As the year draws to a close, the Soto Zen monasteries of Japan are preparing for the sacred transition into the New Year. Following the introspective observance of Rohatsu, celebrating Buddha's enlightenment on December 8, the monks embark on another profound journey of purification and renewal.
At Eihei-ji, founded by Dōgen in 1244, the eve of December 31st marks "O-misoka." Monks retire early, rising at 11 p.m. to ring the great bell 108 times—a symbolic number representing the worldly desires that plague the human heart. This tradition echoed in the 108 beads of malas, aims for the final toll to resonate at midnight, cleansing the spirit of desires that lead to suffering.
Rice cake pounding begins after prayers for community health. This activity transforms the typically reserved monks into lively figures while they immerse themselves in the rhythmic pounding of the cakes with wooden mallets. Three types of rice cakes are made, each carrying symbolic significance:
the first type symbolizes togetherness and is offered to Buddhist statues,
the second, known as Jubyo, represents longevity and is gifted to Zen masters for their well-being,
the third is eaten by the monks during the initial days of the New Year.
All three embody gratitude for the Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.
Lay Buddhists visit temples, where candles are lit to usher in happiness and good fortune.
Regardless of monastic or lay status, the New Year serves as a period of meditation and self-reflection—a time to learn from the past.
The Japanese custom of "osoji”, parallels the principle of cleansing the mind in Buddhism. This "big cleaning" involves removing everything from the house, cleaning thoroughly, and scrutinizing possessions before bringing them back inside—a metaphor for the purification of the mind; examining what we have taken on by society's norms.
People sometimes make resolutions, especially at this time of year, to bring about positive changes in their lives. Such as adopting healthier habits, improving relationships, or pursuing personal and professional goals. These resolutions can assume a sense of agency and a stable, enduring self that can control and shape its future. From a Buddhist perspective, the self is seen as a collection of impermanent and interdependent factors. This view suggests that the idea of a fixed self, making and achieving resolutions may be an illusion. Instead, the process of change and self-improvement is considered to be fluid and ongoing, influenced by a myriad of factors. So, in light of what Buddhists call 'No Self', one might approach New Year's Resolutions with a more flexible and compassionate mindset. Rather than identifying strongly with specific goals or outcomes, individuals might focus on the ongoing process of self-discovery and growth. This could involve cultivating mindfulness, being aware of the impermanent nature of thoughts and desires, and approaching resolutions with a sense of detachment from a rigid sense of self. Returning to the underlying intention(s) rather than the ego that might assign, fixate, judge, and declare victory or defeat over any self-driven resolutions.
As the New Year comes around again, whether embracing diverse cultural traditions or not, we all embark on a journey of self-discovery.
Reflecting on our aspirations, we walk the path guided by the Three Treasures: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Just like the monks pounding rice cakes, we shape our desires into symbols of gratitude and togetherness, forging a foundation for a mindful and purposeful year ahead.
What intentions will guide you in the coming year?