Obon’s history and a modern celebration


Rev. Matt Hamasaki. file photo

The Rev. Matt Hamasaki defines Obon as “a time when we honor those who have gone before us.”

In sharing the history of Obon, the Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin reverend told a story Buddhists learn about the Urabon sutra, where Buddha disciple Mokuren develops supernatural powers and sees his deceased mother suffering in the realm of the hungry ghosts.

Hamasaki says Mokuren asks the Buddha how to end his mother’s suffering. The Buddha tells him to give alms to the sangha, which he does. The merit from this act sets the mother free from her suffering.

“He gets up and he starts to dance. He’s dancing because his mother is no longer suffering in the hellish realm and that’s where supposedly the Obon dancing comes from,” Hamasaki told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview.

From a Japanese Obon perspective, Hamasaki said it’s a time for the ancestors’ souls to visit with their families. He added that Japanese families go to cemeteries and clean the graves of their lost loved ones in a tradition called hakamairi. Likewise, Hamasaki visits his grandparents and great-grandparents’ grave sites to pay his respects.

“I know I’ll never forget that’s something I have to do and hopefully continue to pass that down through the family …” Hamasaki said of the tradition.

In a more traditional understanding of Obon, Hamasaki discussed the hatsubon, “a special service just for those families, and we recognize that this is their first Obon since their loved one has passed.” He added that when an entire community comes together, they recognize how their ancestors and close family members brought them life.

Like many temples and churches, the Buddhist Church of Sacramento Betsuin has had to limit in-person services due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hamasaki said he conducted virtual services for the temple members, noting it’s easier to communicate with people in-person and “there’s no substitution for that.”

Despite the limitations, the increased reach of people outside of the temple has been a positive development for virtual services, he said.

In addition to conducting online services throughout the pandemic, the temple held a virtual Obon festival last year. Hamasaki said it featured Bon Odori instructional videos, along with poetry, dancing and taiko.

In addition to holding a virtual Obon festival July 10 at 7 p.m., the temple will hold a separate virtual bazaar Aug. 14. Hamasaki said the Obon festival will feature poetry, dancing, taiko and singing performances, similar to last year’s festival. A hatsubon service will be conducted July 11 at 9:30 a.m.

To register for the Obon festival, visit: www.tinyurl.com/9f8mczw8.

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