Buddhist, Japanese: Millions honor ancestors at Obon

Reflect on ancestors with the Buddhists during Obon. Photo in public domainOBON WORDS OF WISDOM: “The weight of obligation we owe to our parents is as boundless as the heavens.” The most important sentiment of the human mind and heart is that which repays obligation. Japanese Sutra

FRIDAY, JULY 13: Eat sushi and circle ‘round for a Bon dance, because it’s that time of year again: Obon season! Across Japan, Hawaii and Japanese communities worldwide, the festival of Bon Odori is in full force. A Buddhist-Confucian custom, the Japanese have been visiting ancestors’ graves and honoring the spirits of deceased loved ones during Bon Odori for more than 500 years. (Wikipedia has details.)

When the Japanese lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar, the date of Obon spread out: “Shichigatsu Bon” became the modern observance, marked in Tokyo and eastern Japan in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon,” based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated in mid-August. Nonetheless, Japanese communities take this season to rejoice in their culture and share it with others. Obon festivals often span several days and include public Bon dances, tea ceremonies, fireworks and carnivals. (Cook up an authentic recipe and learn more about the tedious work of Obon food preparation in Monterey County Weekly. Or, learn how to make your own paper lantern from this PDF.)

On a more personal level, Obon means that families take time to freshly decorate household altars and reunite with family members at ancestral gravesites. (Make a summer-themed grave blanket for your loved one by adapting this easy winter blanket “How To”.)

The traditional story behind Obon begins with a disciple of Buddha. When this disciple used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. (Obon is shortened from Ullambana, meaning “hanging upside down” and implying much suffering. Get a Buddhist perspective from the Shingon Buddhist International Institute.) The disciple mourned his mother’s state, and pleaded to Buddha for a way to free her. As Buddha instructed, the disciple made offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat; the disciple saw his mother freed, and danced with joy—thus, the first “Bon dance.” Duly, the disciple saw the many sacrifices his mother had made for him and was exceptionally grateful.

Most every Bon festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of paper lanterns. At the culmination, hundreds and thousands of paper lanterns, illuminated by interior candles, can be seen floating down rivers and streams. The belief is that ancestors’ spirits are symbolically returned to the world of the dead.

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