Winter has enveloped the Northern Hemisphere and the Winter Solstice is upon us. Our Zen traditions invite us to embrace the quiet of the season and celebrate the winter solstice with a sense of openness, mindfulness, and reflection. Adjacent to principles of Zen Buddhism, this solstice celebration goes beyond festivity, inviting us to connect with the rhythm of tradition, nature, and our own stillness.
The winter solstice, or Tōji (冬至) in Japanese, marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. We could say that in Zen this yearly event is seen as a symbol of duality, of yin and yang – the interplay of opposites, light and dark, warmth and cold, activity and stillness. The winter solstice becomes a time in which we can practice with balance and harmony.
Zen monasteries and temples observe the winter solstice with special ceremonies that capture the essence of this season. One such ceremony is called Yaza or “night sitting”, an all-night vigil of meditation and chanting that begins on the eve of the winter solstice. This continuous practice through the night symbolizes the journey from darkness to light, mirroring the sun's return after the solstice.
Bonfires, decorated with cedar branches and seasonal flowers, are lit in temple courtyards, casting a warm glow against the winter night. The flickering flames serve as a metaphor for inner illumination, reminding practitioners to seek the light within themselves during the darkest days of the year.
In Japanese culture, the solstice is celebrated as well. The Yuzu bath is a Japanese custom that began as a purification ritual to attract good fortune. The peel of the yuzu (a citrus fruit that looks like an orange) contains citric acid and vitamin C, which are said to re-energize the body, spirit, and mind.
Good fortune will surely come if you eat foods ending with "n" during the winter solstice! These foods are considered auspicious and bring good luck. Foods with two "n" sounds are believed to double one's fortune! Some of these foods are; nankin (pumpkin), kinkan (kumquat), ninjin (carrot), and udon (noodles).
In some Zen gardens, stones are arranged to symbolize the juxtaposition of sunlight and shadow during the solstice, creating a visual representation of balance Zen practice hopes to bring in the heart of winter's darkness. The winter solstice coincides with the busyness of the holidays, and feeling overwhelmed and exhausted isn’t anathema to the season. So, as the solstice comes, perhaps we can weave together some meditation, some ceremony, and traditions - our own and maybe some you’ve read about today, coming away from the hustle and bustle, and finding solace, reflection and inspiration in the quiet beauty of this night.