In March 2009, the Rev. Ronald Kobata became minister of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. Kobata said that it’s “quite an honor” to be a reverend at the first congregation of Buddhist Churches of America, founded in 1898, and to lead a congregation in his hometown — something he said that he never expected would happen.
Kobata’s role in San Francisco follows more than 20 years of ministerial assignments in Hawai‘i. In this interview, Kobata discusses his thoughts on the tradition of Obon celebrations, and the difference between these celebrations in Hawai‘i and California.
Nichi Bei Weekly: What are some of the differences between the Obon tradition here as opposed to Hawai‘i?
Ronald Kobata: As you are aware, there are different denominations, so I can’t speak for the other denominations. And I was primarily in Maui, so that’s what my reference is, and I don’t assume all the islands follow the same customs. One contrast is that the custom of the Shin-Buddhist temples on Maui is to have the Obon service combined with Obon dance activity, whereas BCA temples have a separate service and combine the Obon activity with a festival or bazaar. So, in Hawai’i, the families that would come to participate in the Obon service typically join the rest of the community for the dance. There wouldn’t be a bazaar, but food booths, just for convenience. But the bazaars here are like regular carnivals, with food booths, and raffles and sales going on. So the scale is different.
NBW: As a minister, does having that kind of carnival detract from the religious meaning at all?
RK: I acknowledge it’s a practical thing to draw people. Contrasting it to Maui, where the service is combined with the dance, in a sense, the dance becomes the main attraction. Here, it appears the bazaar draws the general community, so the dance is like a sideshow. … The dancing in Hawai’i seems to overshadow the service in some respects. Especially those who have lost loved ones, they come for the memorial aspect, but I was always reminded that we have to finish on time because the dancers get anxious to start the dancing. Another contrast is that the dances went longer. The dances here are in a shorter timeframe.
NBW: Why do you think that is?
RK: People can hang out in the warm evening; it’s a nice social event. Another contrast is that — I guess it’s growing in interest here among the general community — but in Hawai’i it’s not a Buddhist community event, but a general celebration. Local newspapers would have the Obon dance schedule. So it’s a more diverse participation, regardless of culture, ethnic background or even religious traditions.
NBW: How do you feel, as someone for whom the religious aspect is obviously important, about people joining who don’t know the significance?
RK: I think they come with a certain measure of familiarity of the historic and cultural significance because that’s what’s announced in the local paper, so they don’t come just to move in a circle. And the spirit of community is not the monopoly of any religion, so as long as they can identify and respect the spirit of it, I personally invite it. And it’s kind of a nice connection. In the same respect, plenty of Buddhist families observe Christmas.
NBW: How do you enjoy leading a congregation here as opposed to Hawai‘i?
RK: What I like about being here is that it’s much more diverse, being in an urban setting. My personal feeling is to get away from the notion of this being a Japanese religion, because Buddhism isn’t an ethnic religion; it’s global and universal in its values, so it shouldn’t be limited in that sense. … Like many churches, we are concerned about the aging congregation, the older members passing on and the younger members not choosing to be as actively involved as we would like.
NBW: Does the Obon tradition have significance for you personally?
RK: It’s an interesting thing. In Japan, Obon isn’t played up as much as it is here in America. I think we just discovered that this is a niche. We found something that captures people’s imaginations, helps people. And maybe there’s nostalgia for the older generation… In an institutional sense, the Obon observance isn’t as important as it is here in the West. I grew up here, so I understand the dancing and activities are a big thing, in Hawai’i too, but then I go back to Japan and it’s pointed out to me that the temples of our denomination don’t necessarily observe it to the same scale. And so, personally, it obviously has a religious significance, but we have plenty of other events throughout the year that honor ancestors, but we have this dancing and bazaar thing going on, so it attracts more of our attention and we invest more energy to support it. But I don’t see it as being more significant, because any religious gathering — as long as it helps you to be mindful and connected with the basic religious insights and sense of appreciation and indebtedness for just living — is important.
NBW: Is it satisfying for you to have people get excited about this yearly event, or is it frustrating that they might forget about being mindful of its meaning?
RK: Maybe there was a phase where I was kind of concerned about the over-commercialization. My perspective now is that it’s another opportunity to teach, to try to make the temple, the community, the congregation seem more accessible, open, welcoming. In that respect, if it accomplishes it, then fine. So, the idea of making the connection to the general community is where I feel OK about it. And there is the practical thing that this is a major fundraiser … I feel like we’re in a renaissance. In my view anyway, the number of participants is increasing, younger folks, people coming to participate in the dancing. I have no idea why. That seems to be a new trend.
NBW: Is there anything unique about this year’s celebration?
RK: The Northern Japan disaster is part of people’s consciousness. This year they’re going to reintroduce a Fukushima Obon dance that’s very popular in Hawai’i, to express support and keep awareness about the recovery, along with additional fundraising activities.