It’s Obon Time

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In a few weeks we will be in what we call Obon season.  Temples throughout the world celebrate and commemorate Obon.  Sadly, this year, temples all over the world have been canceling the Obon celebration.  This may be the first time since WWII that Obon has been canceled in many temples in the United States.

This is a time when we can take a moment to read about the significance and history of Obon.  The tradition dates back to the time of the Buddha.  The story of Obon comes from the Ullambana Sutra.  A talented and wonderful disciple of the Buddha named Mogallana was well known for his ability to deeply meditate.  He was this able to see worlds beyond the human realm.  He was able to see Jigoku (Hell), Gaki (Hungry Ghosts), Chikusho (Animal Realm), Ashura (Fighting Spirits), and Tenjin (Heavenly Beings).

One particular time while viewing the world of Gaki he was seeing all the many beings suffering in this realm.  He was shocked and saddened to see his mother in this realm.  She was hanging upside down and begging for water and food.  Mogallana attempted to give her something to eat and when it reached her mouth it burst into flames, doubling her agony.

Mogallana, came out of his meditative state and immediately went to the Buddha and asked what he could do to help his mother.  The Buddha informed Mogallana that his mother in her previous life had been selfish and therefore resides in the realm of the hungry ghosts.  If he wants to help his mother, Mogallana was instructed that he must perform a selfless act of Dana (Selfless Sharing).

Mogallana then went to his fellow monks and presented them with clothing and food.  This act of Dana released his mother from the realm of Gaki and when Mogallana saw this he danced for joy.  This was the beginning of Bon Odori or the Bon Dance.  The word Bon comes from the Sanskrit Ullambana.

The story of Obon is filled with symbolism and teachings that are very relevant to our lives today. Mogallana honors his mother with the practice of Dana.  Each Obon we gather and honor our family members and make donations in their memory.  We dance to celebrate our lives which are gifts given to us by our parents.  We celebrate life with food dance and drink.

This year we cannot gather together to do this, but each of us can celebrate Obon in our own way.  We can ring a bell, burn some incense and make a donation in memory of our loved ones. We can take a moment to remember our family members and vow to celebrate their lives by living our lives with gratitude, compassion and love.  Happy Obon everyone.


Rev. Hosei Shinseki