The Obon observances that we hold during the month of August originate in a teaching on the practice of giving (Dana) that Sakyamuni Buddha shared with his disciple Mahamaudgalyayana. Following his mother’s departure from this world, Mahamaudgalyayana saw that she had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a world of hunger, thirst, and unsatisfied desire. He immediately went to the Buddha and asked for guidance on how he could liberate his mother from that world of suffering. The Buddha instructed him to present a gift of food, clothing, and other essential items to the monastic Sangha. After offering the prescribed gift to the Sangha, Mahamaudgalyayana saw that his mother had been liberated from suffering and he was filled with joy.
It is taught that greed and attachment are the cause of birth in the realm of the hungry ghosts. According to one commentary, Mahamaudgalyayana’s mother fell into the realm of the hungry ghosts because her attachment to her own child was so strong, that she always favored him over other children. One’s attachment to one’s own child can become a form of greed that causes great suffering. For example, a parent who only has love for their own child, may be unkind to other children.
The Buddha recommended the practice of giving as the path to freedom from attachment and greed. There are three essential aspects of a gift: the giver, the gift, and the recipient. Before the gift is presented, the giver feels joyful anticipation. At the time that the gift is given the giver feels joy in the happiness of the recipient whose need has been met by the gift. After the gift has been given the giver enjoys satisfaction in having been able to bring happiness to the recipient. Furthermore, a good gift is presented in a way that the recipient does not feel embarrassed, ashamed, or belittled.
A good gift is one that is useful to the recipient and does not cause harm or problems for the recipient. Care should also be taken to give gifts of good quality. It is said that one who enjoys delicious foods oneself, but makes gifts of foods that are not delicious is like a slave to the gift. One who makes gifts of the same food that one enjoys is like a friend to the gift. One who finds contentment with what one has and delights in giving the most delicious food to others is like a king or a queen with regard to the gift.
To receive with joy is to be free of greed, anger, or delusion with regard to the gift. Greed can be seen in thoughts like “That’s it? I was hoping for something more.” or “I would have liked something better than this.” Anger can arise when we think, “Why did she get a better one than I did. That’s not fair!” Failing to consider the feelings of the giver of a gift can be a great delusion.
The Buddhist tradition describes three kinds of gifts: the gift of material wealth, the gift of the Dharma, and the gift of freedom from fear. The food and robes that Mahamaudgalyayana donated to the Sangha was a gift of material wealth. The wise teaching that Sakyamuni shared with Mahamaudgalyayana was a gift of the Dharma. Furthermore, when Mahamaudgalyayana followed the teaching that he received from the Buddha, he found that his mother had been liberated from the realm of the hungry ghosts, and the anxiety he felt for her rebirth vanished. In this way, we can see how he received the gift of freedom from fear.
During our Obon observance, we too recall our departed loved ones, just as Mahamaudgalyayana’s mind turned to his mother after she passed from this world. We receive comfort in the teaching of Amida Buddha’s compassionate vow, which assures us that all those who entrust in the Buddha and aspire for birth in the realm of peace and bliss will realize liberation from suffering in the cycle of death and rebirth at the end of their lives in this world. Because Obon is a time for us to celebrate the power of the Buddha’s vow that has the power to liberate our loved ones and ourselves from the cycle of continued suffering, we call it “Kangi-e, the Gathering of Joy.” What better way to express our gratitude for the gift of freedom that we receive from Amida Buddha than reciting the Buddha’s name in the words Namo Amida Butsu.
Namo Amida Butsu