Obon… Festival of ancestors

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.


Obon… Festival of ancestors — 3 Comments

  1. Dear Dr. Bloom…It has been a very long time since I have logged on to a Buddhist Chat room ( where we met ). Rev.Kabota officiated the funeral for a friend this weekend. I had not met him, since I do not attend our temple at Enmanji very often. When I found out he was from Hawaii, I asked him if he knew you. Of course he did and he mentioned that you were having some health issues. This happens to often to us seniors. I wanted to send you this message, in hopes that you are doing well. I also want to thank you for all of the kind offerings of wisdom and guidance through the years. Life seems to have a way of taking me off course, but it is always wonderful to find those silver thread of connectivity.
    In gassho,

  2. I enjoyed your data. Like yourself, my background was fundamental Christian. In the late 1990’s, I moved towards metaphysics. In 2001, I started in Tibetan Buddhism, then vedic, and more. It took alot of courage to go o/s the Christian readings for I was taught that the devil would get me if I read different literature.
    Shin appeals to me since gaining liberation is so difficult in this age. I see so many parallels in other teaching such as the last days in the new testament, kali yuga in the vedas and the dharma ending period of Buddhism. In southern Calif., I went to 2 different shin temple/churches and was displeased. One taught the pure land w/ such a vagueness and then the social hour began afterwards. THe other, talked about a man w/ a terminal illness and just accepted the disease w/o combating it w/ divine absolute truth and gaining ascendency of a whole person and the congregation was supposed to accept the we can do nothing about sickness and the illusion of it. I like the teaching of pure land but one has to know how to overcome the mortal dream now so why can live in dominion instead of succumbing to so-called evil. I want to work diligently now for my liberation in order to have a productive peaceful life but still work w/ my vow to be reborn in sukhavati. Please give feedback. Also, I have written to various mahayana sanghas looking for a teacher to commune w/ online and have found none. I guess I will stay a solitary realizer.

  3. dear Mr Bloom, Ghasso

    thanks for explaining the meaning of Obon. I have seen many festivals starting in 1960 in Hawaii, when filling in for a pastor at a chapel as he went to the mainland for some r&r. I was so taken by the music, drums, and dancers, that I walked on the sidewalk beside them the whole length of the ‘parade.’ when it was explained to me, I wished that I could join them.

    For years while living in san Francisco, each year the obon parade gave me the same thrill. who knew that Amida Butsu was gently calling from 1960 to 2010!! I am a very happy person. especially since going right back to Hawaii, I have had the gift of your experience and advice, and a growing wish to be once more in Hawaii ney.

    I am going to start studying the online course again, this time finishing it!

    thank you and ghasso

    doc david hill-oka

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