The Obon service and Obon Odori (colorful folk dances, which accompanies it) are observed between July 15 and August 15 in Buddhist temples and communities. Together they form a mixture of solemn respect and reflection and gaiety.
The word “Bon” comes from the Sanskrit “Ullambana” which we translated into Chinese as “ura–bon.” “Ulla” means to hang upside down and signifies suffering caused by inverted views. “Bana” is the Sanskrit word for bowl and has come to signify “salvation,” because it is used primarily as a container for rice. The “o” place before the word “bon” is used as an honorific prefix following the Japanese tradition.
The origin of the Obon Festival is generally ascribed to the Ullambana Sutra. In this Sutra, it tells the story of Mogallana who was a superior student of the Buddha. There are many versions of this story, but I would like to share my interpretation and understanding.
It was said that Mogallana had super-human vision and could see anywhere in the universe. One day, Mogallana wanted to find his late mother. He searched the Heavens, then other levels of existence and found his mother suffering in the realm of Hungry Ghosts where these beings were always hungry and thirsty. He was horrified, but his mother was a widow and did everything for her only son, including hoarding food during a famine so she could feed her only son.
Mogallana went to the Buddha and asked what he could do to release his mother from the realm of Hungry Ghosts. The Buddha said to celebrate the end of the rainy season, let us have a festival for all the disciples and the villagers. You are to plan a successful festival, AND … to do so without thinking about your mother.
Mogallana did so but kept thinking about his mother. On the evening of the festival, there was great food, music, singing and local folk dancing. But Mogallana kept to the shadows and became aware that everything that he did was for his selfish reason, to release his mother from the realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Mogallana knew he failed. Out of despair, he gave up. And simply got up to jump to release his failure. In that instant, he forgot about his mother, and his jump was a jump for JOY. In that instant, his mother was released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. But actually, she was never there, it was Mogallana’s own mind who put her there.
This story became popular in China for its theme of family respect, and Obon has been held in Japan since 657 CE to express gratitude to our departed loved ones and ancestors.
From a Shin Buddhist perspective, the occasion is not about making supernatural requests or offerings to ghosts. The Ullambana story is a call to reflect on all those who came before us and consider what they gave to our world so we could be here today. Realizing this compassion beyond ourselves, like Mogallana, we are brought to dance joyfully in gratitude.
Excerpts compiled in gratitude from: Rev. Ron Miyamura, Rev. George E. Shibata, The Buddhist Holidays, (San Francisco , BCA, 1989) and the Buddhist Churches of America