We are once again at the festive mid-winter season. Throughout history and probably pre-history too, people have celebrated this time as the turning point of the year. The shortest day is just past. From now on the days will get longer as the planet moves and seems to tilt toward its star. It is worth reflecting that although it seems that it is our planet that makes this life giving inflection toward the star, in reality it is the power of the star that is at work in every detail. Similarly, when we make our prostrations to the Buddha we may think that it is we who are doing something, when, in fact, it is simply that we have been seized by infinite love, never to be forsaken.
Nonetheless, we can expect colder weather before the effect of increasing sunlight is more fully felt and spring eventually arrives. Winter is thus a fine analogy for endurance. There is evidence of better time to come, but for now we are in the dead period. As I walk around the land here all seems quiet and laid to rest. Nonetheless, things are happening underground. Some plants will succumb to the winter cold. Others will emerge stronger and vigorous.
In Buddhism there is a good deal written about effort, patience and endurance. This is the sixth limb of the eightfold path, which is the Buddha’s description of the path that he found through his awakening. We can say that the awakening of faith brings an enhanced capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life. To go through the winter requires the faith that spring shall eventually come. Even, as far as we know, without any cognitive abilities, these plants all have such faith. If even plants can have faith, so can we.
The plant does not know exactly what spring is going to be like any more than we know the Pure Land of Buddha. Perhaps the plant somehow imagines that spring is a place where the ground is made of treasure and everything one could ever wish for immediately comes to fruition. Compared with winter, for a plant, this would not be a bad approximation. Surely it is the same for us. Faith carries us through the dark times. We do not know exactly where we are headed, but we have a confidence that “All manner of things shall be well.” Just as for the plant, this faith is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even in the dark times of our life in the midst of samsara, faith generates wonderful community, love, compassion and wisdom.
Buddhist philosophy revolves around the importance of conditions and yet then points to a liberation beyond conditions. Our faith, working underground, sending down a deep root, preparing, partakes of both these aspects. On the one hand, in the relative world, it creates the crucial good condition for beings to live in peace, for diversity to be a richness rather than a cause for strife, for each person to live naturally, fulfilling his or her real life. At the same time, faith touches a completely different dimension or level, where conditions are left behind and all has always been well and always shall be in the unconditional deathless realm of all the Buddhas. So, here and now, in the mid-winter, we celebrate light in the midst of darkness and eternity in the midst of transience.
This is a time to light a candle and set it before the Buddha, to call the name, to allow ourselves to be called, and to know that that call shall carry us through the darkness into the light. It is a time for faith and joy, for us to greet one another and in each simple greeting to be touched for a moment by the unconditional love of the Tathagata, the true nembutsu. Namo Amida Bu.