Rev. Ken Yamada

In the summer heat, Japanese love a good ghost story that’ll send chills up their spine. In some ways, the Obon tradition reflects that feeling with crowds of people dancing joyfully in memory of the dearly departed.

Throughout California and in various parts of the country this summer, Japanese Americans and others gather for Obon dances with Japanese folk songs and traditional clothing. Although a Buddhist observance, many non-Buddhists join the fun as a kind of Japanese cultural activity. However, Obon is more than just dancing.

In Japan, Obon is a time to help departed loved ones find their way home, so people hang lanterns outside their front door or float lighted candles on toy wooden boats down streams, representing the journey of ancestral spirits.

The Obon tradition comes from the Ullambana sutra (Urabon in Japanese), which tells the story of Mogallana, who envisions his recently deceased mother suffering in a hell-like realm. Mogallana was a disciple of the Buddha, who advised him to make offerings to monks in his mother’s memory, which he does, after which his mother is liberated from her suffering. Mogallana’s heart fills with joy and he begins dancing.

To me, this story is less about ghosts and spirits and more about the real suffering we face when loved ones die. Obon helps us understand the eternal bond and deep karmic connection we have to them, despite their absence. After all, they make us who we are.

The Obon dance typically is followed the next day by an Obon memorial service, which includes a special ceremony called Hatsubon, a “first memorial” for people who passed away within the year. That same weekend, many people visit cemeteries and leave flowers for loved ones.

There is no specific date designated as Obon other than summer in general. Therefore, each temple sets its own Obon schedule. Many temples combine Obon weekend with a summer festival, which includes Japanese foods and crafts for sale, children’s games and other activities.

In Berkeley, the Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji temples hold a joint Obon dance, which started in 1980, with each temple alternating years as host. This year’s event will be held at Higashi Honganji beginning at 6:30 p.m. on July 14. Both temples are relatively small so a joint Obon dance was a way to sustain this tradition and strengthen the community. It’s a little ironic because initially in the early 1900s, there was only the Nishi Honganji temple in Berkeley, but because of a disagreement over how a Japanese language school was managed, a group of families broke away in 1926 and established the Higashi Honganji temple. For close to six decades, our dance has been led by Japanese classical dance instructor Michiya Hanayagi sensei, and later by her daughter, Michisuya Hanayagi sensei.

Originally, there was only one Honganji temple in Japan. In the early 1600s, samurai ruler Tokugawa Ieyasu, afraid of Honganji’s political influence and its many followers, split the temple into two, which became known as Higashi (east) and Nishi (west), based on their location in Kyoto. Today, both organizations claim millions of members in Japan. In the United States, Nishi Honganji has been more active in establishing temples. Higashi Honganji has nine temples located in California and Hawai‘i — in Los Angeles, Berkeley, West Covina, Newport Beach, Honolulu, Palolo, Kaneohe, Hilo and Waimea.

Both Nishi and Higashi Honganji follow the teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Therefore, the meaning of Obon as a traditional Buddhist memorial service and dance is the same. It’s a time to reflect on those people no longer with us, but who remain very much in our hearts.

Rev. Ken Yamada is editor of the Shinshu Center of America and past minister of Berkeley Higashi Honganji Temple. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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