Buddhacarita (“The Life of Buddha”) is an epic poem written in Sanskrit by the Indian monk Ashvagosha in the 2nd century C.E. The original consisted of 28 cantos, of which only 14 now remain. This verse occurs at its climax, just a few verses before the end of Canto 14.
The second watch is the period (varying somewhat with latitude and the seasons) corresponding to the hours between 2 and 4 a.m. This is the period of time when Shakyamuni is said to have attained enlightenment. It also corresponds to the hours of Green Meditation, that period of wakeful consciousness between what Homer called the “first sleep” and “second sleep” of the night. Absent the influence of artificial lighting, human beings naturally revert to this pattern, sleeping in two blocks of about 4 hours each. In the hours between, levels of the hormone prolactin remain elevated, placing the body in a state of deep stillness and rest, even though the mind is technically “awake.”
Numerous priestly, monastic, and rabbinic schedules still preserve those hours as a special time for meditation. Carthusian monks rise to pray during that time and consider it the cornerstone of their spirituality. Hasidic Jews practice hibodedut (solitary meditation) in fields and forests in the middle of the night. Vedanta practitioners rise to perform yoga nidra during those hours, as do devotees of Tibetan dream and sleep yogas. In the Islamic tradition it is known as Tahajjud, the voluntary “night prayer” felt by Muhammad to be most holy. Zen monks celebrate it yearly by meditating into the night during Rohatsu, the week of meditation leading up to the Buddha’s enlightenment day, and likewise through a nightly tradition of yaza, or optional meditation. In the Nichiren Buddhist tradition it remains in the practice of ushitora gongyo, performed continuously each night for the past 700 years.
Don’t go star gazing by daylight, or look for the sun in the dark. Just turn in a little earlier each day until you wake to the second watch of the night. Don’t suppose somebody needs to teach you how to do this. And don’t think you are looking for something that isn’t already there.
The Earth rolls over
In sleep—such stars on its back!
But please don’t count them.
One small light in the darkness
And the Buddha Way is there.