WEDNESDAY, JULY 13: It’s Ullambana (Obon) in several regions of Japan and the United States today: For the next few days, Buddhists will honor their ancestors in an elaborate festival of dancing, lanterns, homecoming and grave cleaning. After Welcoming Obon (the first day), devotees will invite ancestors’ spirits into their homes and temples by way of paper lanterns. Some families offer food to the spirits that are believed to visit Earth only during this special festival; the spirits are bid farewell on the last day of Obon, during which lanterns filled with candles are placed on rivers as a means of guiding them back to the world of the dead.
Obon itself is a varied festival: While celebrated in several countries, traditions and times can be quite different. (Wikipedia has details.) Even in Japan, easterners celebrate in July and westerners celebrate in August, primarily due to disagreement when the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of the Meiji era. Still other Japanese Buddhists mark “Old Bon” on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and this date is different altogether! Nevertheless, many Japanese citizens follow similar traditions such as the Bon Odori dance, cleaning ancestors’ graves, visiting family and returning to hometowns. Light cotton kimonos reflect the summer heat, and today, Obon festivals can even include carnival rides and games.
The story behind Obon goes something like this: A disciple of Buddha was plagued because, upon using supernatural powers to see his deceased mother, he had discovered that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Eager to release her, the disciple asked Buddha for instructions and was told to make offerings to the monks who had completed their summer retreat. After doing as he was told, the disciple saw his mother released and danced for joy (this dance is now the Bon Odori dance). Each Obon, believers try to aid any ancestors that need help.
“Bon season,” a time often referring to July and August, began in some U.S. temples on Sunday, and events continue throughout the week. (Japan-Guide has more.) It’s estimated that the peak of Bon season in Japan won’t begin until August 6.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.