Welcome to the new Hongwanji Place Website!
Unlike Obon in Japan, Japanese-American Obon is not a four-day festival (the 13th through 16th of July or August) but rather a whole season. Although the Buddhist holiday of Obon is on the 13th of July (or the 15thof August in some areas of Japan). Obon in Southern California begins on the last weekend in June and lasts through the third weekend in August. During this time, every weekend finds some Buddhist Temple celebrating Obon or Kangi-e (The Gathering of Joy) with special services, carnivals, and Bon Odori.
Like so many other Japanese festivals, Obon is a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Hindu traditions. From Indian Buddhism comes the custom of feasting, donating to the Sangha, and honoring the gods with lights. In China, the Hindu custom of lights at festivals is combined with the Taoist tradition of offering square lantern lights to the ancestors. The Indian Festival of Lights (Diwali) in honor of 7 generations of deceased ancestors was marked by the burning of welcome lights and sending off lights. This became associated in China with the Taoist festival of Chung-yuen (Chugan in Japanese) and the Buddhist Obon Festival centering around the story of Mogallana. The three festivals happened to fall on or near the 15th day of the 7th month and over the centuries, especially in Japan, the three traditions fused into the one Buddhist tradition of Obon.
In present-day Japan, Obon is a national holiday (July 15th). Like going home for Christmas in the US, most Japanese go home for Obon. Obon begins on July 13th and ends on July 16th. The first two days are usually spent in cleaning the family Butsudan and in visiting family graves, cleaning the family gravesites, and offering flowers, incense, and food. Unkept graves in the vicinity are also cleaned. In temples, homes, and graveyards, “Mukaebi” or “Welcome Lights” are in to welcome the spirits of the deceased who are believed to return to the realm of the living for these four days. Depending on the area of Japan, the lights might be simple candles, small oil lamps, or various kinds of paper lanterns, the most ancient being square in shape. The main day of Obon is the 15th when special services are held in the temples. This is followed in most areas of Japan by Bon Odori or folk dancing which reenacts the dancing for joy of the monk Mogallana. On the 16th, “Okuribi” or “Sending-off Lights” are lit to see off the spirits of the ancestors who now leave the world of the living. Okuribi takes many forms, from simple candles to lanterns floated on rivers and in the ocean.
Jodoshinshu Buddhism is emphatic in its denial of wandering souls or spirits of the the dead and the need to placate such spirits with offerings of food, incense, lights, rituals, etc. Obon in Jodoshinshu is called “kangi-e” or “The Gathering of Joy.” This means joy in the Nembutsu, the religious happiness which comes from seeing life and death clearly. An important part of seeing life and death clearly is the ability to remember and appreciate our ancestors, of all who have gone before us, and reverence for the Truth called Amida Buddha which makes us see that this is so. We chant, offer lights, food, and incense, and we dance not to exercise spirits or out of fear of retribution. We do these things as an offering to the Truth: from the truths of the continuing, impact of deceased friends and relatives on our lives, to the ultimate truth of life itself.
Obon is a memorial service for our ancestors, for all of those who have gone before us, for the whole of life that was before us. The Obon festival, in the many forms it takes in Southern California temples, is our annual opportunity to participate in a religious activity which is designed to mentally, vocally, and physically expand and deepen our awareness of ourselves and others. It is an opportunity to test our sense of Nembutsu, our sense of being basically O.K. Obon and Bon Odori is not only “a cultural thing.” It is also the celebration of continuity in a constantly changing world. It is the recognition of Truth Eternal in the midst of Change Eternal.
Reprinted from Dharma Talks of the Four Seasons, which is available in our Online Store. Rev. Kodani was the long time resident minister at Senshin Buddhist Temple and is the Religious Advisor to Hongwanji Place.