The Bon season is upon us. For readers not familiar with this, Bon commemorates the deaths of our ancestors, traditionally, as far back as seven generations. The traditional Buddhist story authorizing the commemoration relates how the monk Mogallana, a disciple of Sakyamuni, discovered that his mother was suffering in the hell of hungry ghosts.
This hell is one dimension among the six paths in the afterlife, including the lowest hells, hungry ghosts, beasts, angry spirits, human, and gods. The hungry ghosts are beings with small mouths and large stomachs, symbolizing greed and the inability of people to be satisfied. People enter these realms depending on their karmic heritage. In this instance, Mogallana appealed to the Buddha on how to rescue his mother from this hell. Sakyamuni replied that he should give offerings to the monk Order. Mogallana complied and his mother was freed. At that, Mogallana danced for joy, providing the basis for the later Bon dances. This commemoration was officially instituted in Japan by Prince Shotoku, to be held on on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. In modern Japan this came to be July 15 and in some places August 15.
In Japan, the festival occurs in a lull period just prior to harvest in the agricultural cycle. The cycle begins with the return of ancestors to help their families with planting rice, by bringing fertility and rain. It ends with the return of the ancestors to the other world, sometimes in the ritual of floating lanterns-boats (toro-nagashi). In Hawaii, this ritual has been universalized by a Buddhist organization holding a community toro-nagashi for all people, Buddhist or non-buddhist, on Memorial Day in May. It’s been estimated that 40,000 people attended.
A question attending stories about the afterlife in Buddhism, such as this legend or about the Pure Land, is whether they’re to be taken literally. There’s no question that some people do take them literally, based on the authority of scripture or tradition. Yet, generally speaking, Buddhist teachers interpret the levels of birth psychologically, as representing attitudes or character traits of people in this life. The question of afterlife itself may not be addressed.
The Pure Land, which transcends these levels and the process of transmigration associated with them, is assumed by people to be a world of peace and joy where we’ll be united with our loved ones. While often presented literally and used to console families at funeral services, according to Buddhist philosophy, it’s the spiritual realm of “birth of no-birth”, Nirvana, an inconceivable dimension characterized by perfect freedom. The graphic representations of the Pure Land are upaya, compassionate means, depicting the sphere where we become Buddha and work for the salvation of all beings. The central issue is becoming Buddha, not enjoying repose with loved ones as an extension of life in this world.
Consideration of Bon observance opens up many aspects of Buddhism for further reflection. I’ll be addressing them in future blogs.
Thank you for visiting.
Gassho _/_ Al Bloom
p.s. As always, feel free to leave comments and let me know what you think.