O-An was born and lives in the woods. Its long wall of windows in the meditation hall overlooks a wooded hillside, bringing every season into intimate relation with our practice. Every Sunday, whatever the weather or season, we do kinhin (walking meditation) outdoors on the forest trail. And as we celebrate the uniqueness of each season, we celebrate some significant aspect of the Buddha Way.
Winter is the time for Rohatsu, commemorating Buddha’s Enlightenment. This auspicious occasion may take the form of a full day of meditation practice or of a midnight sitting under the stars, as Buddha was enlightened at the rising of the morning star after sitting for many nights under the Bodhi tree. The zendo is lit with candles brought by sangha members, who may also bring their personal statues of the Buddha to place on an extended altar. We share a reading of three versions of the Enlightenment story prior to sitting, and then each second of the final minute of sitting is marked with a ceremonial drumbeat. We end with ten full prostrations honoring Buddha and extinguishing the candles.
Spring arrives and so does Buddha’s birthday. Sangha members construct a miniature pond from pieces of shale from the woods, fill it with scented water, and place it on the altar under a bower of branches and flowers. There in the center on a rock sits the young Buddha, listening as we recount the story of his birth. Each in attendance has the opportunity to bathe the “baby Buddha” with a bamboo ladle.
In summer, we hold the Udumbara or Flower Ceremony. The flower, originally a lotus that is said to bloom once every 3,000 years, is a symbol of the rare and precious birth of Buddha and his teachings. Our ceremony marks the First Transmission of Buddha’s Teaching to his disciple, Mahakasyapa. When Buddha stood before thousands of his followers on Vulture Peak, he held up a single flower as his sermon. In response, Mahakasyapa smiled – and as a consequence of his immediate understanding, the Buddha recognized him as his first true Dharma heir. On the day we celebrate Udumbara, the zendo is filled with flowers. Amid the beauty and fragrance, we read the story of the First Transmission. Then, choosing a flower from the altar, each sangha member joins a circle of sequential bowing and smiling.
Fall brings O-Bon. As the leaves are released from their branches, we release those who have departed over the past year, and invite their spirits back for a brief visit. We gather at sunset, and as darkness descends, we build a fire in front of the zendo to guide the spirits to our gathering place. Inside, during a simple ritual we inscribe rice paper lanterns with the names of the departed or other things we wish to release. Then after lighting incense and reciting the inscribed names, we light the lanterns and carry them through the darkness in a procession to Julian Woods pond. There we set them free and watch them float away as we chant and sing. The evening ends with our departure in deep silence.
It is fitting that we end each of these ceremonies with a celebration meal or tea, inviting friends and family to share the beauty and joy of each of these occasions.