Buddhism and Groundhog Day

When I think of Groundhog Day in a Buddhist context, the first thing that comes to mind is this old Zen story:

Zen teacher Ummon said to the assembled monks, "I do not ask about 15 days ago, or 15 days hence. But what about today?"

When no-one could answer, he answered himself, "Every day is a good day."

Ummon's statement -- "Every day is a good day" -- is, on its face, absurd. As we all know, in life some days are good and some days aren't, and for people who are deeply suffering there is never a good day. So what was he really trying to say?

Ever since the movie "Groundhog Day" came out in the early '90s, many people, especially Buddhists, feel that the movie holds some kind of profound, existential message concerning spiritual practice and the spiritual path. For those who may not remember, in the movie Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a self-centered, egotistical TV newscaster who goes to the town of Punxsutawney, Penn., to cover the Groundhog Day celebrations there, and is forced to relive the same day over and over until he learns how to be a nicer person. I doubt that the producers of the movie ever intended their lighthearted comedy to become a lesson in Buddhist teaching, but so it goes.

Groundhog Day grew up as a folklore holiday about the end of winter. Just as Phil Connors in the movie had to keep reliving the same (to him) boring, tiresome day over and over, so people in rural Pennsylvania had to face the dreariness of endless overcast, snow-bound days. When would it ever end? Maybe Phil the groundhog knew!

There is a saying in Zen: "Every breath, new chances." My root teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, taught "beginner's mind," the practice of seeing each moment as fresh and new. Phil Connors was trapped by lifelong habit patterns that kept him apart from others; he couldn't escape his past until he could see freshness and opportunity and new chances in his own life and the lives of people around him. Ummon didn't mean that every day was good in a Pollyanna-ish way, but that every day, even the most tragic, has within it the seeds of renewal, of Spring. Depending on how Phil the groundhog sees his shadow, winter could go on, or not. Depending on how Phil Connors responds to each new day, he could grow and change, or not.

Each of us is Phil the groundhog, each of us is Phil Connors, each of us is a monk in Ummon's assembly, facing the mystery of our human life as it unfolds day by day. "Every day is a good day" means every day is incomparable, every day stands on its own. It's our responsibility to make of each day the best we can, knowing this.