In Japan, Obon is traditionally one of the busiest travel seasons, as family members who have moved away from their ancestral hometown will travel great distances to return home during Obon. At the San Mateo Buddhist Temple too, there are many Sangha members who return to the Temple and reconnect with the Sangha each year during Obon odori dance practices and for the dance itself. Our Hatsubon service is one of our most well-attended services of the year, as families gather from great distances to remember loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore since the previous year’s Obon. In this year of Covid-19, when we are unable to gather in person at the Temple, we will be conducting the Obon services online and over the telephone via Zoom Meeting on Sunday, August 9 at 9:30 a.m. This unusual Obon observance gives us pause to reflect upon the meaning of returning home for Obon.
The Buddhist observance of Obon is inspired by the story of the Buddha’s disciple Mahamaudgalyayana, who felt deep gratitude toward his loving mother. After she passed away, he entered into deep concentration and searched for his mother throughout the many paths of birth and death. At that time, he saw that his mother had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a state of suffering from unsatisfied desire.
When he went to the Buddha for guidance, 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 every day. Accordingly, Mahamaudgalyayana 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, Mahamaudgalyayana entered into deep concentration and was delighted to see that his mother had been released from suffering in the realm of the hungry ghosts.
In the Buddhist traditions of Japan it is customary to observe Obon over a three day period from the thirteenth to the fifteenth of July or August, depending on the region. It is believed that during Obon the departed loved ones return to the obutsudan Buddha shrine in the family home return from whichever path of rebirth they may be dwelling in during that time, so gathering in the home to welcome them with a Buddhist service is a treasured tradition.
In the Jodo Shinshu tradition, however, our observance of Obon is grounded in the Buddha’s teachings in the Larger Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, which state that those who live with deep entrusting in Amida Buddha and recite the Nembutsu in joy and gratitude, are assured to realize liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth at the end of this life through birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.
While we recall the lives of our loved ones at Obon and as we take comfort in the Nembutsu, we are reminded that the power of Amida Buddha’s compassion has liberated them from the bonds of death and rebirth. In the Larger Sutra is written that those who realize birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha return freely to this world to “. . . awaken sentient beings countless as the sands of the Ganges, and bring them to abide firmly in the unexcelled, right, true way.” (Chapter on Realization 17, 22nd Vow).
As we observe an extraordinary Obon this year, let us take comfort in the Buddha’s teaching that our loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore continue to guide us on our path to awakening throughout the year wherever the journey of our lives takes us.
Namo Amida Butsu