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Elijah's Promise-An Oriental View-1, by Masakazu Watabe

Originally published in BYU Studies,Volume 44, Number 2, 2005, republished with permission 

Although I was raised in the Church, I observed many cultural ceremonies and festivals originating in Buddhism as I grew up in Japan. One of those was what the Japanese call ohaka mairi, a visit to our ancestorsf graveyard. It usually took place on a holiday in Japan, which used to be called Senzo o Uyamau Hi, Honor Your Ancestors Day. 

I recall on one such holiday in my early teens, I had to accompany my mother, her father, and her sister to visit their ancestorsf graveyard in Tama, outside of Tokyo. I learned then that this holiday now referred to as Shūbun no Hi, Autumnal Equinox Day, was a special day for the deceased because the sun rises from the East and goes down to the West, where our ancestors lived. We were to go to the graveyard to clean their graves with water and leave flowers, usually white. I also learned that the tablets and the boxes of ashes we kept in the mausoleum did not have the names of those I could recognize. They are identified with titles or rankings in Buddhism and new names are given to them to be used in the next world. In order to find out the names by which they were known in this world, I would have to go to their Buddhist temples and go through their registry. As we removed the fallen leaves of autumn and washed the tombstones with water, my grandfather made sure the lock in the back of the mausoleum was tightly closed, saying he did not want to be invited in by his ancestors yet. 

I did not realize the significance of the Autumnal Equinox Day, which often is referred to as the Buddhist holiday Higan, until I became a more serious student of the scriptures. It was September 21, 1823, when the angel Moroni visited a boy Joseph Smith to tell him about the buried record of Christ on the American continent and also to announce the visit of Elijah, who will plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.1 This announcement has such close resemblance with the holiday in Japan that I could not excuse it as a mere coincidence. But first let me explain more about Higan. 

According to Nihon Kokugo Daijiten, the Japanese Language Dictionary, Higan ”ήŠέ (the other shore) is a short form of To-Higan ŽŠ”ήŠέ (arriving at the other shore), which is a translation of a Sanskrit word paramita.2 This life on this earth is called Shigan ŸŠέ (this shore), the worldly desires and passions are the river or the ocean in between, and when we die we reach the other side, the world of paramita (absolute perfection). 

The Buddhist ceremony celebrating this event is called Higan-e”ήŠέ‰οwhich lasts seven days in the fall and spring. The exact middle day of the seven days is called Higan and is the autumnal equinox in the fall and the vernal equinox in the spring. One of the Buddhist sects, Myōkōji, has a website which explains the Higan-e as the following: 

The Higan-e Ceremony, Memorial Service During the Equinox 

Nichiren Shōshū performs the Higan-e Ceremony as a Buddhist practice for accumulating benefits and amassing virtue in the lives of the believer and the deceased. The daylight and the nighttime hours of the vernal and autumnal equinox are equal, signifying the inseparability of darkness (yin) and light (yang), as well as the oneness of good and evil. As the sutra expounds, gthe Buddha desires the Middle Way.h For this reason, the benefits of performing positive deeds on these days are superior to those practiced at other times. These days of the equinox present exceptional opportunities for us to arrive at the other shore (higan). Moreover, Buddhism expounds the four debts of gratitude, one of which is to onefs parents and ancestors. Thus, during the Higan-e Ceremony, we make offerings to the Gohonzon, establish memorial tablets for our ancestors and perform memorial services for them. This small good deed becomes the great positive act enabling us to reach the other shore. This is the true significance of the Higan-e Ceremony. 3 

The first documented occurrence of Higan-e in Japan was in 806 AD and was held to console the deceased spirit of Emperor Sūdō’“Ή“Vc. Higan or Higan-e has been mentioned in works of Japanese literature, folk songs, folk tales, diaries, and poems including The Tale of Genji and haiku, indicating that it has been part of Japanese culture for over one thousand years. 

The actual visit of Elijah did not take place until the temple in Kirtland was completed. On April 3, 1836, Elijah, Moses, Elias, and Christ himself appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and returned the keys to do the work for the dead in this dispensation.4 What is so interesting and significant about this event is that April 3 was the day of the Passover. In the April 1936 general conference, Joseph Fielding Smith commented on this special occasion: 

It was, I am informed, on the third day of April, 1836, that the Jews, in their homes at the Paschal feast, opened their doors for Elijah to enter. On that very day Elijah did enter—not in the home of the Jews to partake of the Passover with them, but he appeared in the House of the Lord.5 

It is interesting that the actual coming of Elijah took place on the Jewish holy day, a day celebrated by the Jews, who intimately knew of his mission and his returning to this earth. Conversely, the announcement of Elijahfs coming took place on a day special to Buddhists, non-Christians who were unfamiliar with his work and role; nevertheless, they have observed the spirit of Elijah especially on this day for a long period of time.

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