TUESDAY, JULY 13: Have you thanked your ancestors today? Contemporary Japanese Buddhists will begin celebrating Obon today as devotees gear up for festivities that honor the spirits of the deceased. The Japanese have held their ancestors in esteem for millenia, as many believe that the goodness in their lives is due, at least in part, to the sacrifices made by their ancestors. (Wikipedia has details.) Many devotees believe that their deceased relatives exit the world of the dead to visit them during Obon—and they guide the spirits through the lighting of lanterns, the display of family crests and large bonfires.
The most colorful parts of Obon are ushered in with the Bon-Odori dance and the floating of the lanterns, the latter of which occurs at the end of Obon. Through the elaborate steps and motions of the Bon-Odori dance, participants express joy for their ancestors. According to Buddhist tradition, the Bon-Odori dance was first performed by a disciple of Buddha when he, after following instructions to make offerings to monks, was able to free his deceased mother’s spirit from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Last year, one man decided to bring tradition back to one section of ultra-modern Tokyo by organizing a public Bon-Odori dance there. At the end of Obon, Buddhists light paper lanterns—sometimes containing written messages for deceased loved ones—and float them en masse down rivers around the country. (Create your own lantern with help from this site for teachers.) This floating tradition symbolizes the return of loved ones’ spirits to the world of the dead, and fireworks often follow the lantern floats.
Obon has been a part of the Japanese Buddhist culture for more than 500 years, but dates of celebration have varied widely in recent years. Due to calendar derivations, some recognize this event in July, while others recognize it in August—and some even begin initial festivities as early as June. Thus, many Japanese just refer to these months as “Bon Season.” (Japan-Guide offers predictions for Obon 2010 traffic.) This Japanese season isn’t limited to Japan, though: in Brazil, Malaysia, Hawai’i and other communities with a large Japanese populations, Obon brings street dances, temple festivals, the display of traditional artwork and lots of Japanese food. (Check out these recent articles from a Californian newspaper and a Hawai’ian newspaper.) And since sensing or appreciating the spirits of one’s ancestors can be felt by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, even those who don’t honor Buddha can be found dancing along to Bon-Odori dances or lighting a lantern during these sacred months.
(By ReadTheSpirit columnist Stephanie Fenton)
(NOTE: To see more short articles about upcoming holidays, festivals and anniversaries, click the “RTS Magazines” tab at the top of this page and select “Religious Holidays.”)