Treeleaf Zen

Treeleaf Zen

OBON ! Remembering our Ancestors, Honoring the Living


This week (actually, the holiday is in both July and August) is the major Japanese Buddhist holiday of Obon … a time for remembering the deceased and our ancestors …

Here is the description by the Soto Zen headquarters in Japan

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.

In popular Japanese culture, it has evolved into a time of family reunion, which people return to ancestral hometowns and visitand clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestorsare supposed to revisit the household altars. There is a kind of square dancing or “Bon Dance”, said to come because the disciple, Maudgalyayana, happy because of his mother’s release and grateful forhis mother’s kindness, danced with joy.


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” …


(remember: recording ends soon after the beginning bells;
a sitting time of 20 to 35 minutes is recommended)

To subscribe to “Treeleaf Zen” click here.


Comments read comments(2)
post a comment

posted August 14, 2009 at 3:03 pm

I’m confused…. I thought Buddhists didn’t believe in souls…

report abuse


posted August 14, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Hi Melissa,
More “Confucian: than “Confusion” …
Ya see, this is a case in which Buddhism meets thousands of years of popular Pan-Asian/Japanese and Confucian beliefs about ancestors and spirits … and the popular beliefs trump Buddhist philosophy and nobody makes a big deal of it.
In other words, yes, what is say is true. However, you must remember that … for the average Asian person … Buddhism is not some high doctrine, but there popular family religion. So, they don’t worry about the finer points of doctrine. They just know that, if they don’t respect the spirits of their ancestors … those ancestors will suffer, their family will suffer. Even modern Asian people often have a “better take no chances and do it” attitude on this.
Gassho, J

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Treeleaf Zen. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Zen Moments Inspiration Report Happy Reading!!! ...

posted 9:26:10am Jul. 06, 2012 | read full post »

Joyful Mind, Motherly Mind, Great Mind ( ... and thank you to Beliefnet)
( Dogen's Instructions for the Cook - XXXIII)As we close this year 2009 ... all is truly but a constant beginning, ever new ...And as we conclude our reading of the Tenzo Kyokun, there remains ongoing life and practice ...In these final ...

posted 3:12:37am Dec. 31, 2009 | read full post »

Between Heaven and Hell
(And, in case you have not heard ... after a lovely year here at, our daily "Sit-a-long with Jundo" Zazen netcasts will be moving home on January 1st to SHAMBHALA SUNSPACE, the webpage of the Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma ...

posted 3:45:48am Dec. 30, 2009 | read full post »

Life Is Our Temple
( Dogen's Instructions for the Cook - XXXI)Right here, right now ... this is the time and place of realization  ... awakening and making it real ...___________________________When I observedaccomplished people in the past who held the ...

posted 7:54:33am Dec. 29, 2009 | read full post »

'Mondays with TAIGU' - A New Year ... No Expectations ...
A new year ... no expectations ...(After a lovely year here at, our daily "Sit-a-long with Jundo" Zazen netcasts will be moving home on January 1st to SHAMBHALA SUNSPACE, the webpage of the Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma magazines, ...

posted 2:38:50am Dec. 28, 2009 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.