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Celebrating the Spirit of Obon

Obon is a special time to remember and to celebrate our continuing relationship with departed loved ones and all the causes and conditions that enable our lives to be possible. In Shin Buddhism, Obon is a festival of joyful memory in which we reflect on our lives and how we are continually influenced by our loved ones. This enduring connection is life-giving because it reminds us that we are never alone. Our relationship grows over time as we deepen our understanding of the values and life lessons they shared with us.

Each Summer we look forward to the Obon season with its colorful lanterns, rhythmic beat of taiko drums, and the ono food. Obon is one of our most important celebrations and it is truly a gathering of joyful memory.

However, this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we will not be able to celebrate Obon in the traditional way. When we began this year, I don’t think anyone imagined how challenging and life-changing things would become.

We’ve had to quickly let go of our hopes for a smooth journey as this pandemic and the civil unrest we face as a nation reminds us that there is an imbalance in nature and within our society. As we face these challenges, we’ve had to reflect on whether only positive outcomes in life are ever guaranteed? Shakyamuni Buddha taught that all things in life are impermanent, that each of us and all things in the universe are subject to constant change. So good fortune and misfortune are simply part of our lives which will come and go. This is the important lesson of impermanence that we should understand, that both the good and the bad times in our lives will not remain forever. That there is always a light in the darkness and there is always hope for transformation and change.

So how do we find the courage and strength to face our many challenges? We do so by turning to the Dharma for guidance and by remembering our loved ones. The simple act of remembering those who have gone before allows us the opportunity to reflect on and to enrich our lives in the present. By remembering their lives and the lessons they taught us, we can live our present lives with greater meaning, richness, and comfort.

Obon has its origins in the Ullambana Sutra. The word Obon is the shortened form of the word Urabon-e which means to suffer as if being hung upside down. The sutra tells the story of Mogallana, one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s ten great disciples, and how he suffered over the death of his mother, feeling a deep sense of regret and sorrow. He believed that her devotion to him had been a barrier to her understanding the Dharma. However, the Buddha counseled Mogallana by asking him to reflect deeply upon this and he came to realize that his mother’s devotion to him was based on unselfish love. With this profound insight into his mother’s life, Mogallana danced with joy as his regret and sorrow were transformed into appreciation and gratitude.

Mogallana’s story is also our story. The pain of losing a loved one is a natural part of human life and how we come to understand the meaning of death is through the telling of stories that help us to remember and to reflect on life and the enduring bonds of love. It is in the retelling of these stories that our loved ones continue to offer inspiration and guidance for living in this present moment. I’m reminded of the chorus to the Maroon 5 song “Memories” which goes “Memories bring back, memories bring back you.”

While the pandemic has disrupted the traditional ways of celebrating Obon this year, we can still celebrate the spirit at the heart of this festival. Take time to remember your loved ones and reflect on how they continue to influence your life. Share your stories with your children and grandchildren. Tell them about your life and the lives of your parents and grandparents so they too can live on through these stories. Engage your family by asking them to take a video of you on their smartphone. Laugh, cry, and learn together as you share and pass on your family history.

During this time of isolation, we have spent more time talking and sharing with our loved ones and rediscovering what is most essential in life. Obon is a time to celebrate the simple joy of remembering, reconnecting, and renewing our bonds of love and what it means to be ‘Ohana. Obon is truly a joyful celebration of memory which can offer us wisdom for living. Take a moment to celebrate the spirit of Obon in your life. Namo Amida Butsu.


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