In East Asian Buddhism, Obon is traditionally understood to be the time once a year when loved ones who have departed this world for another destination in the cycle of birth and death, or samsara, return here to be with their families. The next birth is traditionally believed to occur sometime during the 49-day period after death. With this understanding, it is customary to avoid holding the Hatsubon service during the 49-day period of mourning, because in principle, the loved one may not yet have departed to another birth from which they would return at Obon. If the Obon observance happens to fall during the 49-day period of mourning, Hatsubon is observed the following year.
However, in the Jodo Shinshu tradition it is taught that all beings who encounter the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha are completely liberated from samsara and realize birth in the Pure Land at the very moment of death. From the Pure Land, they return as bodhisattvas to freely guide all beings to awakening moment to moment throughout the year, not just during Obon. So, in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, Obon is time to reflect in gratitude on the power of Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow to liberate all beings from suffering. Our departed loved ones are present guiding us each day of our lives, but we observe Obon as a special occasion to reflect and express our gratitude.
Several Sangha members have shared with me that they take comfort in the feeling that their departed loved ones are present with them during Obon. While those who have crossed over to the Other Shore are guiding us every day of our lives, the collective remembrance that we practice with our fellow Sangha members during Obon activities like cemetery visits, the Hatsubon Service, and Obon Odori dancing opens our minds to a deeper awareness of their presence. This powerful reawakening of our gratitude to those who have gone before, creates a special feeling that they have returned to be with us during Obon. In this way, it is natural to think of Obon as a time of reunion after a long separation.
As we continue our tentative return to pre-pandemic activities, it has been a joy to reunite with family and friends I have not seen in a long while. Meeting again after over a year of separation, I notice that some children have grown much taller. Little ones who were just starting to walk are now running, climbing, and talking. A few adults have longer hair, perhaps with a little more grey, or a few more wrinkles around their smiles. At the same time, I am reminded that the flow of impermanence has been at work in my life as well. A good Dharma friend kindly remarked “You’ve only aged a little.”
Pausing to savor these encounters, I feel deep gratitude to have these fellow travelers in my life. Coming together after a long separation, I awaken to ways in which they guide and support my life that I now appreciate more fully. Even in separation, our connection grows deeper as we journey through life with the shared destination of awakening in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.
Likewise, remembering our departed loved ones at Obon, we find that our feeling of connection with them deepens as we draw a little nearer to our own birth in the Pure Land. Year by year, our appreciation deepens for the ways in which they continue to guide us. Moment by moment, we express our gratitude for the peace of mind we receive in the words Namo Amida Butsu.
Namo Amida Butsu.