Meaning of Higan

Observing the Fall Equinox

At the beginning of Autumn, many Buddhist temples hold a special service called “Higan.” The name “Higan” means crossing over to the “other shore.”

Higan services are observed twice a year during the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. During the equinox, the length of night equals the length of day. The date of the actual equinox varies from year to year. This year the Autumnal equinox is September 22. The Higan service typically is commemorated on a Sunday closest to the actual equinox. The equinox is a good time to reflect on the truth of impermanence, expressed as Winter turning to Spring, and Summer turning to Fall.

“Other shore” symbolizes the world of Enlightenment, or “Pure Land,” as expressed in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. “Other shore” is opposed to our everyday life with its ups and downs, expressed by the term “this shore.” Higan is an abbreviation of “to-higan” which means, “reaching the other shore.” The Buddhist teachings, or Buddha dharma, helps lead us from “this shore” to “the other shore” of spiritual awakening.

The Japanese term “Higan” comes from the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of “paramita,” meaning “going to the furthest” or “growing towards perfection.” The “Six Paramitas” lists six kinds of practices by which bodhisattvas attain enlightenment.  According to Jodo Shinshu, although we may try to follow these Bodhisattva practices, it is imperative to understand our egocentric nature and innate self-centeredness.

The Six Paramitas are listed below (the first term is noted in Sanskrit and the second term in Japanese):

  1. Dana – Fuse – giving, offering, generosity: The practice of giving freely with an open heart what is needed by others.
  2. Sila – Jikai – discipline, observing the precepts: To develop good behavior, obey the rules of parents and teachers and of society. Buddhism encourages the development of the three-fold disciplined behavior of body, speech, and mind.
  3. Ksanti – Ninniku – patience, inclusiveness: A person who is patient can endure long and be able to overcome many difficulties. With patience, we can develop an open heart, while frustration and anger diminish.
  4. Viryai – Shojin – endeavor, diligence, perseverance: To strive with one’s whole heart, not for short periods of concentrated effort, but continuously over long periods. Spiritual strength enables the individual to continue on without giving up in the face of difficulties.
  5. Dhyana – Jozen – meditation, contemplation: The practice of meditation helps the person to develop the other paramitas. Meditation allows the person to concentrate upon the mind, to learn to understand it. Through meditation, one can penetrate the mind’s delusions and gain insight into ultimate reality.
  6. Prajña – Chie – wisdom, insight, understanding: To see things as they are, without the prejudices and perspectives that come from within. It is the letting go of opinions and concepts, the relinquishment of the self that brings this wisdom that leads directly to enlightenment.

Higashi Honganji temples in the United States will commemorate the Fall Equinox with a special Higan service. Please check our calendar for specific places, dates and times. All of the services are free and open to the public.


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