Today, December 8, is the day on which Zen Buddhists commemorate the historical Buddha's enlightenment. "Rohatsu" is Japanese for "the eighth day of the twelfth month." The other main Buddhist holiday -- and the one celebrated by most other Buddhist schools -- is the Buddha's birthday, which usually falls in May. (The date is normally the first full moon in May - which in 2007 will be May 2.)
No doubt you are familiar with the story: Long, long ago, in a distant land (North India, in fact) a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama left home to seek answers to the big questions of life: Why do we suffer? Why is there disease, poverty, pain, old age and ultimately death?
He wandered and studied with the various spiritual teachers of the day, and tried everything from strange yogic disciplines to nearly starving himself.
Finally, he determined to sit in meditation until he had realized the true nature of things. The story recounts how the Buddha sat at the foot of a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) and meditated through the night. Just at dawn, he looked up and saw the morning star. At that moment, he obtained enlightenment. Soon, he would leave his solitary life and teach the dharma to any who would hear it.
Nowadays, Zen buddhists follow in the Buddha's footsteps by sitting in zazen for the week leading up to Rohatsu. Some centers will have an all night sit on the 8th, followed by a morning service and celebratory breakfast. This is what Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn is doing. Zen Mountain Monastery holds their Rohatsu sesshin in the week leading up to New Years (January 1), so that more people who would otherwise have to work can attend.
It's a good day to stop and think about our lives, and where we're going.