Obon Festival

The History and Traditions of the Buddhist Obon Festival

The Obon Festival season is with us once more!  Urabon, shortened as Obon is a Japanese term translated from the Sanskrit word ‘Ullambana’ which actually means ‘to hang upside down’. It is used to imply the excruciating suffering, be it physical or spiritual, when one is hung upside down. The festival is considered an Invitation to the Dead because it is believed to be the time the spirits revisit our world. Even though such dark imagery is associated with its name and meaning, the Obon festival is actually a fun tradition celebrated with large gatherings, family reunions, and bright lanterns.

Conduction of Obon ritual is in accordance with Sâkyamuni Buddha teachings as given by him in the Urabon Sutra. The story in this Sutra goes like this: Mokuren Sonja, Sâkyamuni’s disciple and a priest renowned for his supernatural powers amongst all the other disciples, used these supernatural powers to meditate about his deceased mother. He realized that his mother had fallen into the hands of hungry ghosts which were tormenting her. The disciple sought for advice from Sâkyamuni on what to do to free his mother from the torture, the Buddha advised him to give an offering to his fellow priests who had just finished their summer retreat. Upon doing this, he saw his mother freed from the torture and danced joyously after the incidence. This story was interpreted differently over time including the belief that ancestral spirits actually revisit this world.

Obon is among the most important Buddhist rites celebrated in Japan, a number of other Asian countries and other parts of the world. Nationwide, travel increases during the months of July and August as multitudes of Japanese go home for the Obon Festival.

The festival has spread to other countries mainly through Japanese immigration, with the first American Obon Festival being observed in Hawaii in 1910. It was celebrated in the continental United States in 1931 at the San Francisco’s Buddhist Church, the oldest Buddhist temple establishment in the U.S. Since its outset in the U.S., Obon Festival has remained one of the most important Japanese-American traditions of folk culture. Today, there are large Obon Festivals held in numerous locations of the United States, Canada and South America as well as parts of Asia.

A wide variety of traditions are observed during the Obon Festival. The time and traditions can vary, not just because it is celebrated in many different countries. Even within Japan itself, the easterners observe it in July while the westerners do it in August, still some Japanese Buddhists observe it on the 15th day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, a date which is different altogether. In spite of all these variations most Japanese follow some similar traditions including engaging in an elaborate Bon Odori dance, cleaning the ancestor’s graves, laying flowers on graves, meeting with family and revisiting hometowns. The light cotton kimonos adorned by observers are meant to reflect the summer heat. After a welcome of Obon, the first day of the festival, the disciples lure the ancestors’ spirits into their homes through paper lanterns. Some give a food offering to the spirits believed to revisit earth during this special festival. On the last day of the festival, the devotees bid the spirits a farewell by placing lanterns filled with candles into rivers, an act meant to guide the spirits as they return to the world of dead. Obon Festival normally lasts for three days.

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