of the three thousand realms on the mast of the one true teaching of the Middle Way, driven by the fair wind of “the true aspect of all phenomena,” the vessel surges ahead, carrying aboard all people who can “gain entrance through faith alone.” The Thus Come One Shakyamuni is at the helm, the Thus Come One Many Treasures takes up the mooring rope, and the four bodhisattvas led by Superior Practice row quickly, matching one another as perfectly as a box and its lid. This is the ship in “a ship in which to cross the water.” Those who are able to board it are the disciples and lay supporters of Nichiren. Believe this wholeheartedly.” (WND, pp. 33-34)


                      In this analogy one is no longer using a homemade raft to cross a river, rather one is using a great sailing ship to cross the ocean of birth and death. This vessel is truly a Great Vehicle, in fact the One Vehicle of Buddhahood that can carry all sentient beings to the other shore. I think that it in this passage the analogy of the other shore and the vehicle in which to cross it is fully developed and fully in line with the spirit of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren’s vision of the all-embracing nature of the Odaimoku. I hope that we can carry this spirit with us into the world that is showing us more than ever how much such a Great Vehicle is needed.                  

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick 2004.

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