July 11, 2010
The Obon Festival is a Japanese Buddhist three-day observance during which families honor their deceased ancestors. According to scholar and Shin priest Alfred Bloom,
The Obon observance has deep roots in Asian ancestor cults from India to Japan. It is based on the legend of the monk Mogallana's rescue of his mother from the hell of hungry ghosts. The story dramatizes the son's anxiety for his mother's welfare after her death and how it was resolved through Buddhist practice.
Practicing meditation, Mogallana gained spiritual insight and vision, which enabled him to see his mother's true condition. He then asked the Buddha how to free her from her suffering. The Buddha advised him to practice compassion and to give offerings to the monks. When his mother was released, Mogallana danced for joy. His response is regarded as the origin of the Bon dance.
There will be plenty of dancing for joy in the streets of San Jose this weekend, as the San Jose Mercury News reports in its coverage of the annual Obon Festival in that city's Japantown. The family gatherings, music (Taiko drums are common) and dancing typically end when festival participants float lanterns down a river (or on the ocean), symbolizing the return of their ancestors to the land of the dead. Often, fireworks displays follow.
The festival in San Jose is sponsored by the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, a member of the the Jodo Shinshu organization's Buddhist Churches of America.
"Shin Buddhism is about the community," church member Kenji Akahoshi tells the Mercury News. "The attitude we take is an attitude of gratitude."
There are only three Japantowns left in the continental United States. San Francisco's Japantown and LA's Little Tokyo are the other two. At one time, there were more than 40 Japantowns in California alone. There is an effort now to ensure awareness of Japanese history and culture among American descendants of Japanese and to preserve the vitality of the Japantowns that remain. 21-year-old Michelle Mitsuda tells the Mercury News, "a lot of us are fourth generation and we all grew up together in the Junior Young Buddhist Association throughout California. Part of [the Obon Festival] is getting together once a year and seeing all of your friends, and the other is gaining insight into how Japantown works, how to preserve Japantown for future generations."
(Obon-lantern image from video of an Obon Festival adapted to Memorial Day in 2006, in Hawaii. You can watch the video here.)