After New Year’s, Obon is the most important of Japan’s national holidays. Also known as the Feast of the Lanterns or the Festival for the Dead, Obon is the time set apart for the veneration of our ancestors. The time dedicated to the restoration of familial and generational ties. The time when we remember the dead.
The Japanese is an abbreviation of Urabon, a phonetic reduction of the Sanskrit Ullambana, meaning “to hang upside down.” It represents the suffering of those “hungry ghosts” whose sins have forestalled their reincarnation and consigned them to the torments of Hell. On the final day of Obon, the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month (according to the old calendar), the Ruler of the Earthly Realms grants forgiveness to all such benighted souls and thus upon all humankind. For none of us pass from this life pure.
The Festival has its beginnings in the Urabon Sutra and the story of Maudgalyayana, a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha. Not long after his mother’s spirit passed from this life, Mokuren Sonja (as the Japanese pronounce his name) discerned her to be suffering the tortures of Ullambana. Water boiled upon touching her lips. Everything she ate turned to ash.
In despair, Mokuren sought out the wisdom of the Buddha, who told him that his mother’s bad karma was the consequence of a life given over to petty greed and stinginess. To merit her release from hell, Mokuren had to practice dana, or selfless giving, on her behalf. He was commanded to summon the ten sanctified priests from the Ten Worlds to his temple, tend to their material needs, and entreat them to perform for his mother a proper memorial service. Mokuren was further instructed that he must sincerely thank his mother for all she had done for him during her life, her failings and shortcomings notwithstanding.
This gratitude he expressed and these rites he performed. Because of his filial piety, his mother’s soul was reborn into the Pure Land. Mokuren lit bonfires to show her the way and danced with joy at the knowledge of her redemption.
All these elements of the first Obon remain with us to this day.
In the modern era, the festival is celebrated from August thirteenth to the fifteenth. We light small ceremonial fires, welcoming the spirits to our hearts and homes. As Mokuren served his elders, we too leave offerings of food, flowers, and incense upon the household altars. The Bon Odori dance brings friends and neighbors together to celebrate the harmony of all creation made possible by the disciple’s example.
On the evening of the final day, the okuribi bonfires burn like stars on the mountains, lighting the way to heaven. We cast paper lanterns upon the waters to guide the spirits of the dead back to the Pure Land. As they slip from this mortal realm, dancing along the paths of the ceaseless currents, the words of the Buddha are not lost from our thoughts, reminding us always:
The weight of obligation we owe our ancestors is as boundless as the heavens.