By Roshi Sunya Kjolhede
New Year’s Eve! The ‘Great Turning,’ when we stop at the threshold to look back on the old year—a tapestry woven of all that has happened, all we’ve said and done, individually and collectively. We then turn around to face the New, with its mystery and potential. What an ingenious human invention, this annual crossroads!
Although people of different religions and cultures honor this turning point at different times and in different ways, the New Year is likely the most important and most ancient of human ceremonies and celebrations. Often associated with either the Solstice or the Equinox, over the millennia these annual rites have been rich with the potent themes of reflection and renewal, death and rebirth.
Once again this year at Windhorse Zen Center, just outside of Asheville, NC, we’ll be meeting the New Year with the same basic elements, beginning as always with a few rounds of zazen. Then we’ll gather in Circle to reflect together on this crucial turning point—to focus on what we’d like to let go of and what we wish to invite into our lives, and into the world, in the year to come.
We then ‘drive out the demons’ of the old year, another ancient practice done throughout the world. With noisemakers and drumming, we’ll chant the Heart Sutra mantra: Gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté, bodhi svaha!, while circumambulating the entire center, upstairs and downstairs. After the crescendo in the zendo, in the sizzling silence that follows, we pick up small bells to “invite in the New,” again winding our way through the various rooms, filling the air with the shimmering sound of bells to welcome in the New Year with all its potential.
Returning to the zendo we hold a simple Jukai, a beautiful and solemn ceremony of renewing the Buddhist precepts and recommitting ourselves to the Great Way—in other words, to living up to what is most true and noble in each of us. We finish the evening with a candlelit circle and the New Year’s Prayer for All Beings, each person reading a short passage in turn until we’ve finished. We then exit the zendo, candles in hand, for the festive celebration afterward—our New Year’s potluck brunch with music and conversation. Such convivial gatherings are also a traditional part of New Year’s observances all over the world.
After many decades of stepping into the New Year like this, it’s hard to imagine a better way to honor this deeply significant time when, like the god Janus, we face both backward and forward at once. We invite you to join us if you can. But however you say goodbye to the old year and ring in 2016, may it leave you, too, refreshed, refocused and re-inspired to truly begin anew!
May all beings realize Buddhahood and a Happy New Year to All!