The first time my parents came from Minnesota to California for a visit during Obon season, I was headed out the door one evening and said to them, “See you later! I’ll be back after the dance practice finishes.” My father adjusted his hearing aids and said, “Wait, did you say you are going to dance?” To which I replied, “Of course, dancing is one of my duties as a minister.” He got up from his chair, grabbed his camera and said, “This I’ve got to see.” I always cringe when I see someone pointing a camera in my direction during Obon dancing. I have seen many beautiful photographs of Obon dancing posted on Facebook and Instagram over the years. One that stands out in my memory features a harmonious line of dancers making elegant halfmoon shapes with their arms up around their head. There I am at the center of the frame with my hands spread wide and low down near my waist like a baseball umpire calling “safe!”
When I stepped into the circle and joined the dance for the first time, I discovered that no-one was judging my dancing. As I struggled to keep up, one of the more experienced dancers kindly came over to dance alongside me and walk me through the steps. Momentarily forgetting my embarrassment and my pride, I encountered the joyful liberation of simply dancing. If the purpose of Buddhist practice is to let the ego fall away and realize liberation from attachment to “me” and “mine,” then I am hard-pressed to think of a better ground for this practice than Obon dancing. Obon dancing is not a show; it is a Buddhist tradition through which the Dharma transforms our lives quite outside our own efforts.
The people of Santa Barbara love a good dance party, so attendance at my first time dancing at the Santa Barbara Obon far exceeded my expectations. As the dancing was about to begin, our dance instructors dressed in beautiful summer yukata gathered in a small circle at the center of the church parking lot. A crowd quickly gathered around them. About half of the crowd was made up of regulars on the Southern California Obon dance circuit who had come to join the dancing. However, it was many of the attendees’ first encounter with Obon dancing, and not knowing what to expect, they jostled their way toward the center in anticipation of a performance by those beautifully dressed dancers.
Those who had come to dance were interspersed throughout the crowd, some close to the center near the instructors, some on the outer edges, and many in between. There was a beautiful moment when the music started. The assembled dancers took their cue from the instructors at the center and began the dance, forming concentric rings of motion rotating around a common axis at the center of the instructors. Those who thought they had come as spectators suddenly found themselves right in the middle of the dancing. Some stood startled for a moment before making a panicked dash for the outer edge of the parking lot where they could stand on the sidelines and watch the dance. However, a few of those who unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of the dance were delighted by the dancers all around them. Noticing that the movements of the dance were simple and repetitive, they opted to joined the dance rather than flee to sidelines. In joining the dance, they were able to taste the liberating joy of Obon dancing for themselves.
In the life of Other Power nembutsu, we let go of our calculating mind that attempts to impose our ideas of how things should be on the situations we encounter in life. The following passage from the Tannisho elegantly expresses this character of Other Power nembutsu:
The nembutsu, for its practicers, is not a practice or a good act. Since it is not performed out of one’s own designs, it is not a practice. Since it is not good done through one’s own calculation, it is not a good act. Because it arises wholly from Other Power and is free of self-power, for the practicer, it is not a practice or a good act.
(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 665)
We think we can control when it is time to dance and when we get to sit back and watch, but the truth is that that’s not how life works. In life, the dance comes to us, sometimes quite unexpectedly. It may be the birth of a child or the start of a new relationship. It may be a serious illness, the loss of a job or the passing of a loved one. When we struggle against the flow of life, thinking “I will decide for myself when I am ready to dance,” we have an uncomfortable time. When we bravely step into the circle, we find that a world of joy and companionship opens up to us as we dance.
Namo Amida Butsu