by Rev. Dr. Alfred Bloom
The Obon festival is among the world’s most colorful religious and cultural observances. It was instituted as a special celebration in Japan by Prince Shotoku to beheld in the Lunar 7th month, 15th day (now our July 15) in commemoration of the ancestors.
The concentric circles of gaily dressed dancers, young and old, rotating around the yagura to the rhythmic beat of the taiko drum and the melody of the ondo music, depicts harmony in the family and community. Everyone moving their arms in graceful gestures, waving their fans in symbolic action, and stepping sinuously one after the other suggest the dynamic teaching of the Flower Garland Sutra (Hua-yen-sutra) that One is All and All is One.
While the Buddhist principle of Universal Harmony seems unrealistic in our fragmented and divided society and world, it is an ideal which challenges us and beckons us in our daily life, and especially so at Obon time. The Mogallana story, which forms the basis of Obon observance, dramatizes for us our indebtedness and obligations to our forebearers through spiritual reflection. Mogallana, an ancient Buddhist monk, as a result of his meditations and spiritual insight, received a vision of his mother suffering in the hell of hungry spirits. Moved by his mother’s suffering, he consulted with the Buddha and sought a way to release her.
Modern people cannot easily appreciate this ancient story which highlights the mother’s selfishness and the violent form of punishment which she was condemned to endure for centuries. Nevertheless, the underlying theme is the son’s devotion, concern and compassion for his mother. Consequently, the story reinforces contemporary interest in family values, not simply as political or social reaction to the corruption of society, but as the positive principle that promotes a healthy society and community.
Shin Buddhism, while maintaining family values, also goes beyond the boundaries of the biological family. Shinran said that he never said Nembutsu (the recitation of the name of Amida Buddha) once out of filial piety. He went on to say that in the flow of endless time, we have all been mother, father, brother and sister to each other. He transcended the traditional Confucian biological emphasis on family to the family of humanity common to East-Asian cultures. Those who are closest to us may have a claim on our sentiments and duty. However, according to Shinran, we must never forget our relationship to the whole world of interdependent beings, nor that family values represent a spiritual relationship which promotes not only the harmony of our natural family, but also our community and the world.
As we reflect on the deeper meaning of the Obon festival, let us renew our dedication to the inclusive and universal values of Buddhism which makes the world and all beings our spiritual family.