As summer vacation draws to a close we prepare to welcome the Autumn Equinox with our Ohigan Service on Sunday, September 23. Looking back on the lively season of temple activities that we enjoy between our bazaar in late June and our Obon in mid-August, I fondly recall the week of our Summer Terakoya Buddhist summer camp, when the sound of joyful children’s voices could be heard all day long at the temple.
This year our theme for Terakoya was Buddhist Holidays from around the world that commemorate important events in the life of Sakyamuni Buddha.
On the Thursday of Terakoya, we observed a mini-Obon service commemorating the teaching that Sakyamuni Buddha spoke to Mahamaudgalyayana, a disciple whose deep love and concern for his mother continued after she passed from this world. The Ullambana Festival, known as Obon in Japan, is also observed in China, Korea, and Vietnam as a time for remembering and showing gratitude for departed loved ones. In that spirit, we asked each of the participating children to prepare the name of a deceased loved one whose name would be read in remembrance during the service, along with a vegetarian food offering (お供え osonae) to be placed before the Buddha shrine and then eaten at snack time.
As adults arrived to pick up their children at the conclusion of Wednesday’s activities, the parents of siblings who were participating at Terakoya together told me about ongoing negotiations among their children regarding which sibling would get to bring the name of a certain beloved grandparent or great-grandparent. In keeping with our custom at memorial services like Hatsubon, Shotsuki Hoyo and Eitaikyo, the participants were invited to come forward to offer incense when the name of their departed loved one was read during the sutra chanting. As the list of names was read, siblings who had vied for the honor of presenting the name of a certain loved one, found themselves coming forward together to offer incense. Each sibling took their own pinch of incense and placed it on the smoldering charcoal, and as they joined the palms of their hands in gasshō, the smoke of their respective incense offerings became one sweet and comforting aroma. Perhaps in that moment they came to deeper appreciation of the karmic bond that connects them as descendants of a common ancestor.
In our present-day society, we have a tendency to narrow our perspective and think in terms of our individual relationships with one another, at times losing sight of the ways in which we are connected to one another by the loving kindness we have received from those who have gone before. Autumn Ohigan is an opportunity to continue our grateful reflection on the lives of our loved ones who have crossed over to the Other Shore and deepen our awareness for the guidance that their lives provide for us. The Pure Land Master Daochuo writes:
. . . those who have been born first guide those who come later, and those who are born later join those who were born before. This is so that the boundless ocean of birth-and-death be exhausted.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 291)
The loved ones we remembered at our mini-Obon during Terakoya guided us to gather in the Hondo, where we sat together before the image of Amida Buddha as family and friends. Joining our palms in gasshō and reciting the words “Namo Amida Butsu,” we hear the voice of those loved ones calling us forth on our journey to a life of immeasurable kindness and understanding. In those words of the nembutsu, we encounter the light of wisdom that shines into our hearts and reminds us that the boundless compassion of those loved ones who dwell as Buddhas on the Other Shore not only embraces our entire family, but extends to all beings throughout the ten directions.
Namo Amida Butsu