The Bodhi Tree in Fayette, Maine: A Dharma Talk for Rohatsu

The Bodhi Tree in Fayette, Maine: A Dharma Talk for Rohatsu December 8, 2021





The Bodhi Tree in Fayette, Maine

A Dharma Talk for Rohatsu

Edward Sanshin Oberholtzer
Resident priest and guiding teacher at the
Joseph Priestly Zen Sangha
Empty Moon Zen
Despite the lateness of the hour, I’d like to put in a plug for the coming dawn. I know it’s late, trust me, it’s later here in Pennsylvania, dawn is separated from us by a welcome night’s sleep and still it’s coming up all too soon. All the more reason, particularly now, particularly in this season, I suppose, to consider just what that dawn means for us.
My step father had a cabin on a lake up in Maine, a place where he and his family would spend their summers going back to the late nineteen fifties. When he and my mother became a couple and then married, we became part of that family and would often drive up to spend week-ends at his cabin. That end of the lake had become a kind of New Jersey colony in exile as neighbors of Dick’s from southern New Jersey moved in around his place.
If you wanted to avoid their noise, the slaming of screen doors, the shouting across from porch to porch, the roar of an occasional power boat, jetski, or chainsaw, it was best to get up early, walk down the path to the lake, out to the end of the dock, and there enjoy the early morning peace, the solitude, the silence and the change in the light that grew over the lake as the night faded, the sky brightened from black to indigo,  and then the sun came up over the pines to the east. At that hour, the surface of the lake was like glass, the sun’s heat hadn’t yet stirred up the wind and scattered wavelets over the waters. Mist would still drift on the face of the lake and close to shore, the aquatic grasses would be standing up out of the water, catching tatters of those mists. If you were lucky and quiet, a loon would be gliding off in the distance, calling out to it’s mate, lonely, lonely like the sound of a distant train out on the pairie.
I like to think that on a morning like that, Siddartha Gautama sat under the Bo tree, opening himself to that quiet Nepalese dawn, struck by the faint twinkling of the morning star, by the rising sun. Kaizan tells the story like this: Shakyamuni Buddha was descended from the Sun lineage in India. At the age of 19, he left Kapila palace at midnight for Mt. Dantokuzanz where he cut off his hair and renounced the world. Then he began six years of ascetic practices. After that he sat on the Diamond Seat, in ultimate samadhi, where spiders spun webs between his eyebrows and magpies built nests on his head. Reeds pierced his Lotus posture for another six years. On December 8, during his thirtieth year, he attained enlightenment when the morning dawned. The words, “I together with the great earth and sentient beings, simultaneously attain the Way.”, were his first lion’s roar.
Dawn, rosy fingered dawn, a time to open yourself to what Camus called “the beign indifference of the universe” The loon, the grasses, that splash from a jumping fish, the croaking of a hidden frog, none of these cared if you stood at the end of the dock or not, yet there in the early morning light they opened their arms to you just as you, in that moment of transcendent calm and beauty, would find yourself embracing them, being one with that serene, yet everyday ordinariness – the water, the mud, the lilypads and grasses growing up out of the mud, bowing in the faint breeze of early morning. That brief time when you and the world around you became one, that moment when you glanced up and saw, if not the morning star, then the rays of the dawning sun, that moment when you, too, along with Siddhartha, opened your arms, opened your eyes, and stepped forth with all beings, that moment of awakening.
When I was a child, one of my favorite hymns, favorite probably because we sang it at this time of the year and it signaled the, if you’ll forgive the semi-theological pun, the advent of Christmas, that favorite hymn went:
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
It is amusing to realize that this gentle, this sweet hymn by Reginald Heber was critisized both for hinting at the worship of stars and for having a solomn, dance-like rhythm. I suppose that in the early nineteenth century, even solumn dancing might have been too much for critics of hymn tunes. And you have to wonder, did the Buddha dance upon seeing that morning star? A joyful dance? Perhaps a stately, solumn dance, a dance recognizing the suffering of the world. For those stars, and the great sun itself, sons of the morning, all dance to the solumn music of the spheres, are all both beign and indifferent, shining on us in times of joy and of sorrow, and of both together, the great mess.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story set on the scorched remanents of a ancient civilization, a civilization once prosperous, peaceful, artistic, a civilization that had been wiped out in an instant when its sun went supernova. Astronauts from earth, there to study this, their first encounter with an alien and extinct people, came to realize that the planet’s star, in dying and taking the planet and all its peoples with it, would have been seen on earth as a bright, new star over the town of Bethleham, announcing the birth of Jesus – Brightest and best of the sons of the morning, Had it been five hundred years earlier, perhaps it would have brought Siddartha to his feet and caused him to say “I together with the great earth and sentient beings, simultaneously attain the Way. ” And if that great joy, that moment of awakening together with the great earth had been triggered by far off calamity, was it any the less?

Still, star of the east, Morning star, sun rise, the promise of a new day, of a new way of being in the world. This is our gift at this time of the year, born of a mixture of joy and grief, of success and failure, of wins and losses, of the great mess. If, on that morning 2500 years ago, Siddhartha had glanced up to a cloudy sky and been awakened by a snow flake drifting down, would that gift of awakening been any the less? Do the thorns edging the holly leaves make the red berries on the holly tree any less lovely? Keizan’s gift to us in this season of gift giving, both sprigs and thorns, is set out by him  capping his retelling of Siddhartha’s enlightenment as he tells us:
“This mountain priest would like to add some humble words on the subject. Are you monks ready to listen?”
One branch grows beautifully from the old plum tree.
In time, thorns also sprout.

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