The New Year’s Eve Service is called Joya-e and is observed at all temples on New Year’s Eve. Adherents assemble before the shrine of Amida Buddha to quietly recollect the happenings of the year and to rejoice in the blessings of Amida.
In the United States, New Year’s Eve is commonly associated with merry-making, gaiety, and noise-making. Parties are held late into the night and with the approach of midnight, that is, the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new year, there is a sudden eruption of noises—yelling, singing, tooting of horns, blowing of bugles, popping of firecrackers, etc.
Quite in contrast, New Year’s Eve in Buddhist Japan is quiet and peaceful. Family and friends gather together to play karuta or, in modern Japan, to watch late late television programs until the approach of midnight. The lady of the house will serve toshikoshi soba for the late hour snack. As the party enjoys the soba together the sound of temple bells is heard in the distance. The low bellowing resonance renders an atmosphere of nostalgic feeling for the year past and of cheerful- ness at the anticipation of a better year to come.
G-o-n-n-g! g-o-n-n-n-g-g-g! Its deep resonance carries over hill and dale into every village home. G-o-n-n-n-g-g-g! it continues seemingly into eternity. G-o-n-n-n-g-g-g! it finally comes to an end after 108 rings.
In our homes, the family shrine is given a thorough clean-up for the last time of the year and the family gathers around the shrine for the final service of the year. The candle is lit and the incense gives rise to a line of smoke which serves as a reminder to us of the impermanence of all things throughout the universe. True to this symbolic teaching, even the year was but a passing thing.
The New Year’s Eve bell is stroked 108 times as a symbol of overcoming of the 108 passions human beings are said to possess, The 108 passions as explained in the “Story of the Juzu” by Bishop Shinsho Hanayama reads, “Six feelings are recognized in Buddhism: feelings arising from sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and consciousness. Now, each of these six sensations is associated with pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent feelings, making a total of 18 feelings. Furthermore, each of the pleasant, unpleasant and indifferent feelings has two classifications: those feelings that are attached to pleasure or detached from pleasure. When we multiply the 18 different kinds of feelings with the two classifications, we arrive at the figure 36. These 36 are the basic passions of man that are manifested in time—past, present, and future. Thus, 36 multiplied by past, present, and future will give us the total of 108 passions.”
Human beings are extremely self centered and thus man is oblivious of many things that do not concern himself, This nature of man has not changed since the ancient times. With his eyes, he sees things. With his ears, he hears things. With his nose, he smells things. With his tongue, he tastes things. With his epidermis, he feels things. And with every sight, smell, taste, and touch, his heart is either moved towards making it his own or repelling it. Pleasant things he wants to make his own and unpleasant things ha wants to reject at all cost. This goes on in an endless cycle of suffering and frustration because his wants are never satisfied. Some of his unsatisfied wants may be light and no visible sign of suffering may be seen but some could be so fierce that it could drive him into disastrous consequences.
When Herbert Hoover was campaigning for the presidency of the United States, he toured the country promising to improve the nation’s economy. He campaigned with his famous speech, “A car in every garage and a chicken in every pot.” This was in the early 1930’s. How are conditions today? Now we have two cars in every garage and a powerboat sitting outside ready to be towed out for a pleasure ride of a fishing trip!
In spite of all the economic improvements and material wealth we enjoy, one wonders whether the people of today are truly happier or not. All evidence points to the existence of more suffering and frustrations today than ever before. Materially they are wealthy, but spiritually, they are in greater confusion.
The 108 passions of the human beings are still at work in the very heart of each individual. As the New Year’s gong is struck 108 times we must be reminded of the human weaknesses and live a life of deep reflection.
Time knows no bounds. Time is eternal. There is only the eternal now that we call the present. Yet, human beings make a division of eternity for his own personal convenience. The Buddhist scripture reads, “Since every- thing in this world is caused by the concur- rence of causes and conditions, there can be no fundamental distinction between things. The apparent distinction exists because of peoples’ deluding thoughts and desires. In the sky there is no distinction of east and west; people create the distinction out of their own minds and then believe it to be true. Mathematical numbers from one to infinity are each complete numbers, but each in itself carries no distinction of quantity; people make the distinction for their own convenience so as to be able to indicate varying amounts.” This is also true of time. In the eternity of time there is no distinction of days, weeks, months, and years. Man makes this distinction for his own convenience.
As long as man has devised a means of dividing eternity of time into days, weeks, months, and years, it gives us an opportunity to look back and at the same time to look ahead. New Year’s Eve being the end of the year, we can look back and reflect over the passed year and quietly recollect on the happenings of the year and rejoice in the blessings of Amida Buddha.