Rev. Katsu’s Weekly Message (6/1/2020) – Obon

I hope each of you are remaining safe and healthy during this unprecedented period of our lives. COVID-19 is turning our lives as we know it, upside down. Events which occur each year like clockwork is being affected. Obon season is soon approaching but this year, Seattle Betsuin’s Obon Odori is sadly canceled. But…not to despair as it is not completely cancelled. We are still planning to do virtual Bon Odori!! In these unprecedented times, Bon Odori 2020 will be unprecedented as well! Details will follow soon so please continue to visit our website for the latest information.

Obon is one of the most recognizable annual traditional Buddhist event. It is usually held in July or August. Even in Japan, there are many different Obon customs depending on the region. Some people think that Obon is the seasonal festival when our ancestors symbolically return to this world and we, the living welcome them. But it is important to know that the origin of Obon is from a Sutra, which as you know, is the Buddha’s teaching. Do you know the origin of Obon or why we conduct Obon services and Obon Odori? I would like to take this opportunity to learn more about Obon.

The name “Obon(お盆)” is the abbreviation of Urabon or Ulabon(盂蘭盆) which is written in the Ullanbana Sutra(盂蘭盆経). There are three theories of the origin of Obon.

  1. 1. “Ulabon” is from “Ullambana” in Sanskrit which means “hanging down”.
  2. 2. “Ulabon” is from “Urvan” in ancient Iranian language which means “spirit”.
  3. 3. “Ula” is from “Odana” in Sanskrit which means “rice”. The spoken language of “Odana” is “Olana.” The Kanji 盂蘭 was used to “Olana.” The Kanji character of “盆 (bon)” means “tray.” Therefore, Ulabon means a tray filled with rice or a serving tray with food for monks to practice Dana.

There is an old Chinese dictionary which was made in 650 CE. The first and traditionally most dominant explanation for the source of Obon for 1,400 years, has been the dominant theory largely because it was written in the old Chinese dictionary. However, in more recent times, the third theory of the Obon origin is gaining favor.  It is interesting to learn new research.
As explained above, originally Obon means “hanging down” or “food serving tray” but for some reason, people recognize and celebrate “Obon” as an event to celebrate the remembrance of their ancestors. How did this come to be and why? In the next installment of this article, we will continue our investigation of Obon and will start by studying the Ullanbana Sutra.

(To Be Continued)