The Origin of Obon

Obon season has come. “Obon (盆)” is an abbreviation of “Urabon”. There are three theories about the origin of “Urabon”.
• ullambana or avalambana (Sanskrit) which means “hanging upside down”
• urvan (ancient Iranian, Avestan) which means “spirit”.
• “Ura” came from odana or olaha (Sanskrit) rice / food. “bon” means tray. “Urabon” originally means “a tray to serve food/rice to monks”.

The first view has become standard explanation for a long time. Research on the origin of “Urabon” has been making progress and now there are three theories. I feel all three theories could be right. What do you think? To learn about the origin and meaning of “Urabon”, we need to learn from Ullambana Sutra.

The Sutra tells a story when Sakyamuni Buddha lived in India about 2500 years ago. One of Buddha’s disciple’s whose name is Moggallana (Mokuren) was a chief master of supranormal power. One day he used his supranormal power to visualize the whereabouts of his mother who died. Searching all the realms, from the highest of the heavens to the lowest of the hells, he was surprised and horrified to find his mother suffering the torments of the realm of Hungry Ghosts. A being who is jealous and greedy is sent there. There, no one can eat and drink anything because food and drink turn into fire before they eat. So hungry ghosts are always skinny, and their stomachs are swollen. Moggallana also tried to give some food to his mother but, again, the food turned into fire and became carbonized. Finding himself helpless in aiding his mother, he ran to the Buddha seeking help. The Buddha told him,

“Your mother was a greedy and envious person. You cannot save her by yourself. You need the combined help of all the monks to help your mother. Many monks are in summer retreat now. Bring them offerings of food and bedding.”

As the Buddha said, he offered food and bedding and his mother was freed from the realm of Hungry Ghosts and she was relieved of her suffering. He was overjoyed. He clapped his hands and danced for joy. This is said to have been the beginning of the Bon Odori.

I have listened to this Obon story every year. I feel relieved that Moggallana’s mother was saved. At the same time, I also have some questions about this story. Why didn’t
Sakyamuni Buddha directly save his mother? Why did Sakyamuni Buddha give such a roundabout way of saving Moggallana’s mother by making offerings to the monks? Were there any direct ways to save his mother? To think about these questions, I re-read the story and understand it from a different perspective.

It is called “Dana (fuse/布施)” to make offerings to monks. Dana is one of the Six Paramitas which is the Bodhisattva’s practice to attain enlightenment. This means that a practicer receives virtue as result of practicing Dana. Dana is a precious and important Buddhist deed. Dana is a deed to make offerings to others. But we have to know that the practicer receives benefit and virtue from practicing Dana. Through practicing Dana, and he cultivates Wisdom and Compassion. In this story Moggallana is the one who practiced Dana. He performed dana to save his mother, and he is the one who received virtue from Dana. When I deeply think about this story, I realize that his mother showed her suffering the torments of the realm of Hungry Ghost because she wanted his son to practice Dana. It was her love and compassionate act for Moggallana to receive virtue. Sakyamuni Buddha understood her thoughts and advised Moggallana to make offerings to the monks. She must be a Boddhisattva who lead Moggallana to walk the Buddhist Path even after she died. When I understand this story in this way, this story is not only talking about Moggallana’s mother being saved, but also talks about Moggallana’s mother giving him an opportunity to practice Dana and accumulate virtues to attain enlightenment. We can also learn the importance and preciousness of Dana from this story.

In general, people understand that Obon is the time when our ancestors come back to this world. There are a variety of obon traditions and customs. During Obon people offer fruit, somen noodles, and food to offer to their ancestors’ gravesite and their home altar (obutsudan). People also visit temples to attend Obon/Hatsubon (初盆) service. Many people understood that these traditions and customs are the opportunity to make offerings to their ancestors (urvan). Our understanding of Obon was totally upside-down (ullambana or avalambana). Our ancestors are giving us the opportunity to practice Dana (odana or olaha) and to observe Buddhist practice. They are leading us to walk the Buddhist path. It is how I appreciate the story of Obon/Urabon.

Seattle Betsuin is going have Obon cemetery service (in-person), Obon/Hatsubon service at the temple (in-person) and Obon dancing (virtual only). You can find the details in the obon letter, website, and in the July Newsletter. Please join these services and virtual obon dancing with your family and friends. I am planning to have a Sunday Service in the gym on July 17th at 10:00 AM where the Yagura stage is set for Obon dancing. Please wear your Yukata and happi coat when you attend the service on July 17th.

Submitted by Rimban Katsuya Kusunoki