The Meaning of Obon by Rev. Don Castro
Recently, someone questioned me about the explanation of Obon we give to the general public. The question was, “Do we really believe the story of Mogallana and his mother’s liberation from her hell existence? Are we supposed to relate this story to outsiders as historically true?” I explained that the story of Obon is a legend, as are most, if not all, of the Buddhist scriptures. A story does not have to be historically true to be spiritually true. The truth is contained in what is being conveyed not the story itself. All great novels are composed of made up events but the story can spiritually elevate us because it conveys something true about our humanity.
So, what is the Obon Sutra telling us? The monk Mogallana’s mother has created a hell for herself by ignoring the suffering world around her and exclusively promoting the welfare of her son. There is a saying, “Ignorance is bliss” but in Buddhism ignorance is hell and is considered one of the Three Poisons that comprise the hub of the Wheel of Birth and Death (the realm of samsara as contrasted to the realm of nirvana). Actually, ignorance is a very dynamic, if spiritually destructive, process; one that we habitually practice without even realizing it. There is so much need, so much misery in the world that we cannot simultaneously dwell on it and live a normal life. So we mostly ignore the sirens and homeless and sick and needy throughout the world. Only occasionally, as in the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, do we reach out in some small way to those who are crying for help. If we were Mogallana’s mother, however, we would ignore even those cries, “I need to save that money for Mogallana’s college fund!”
Truly, a world of everyone out for themselves alone would be hell – if not outright impossible. Only through countless acts of selfless giving is the world able to exist. This is the lesson Mogallana learns and has to communicate to his mother. At Obon, we are mindful (not ignoring) of the many, many selfless acts of kindness we receive, especially by those closest to us who have passed away. Let us not make the mistake of Mogallana’s mother, however, and dwell only on our life and family. Of course, we express our gratitude to them but we should be ever mindful that all life is the Sangha that supports us and to whom we are related in pleasure and pain. There is a saying, “Charity begins at home.” But it doesn’t stop there. Sometimes, it takes a monumental disaster to elicit our response but every day there are individual situations of desperation that are too numerous for us to stop and take notice of. The universe of mutual interconnectedness-and-dependence is ultimately too profound for us to comprehend but we know that all existence is embraced in the boundless wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha. Jodo Shinshu Obon is a celebration of life deeply colored by our personal humility and gratitude; humility in the awareness that I can’t make it by myself and gratitude for the power of others that enables me to live.