Obon is of course a part of the Buddhist tradition, but it is also a part of the annual calendar for many Japanese because it resonates with something very important to the heart of many Japanese: the idea of paying respects to those who lived before us.
The Tenrikyo tradition observes a memorial service twice a year — in spring and autumn, in March and September, respectively — for this very same reason. In our faith, we believe in the continuity of life over generations. We borrow our bodies from God the Parent. God provides for us with the blessings of a human body so that we can aspire to live the Joyous Life. Upon death, we return our bodies to God. And at rebirth, we are lent a new body from God, so that we can continue in our saga for the Joyous Life.
And in this quest for Joyous Life, we are never alone.
In our lifetimes, we share so much with our fellow human beings. Joyous Life is a joy that cannot be experienced alone, but rather something that we bring to others and others bring to us.
Over generations, we are also benefactors of what our forebears left for us. Their struggles and hardships have become the foundation for our well-being today. And although we cannot see them anymore, their legacy is still with us today, and it is our role to nurture it for the next generations.
There is a very simple analogy to illustrate our relationship with those who we are no longer able to see: an analogy of a tree. Our forebears are the roots of the tree and we, on the other hand, are the trunk, the branches, the leaves, and the fruits of the tree. Oftentimes, our attention goes to the leaves and fruit of the tree. We marvel at the beautiful foliage or enjoy the apples and oranges that hang from the tree. We take care to prune the branches. But there is also something very important that we must do, and that is to provide water and nourishment to that part of the tree that we cannot see but is quite critical to the health of the tree. Very few would comment on how beautiful the roots of the tree are, but we all know that root of the tree is what keeps it grounded and stable.
And if our forebears are the roots, then, to say thanks to them is the equivalent of watering the roots that provide for our well-being.
Through this simple act of appreciation to our forebears, we are then able to nourish this tree so that generations that follow us can also continue to benefit from what our forebears left for us. And thus, we continue in our quest for Joyous Life.
Rev. Takahiko Hayashi is the head minister of the Tenrikyo America West Church in San Francisco. He can be reached at (415) 752-2431 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.