Our annual San Mateo Buddhist Temple Obon observances will be held this month with cemetery services and Obon Odori dancing on Saturday, August 9, and our Obon Service at the temple on Sunday, August 10. The Buddhist observance of Obon is inspired by the story of the Buddha’s compassionate teaching to his disciple Mahamaudgalyayana.
Mahamaudgalyayana felt deep gratitude toward his loving mother, and after she passed away, he would reflect on how all the things she had done for him continued to bring benefit to his life. As an enlightened disciple of the Buddha, Mahamaudgalyana had a special ability to see the workings of cause and effect beyond the boundaries of birth and death. On one occasion he used this power to search for his mother throughout the six realms of existence*. At that time, he saw that his mother had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a state of suffering from unsatisfied desire.
Mahamaudgalyayana immediately went to the Buddha to ask what he could do to ease his mother’s suffering. Because there is nothing that we can do directly for a loved one once they have passed away and ceased to dwell in this world, the Buddha advised Mahamaudgalyayana that the best way for him to express the feelings of gratitude he felt for his departed mother would be to practice generosity toward the people he lived with everyday. Mahamaudgalyayana followed the Buddha’s instructions and made a gift of food, clothing and other necessary items to his fellow monks at the conclusion of their rainy season retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.
After making this gift, his thoughts turned once again to his mother. Again, he used his special power of vision to seek her out in the various realms of birth and death. He was delighted to see that his mother had been released from suffering in the realm of the hungry ghosts. At that time, we are told that the usually reserved and dignified monk Mahamaudgalyayana was so overjoyed by the power of the Buddha’s teaching to bring about freedom from suffering that he began to leap and dance about without any regard for what others might think of him. This unselfconscious dance of joy serves as the basis for the Obon Odori dancing that we will enjoy at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple on the evening of August 9.
The forty-eight vows established by Bodhisattva Dharmakara express his aspiration to liberate all beings from suffering. The Larger Pure Land Sutra tells how these vows were fulfilled when he realized perfect enlightenment becoming the Buddha Amitabha (Amida Buddha). Of the forty-eight vows, the eighteenth vow is called the Primal Vow because it is the vow that establishes the path for all beings to realize awakening through the Nembutsu. In the Jodo Shinshu Nembutsu tradition, the other forty-seven vows are considered to be further elaborations on the meaning of the eighteenth vow. I find that the sixth vow quoted below has special meaning for us during this Obon season:
If, when I attain Buddhahood, the humans and devas in my land should not possess divine eyes, and thus be unable to see at least a hundred thousand kotis of nayutas of Buddha-lands, may I not attain the perfect enlightenment.
(Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II: The Larger Sutra, p. 20)
The expression “divine eyes” in this passage refers to that special power of vision possessed by Mahamaudgalyayana and all awakened beings.
The loved ones we remember during Obon now dwell in Amida Buddha’s land of peace and bliss. The Larger Sutra tells us that they have realized the same awakening as Mahamaudgalyayana along with that special power to observe the workings of cause and effect throughout the six realms of existence. In that sense, those departed loved ones view us living in this world of difficulty and confusion in the same way that Mahamaudgalyayana viewed his mother in the realm of the hungry ghosts. Just as Mahamaudgalyayana worked for the liberation of his own mother after he realized enlightenment, the loved ones we remember at Obon are constantly working to guide us to awakening. They are not ghosts who come into our lives for a few days every summer during Obon. They return to us as bodhisattvas, compassionate guides who support us in each moment of our lives.
Mahamaudgalyayana dances with joy because he sees the suffering of his mother as his own suffering, and experiences her liberation as his own liberation. To see with the eyes of awakening is not just to see what is happening, but to respond to the suffering of others with action motivated by deep compassion. That perspective of deep compassion is realized by all who receive birth in Amida Buddha’s realm of immeasurable peace and bliss. Reflecting on our loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore, we find that they are guiding us with compassion in this very moment. As we gather to dance with joy in gratitude for the ways that they continue to support and guide us in our lives, I find that the loved ones I remember are there with me, dancing with joy because I have encountered the path to liberation from suffering in the Nembutsu.
*hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, fighting titans, and heavenly beings