As a child growing up in Minnesota, my birthday party in July was one of the highlights of summer that I looked forward to each year, along with camping trips to the North Shore of Lake Superior and Fourth of July fireworks. I would eagerly anticipate having all my friends come over to eat cake and ice cream and play on the “slip and slide,” a large plastic sheet that we would spread out on the lawn and wet down with a garden hose.
I have wonderful memories of my birthday parties as a child and now I do my best to create those memories for my own children. For our oldest son, summer begins with his birthday party in June and culminates with treats, dancing and staying out late for Obon Odori in August. This year, our San Mateo Buddhist Temple Obon observances will occur with cemetery services and Obon Odori dancing on Saturday, August 13, and our Obon Service at the temple on Sunday, August 14. 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 Saturday, August 13.
In one version of this story, Mahamaudgalyana questions the Buddha regarding how his kind mother could have fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, the destination of those who fail to practice true generosity. The Buddha explains that while Mahamaudgalyayana’s mother was kind to him, she always restrained her generosity so that she would be able to provide her son with the best things.
I have yet to meet a parent who does not give ultimate preference to their own children. Now that I am a parent myself, I realize all the attention and planning that goes into hosting a successful birthday party. Venues have to be reserved, menus planned, and cakes ordered or baked. In making all these decisions, the preferences of our birthday boy get first priority. Usually we try to teach our children that guests get served first, but when hosting a birthday party, our custom is for the birthday boy or girl to choose the first slice of cake.
Sakyamuni Buddha and the enlightened monks and nuns who have followed his example all left home so that they could seek the path of freedom from karmic bonds. My karmic bonds are too deep to leave home and abandon my bias towards my own family. For this very reason, I find my Dharma home in Shinran’s path of the Nembutsu. Shinran himself married and raised several children with his wife Eshinni. He lived with deep awareness of the karma that bound that bound him to this world, and yet he was confident that the great compassion of the Buddha would carry him to liberation through the Nembutsu. He expresses his joy in the following words:
How joyous I am, realizing as I humbly reflect that my heart and mind stand rooted in the Buddha-ground of the universal Vow, and that my thoughts and feelings flow within the dharma-ocean, which is beyond comprehension.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 303)
In this season of Obon, we join Mahamaudgalyayana in remembering those who for our sake have taken upon themselves the karmic burden of special concern for us above all others. We join Mahamaudgalyayana and Shinran in the dance of joy at encountering the power of the Buddha’s compassion to bring about liberation for all who bear a heavy burden of karma.
Namo Amida Butsu
*hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, fighting titans, and heavenly beings