The memorial services held at Obon have two meanings. One is tohonor the Buddha and show reverence for one’s ancestors and others whohave died. The other is to express gratitude to all people to whom weare indebted, including people who are alive such as our parents,relatives, and friends.
The full expression for Obon isUrabon-e which is derived from “Ullabana,” an old Indian word.According to the Bussetsu Urabon Sutra, the origin of this traditiongoes back to a ceremony performed by Shakyamuni Buddha for the deceasedmother of Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s immediate disciples.Ullabana means “hanging upside down” and it was by means of thisceremony that the suffering of that world in which she lived (thesuffering was so intense it was like hanging upside down) was removed.
Thesedays, people think that this ceremony will prolong the life of parentsand remove all suffering and anguish. This is also one of thetraditional holiday periods in Japan when people exchange gifts. Theother traditional time is over New Years. Obon is a ceremony torespectfully honor the spirits of the ancestors; it is also to ask forthe long life or our parents. In preparation for meeting the spirits,it is customary to thoroughly clean our house and put ourselves inorder as if meeting guests.
On the evening of the 13th, fires are lit with hemp stalks or pinetorches. These lights serve as a guide for the returning ancestors-They are like a voice crying out, “Come this way, Grandpa andGrandma.” If these lights are not clearly visible, the spirits will beunsure which way to go.
Thespirits are usually sent back on the 15th or 16th. Once again, hempstalks are lit and in some places are set out on small boats withofferings to float down rivers or out to sea. Lately, because of theproblem of pollution, the boats are collected at temples and otherplaces. People chant “Obon spirits, go away on this boat,” and sendthem off carefully. On the 16th, it is said that the ancestral spirits return home ridingon cows and carrying luggage on horses. Eggplants and cucumbers, in theshapes of cows and horses, are offered.
Where will the ancestors who have come for the offerings be greeted? Aspecial shelf called an Obon-dana or Tama-dana is made where the familymemorial tablet is place along with various offerings. At those houseswhere this kind of shelf is not set up, the ancestral spirits aregreeted at the Buddha-altar. This is where the temple priest chants thetana-gyo, a sutra read for the ancestors.
TheObon Sejiki-e, a ceremony to comfort the ancestral spirits, is animportant ceremony in The Soto Zen School. At every The Soto Zen Schooltemple, this ceremony is performed as a way of making offerings to thefamily ancestors, to one’s parents, relatives, and spirits of otherpeople we are connected with, as well as for spirits that are no longerconnected to any living person.
I am not too much for the more magical and superstitious elements of the holiday. But, whatever the origins and popular ideas, on Obon, we express gratitude and compassion for the lives of our ancestors, family and friends, past and still living.
We also reflect upon how we are living now.
If you would like to see an image of traditional Japanese ‘Bon’ dancing … a kind of celebration to welcome back the “spirits of the dead” …