Obon Tradition

By Rinban Katsuya Kusunoki

The long awaited Obon season has come! This week, I would like to introduce some Obon traditions and their meanings.

Most temples in Japan conduct Obon Service in August. It is a long-standing tradition in Japan that people visit their ancestor’s gravesites during the Obon season. They deep clean the gravesites and offer flowers or fruits, and they put their palms together in gassho. People fondly recall their loved ones at the gravesites. Afterwards, they visit their temple and attend the Obon Service.

The concept of Obon in general is that the deceased loved one returns to this world during Obon Season. There are varying customs and traditions for Obon in Japan.

Each city or region in Japan has a different tradition. Let me share some examples of Obon customs and traditions. One custom is where a family offers a cucumber and an eggplant to Buddha, or for the deceased. Inserting four toothpicks (representing legs) in each, a cucumber symbolizes a horse. An eggplant symbolizes a cow. The deceased rides on the cucumber horse to come to this world because a horse runs fast. The family can see the deceased quickly. On the other hand, on the way back, the deceased rides on the eggplant cow to go back. A cow walks slowly, so the family can have more time with the deceased longer.

Another custom is to put a decorative paper lantern outside of their house, their gravesite and the Obutsudan. Often you can see a family crest (MON) on the lantern. The family lights the lanterns for their loved one to return to the right place without losing their way. A third custom is where the family floats a lantern in a river or the ocean as a send-off for the deceased. The family wishes for the deceased to go back safely.

In my hometown of Nagasaki, there is a custom that a Hatsubon family (those who lost their family member from the time of last year’s Obon to this Obon) floats a small boat into the ocean, and people in Nagasaki send the deceased off with fireworks. When I think about the Obon tradition, each tradition has meaning. The family expresses their thoughts through each tradition.

To non-Buddhists, Obon could be seen as mixing together the “religious” and “fun/light-hearted” aspects. Even though the Obon Dance has a religious aspect, it also has its MATSURI or festival side as well. Similarly, the Obon Service is not purely a somber, religious occasion. In Jodo Shinshu, it is also referred to as “KANGI-E” or “Joyful Gathering”. Of course, it is important to recognize the sadness of loss, especially for the Hatsubon families who have lost some one in the past year. However, we also rejoice that our loved ones were born into the Amida Buddha’s Pure Land and have become a Buddha. There is also joy in the realization of the causes and conditions that have brought us together here and now, enabling us to hear the Buddha Dharma.

My father used to give the same Dharma talk of Obon at every year. Let me summarize the Obon story. The origin of OBON is that Moggallana (MOKUREN), a disciple of the Sakyamuni Buddha recalled his mother who passed away. “How is my mom doing?” Sadly, he saw that she was in a realm of hungry ghosts. Therefore, Mokuren asked Sakyamuni Buddha how to save his mother. He followed Sakyamuni Buddha’s advice. He offered and served food & drinks to Buddhist ascetics. His mother was eventually able to leave the realm of hungry ghost. Moggallana, his family, his friends, and ascetics were so overjoyed that they danced spontaneously to express their joy and show their gratitude to Buddha. This is the origin of OBON Dancing, BON ODORI.

My father always focused on one point of this story. This point is that Sakyamuni Buddha’s disciple, Moggallana, by chance, thought seriously about the afterlife of his mother. “How is my mother doing?” Moggallana wondered and worried about her. To me, this is the origin of Obon, thinking about our loved ones even after they are no longer living. I think the Obon service is the occasion to reflect fondly and respectfully upon our loved ones. Please remember your loved ones through Obon service and Obon Dancing.

Namo Amida Butsu.