Namu Amida Butsu

Summer is here, and in Hawaii, one of the highlights of the summer season is the Obon festivals that are held at different Buddhist temples. On Maui, the Obon season begins in early June, and continues until late August. On almost any weekend, dancers can be seen enjoying the Obon festivities at one of the many Buddhist temples. To avoid scheduling conflicts, the Maui Buddhist Council schedules the Obon festivals with input from the temples. It used to be that churches held their bon dances on the same weekend each year. However, churches now rotate the dates on which their Obon festivities are held.

In Japan, bon dancers wear colorful and beautiful yukata or happi coats while dancing. They also wear "seta" (Japanese style of zori in which the sole is made of straw) or "geta" (wooden sandal). In Hawaii, where the dance has taken on some aspects of the local culture, people who wear yukata or happi coats often can be seen wearing rubber slippers or shoes. Also many individuals dance with street clothes.

Just as the dancers’ outfits are unique to Hawaii, so is the music played at the bon dances. In Japan, songs differ according to the prefecture or geographical area, and they often centered to an activity specific to an area. Therefore, songs played at a bon dance in the southern part of Japan differ greatly from songs heard in other parts of Japan.

Because immigrants came from different areas, the music heard at bon dances here come from various areas of Japan. For example, the "Tanko Bushi" originates from the island of Kyushu and is about working in a coal mine. The highlight of bon dances on Maui, the "Fukushima Ondo", comes from an area north of Tokyo and is about celebrating a successful harvest. There is also music from as far away as Hokkaido and Okinawa. "Beautiful Sunday", the finale of each evening, originated from even farther away. It is a Japanese version of "Beautiful Sunday", a song which was a hit record in the United States in 1972.

Dancing is the most visible part of any Obon festival. It is believed that the spirits of those who have passed on, return to visit during the Obon festivities, and people dance to celebrate their return. The origin of Obon dancing is described in the "Ullambana Sutra". The word "Obon" comes from the Sanskrit word "ullambana". When the word was imported into Japan, it was converted to "urabone". "Bon" or "Obon" (O being an honorific prefix) is a shortened form of the word. The definition of ullambana or urabone is "to hang upside down." This implies that someone is experiencing extreme pain and suffering. Therefore, while dancing at Obon festivals is joyful, its origin is associated with a painful incident.

According to the Ullambana Sutra, Mogallana, was the most dedicated disciple of Buddha, and he received super powers through his practices. One day, Mogallana was thinking of his mother who was so kind and raised him with much love. Mogallana always wanted to know where his mother was ever since she had passed away. He firmly believed that his mother had entered into heaven because she was so kind and sincere to him by always providing him with everything he needed. In his mind, his mother was a model for all sentient beings and was therefore living with heavenly beings while enjoying her precious afterlife.

One day, Mogallana used his super powers to search for his mother. He searched the "World of Heavenly Beings", but she wasn’t there. He thought that because his mother was so kind, she was helping people who were weaker than she in the "World of Humans". He searched within the human world, however, even he after looked everywhere, he couldn’t find his mother. He then searched the "World of Asuras" where people were always fighting and killing each other. She was not there either. Then, he looked at an even lower level which was the "World of Animals". She still was not there. He searched lower and lower levels and finally found his mother in a realm called the "Hell of Hungry World" where everyone lived in hunger and misery.

Because of a lack of food, Mogallana’s mother was wasting away, and her eyeballs were bulging from her skinny face. Feeling pity for his mother, Mogallana offered her some food in a bowl. Rather than sharing the food with others, she chased the others away and grabbed as much food as she could. When she was just about ready to put the food into her mouth, the food burst into flames and began to severely burn her face. Mogallana quickly used his superpowers to bring down rain to extinguish the fire. Rain fell from the sky, but just as it was about to reach his mother, it turned into very sharp needles and turned his mother’s face and body into a bloody mess.

Mogallana had known that when his mother was alive, she had hoarded food during a severe famine because she did not want him, her only son, to go hungry. When starving and sick neighbors went to her home to seek help, she refused to give them food because she wanted to save her provisions for him. Mogallana, therefore, felt that he was somehow responsible that his mother was suffering in her afterlife.

Mogallana used his superpowers to try to extricate his mother from the Hell of Hungry World, but his attempts were unsuccessful. Feeling hopeless, he sought the help of the Shakyamuni Buddha. The Buddha told him that to save his mother, Mogallana needed to gather monks who had completed their summer religious practices. He was then told to hold a lavish festival for them on 15th day of the 7th month of the year, the day that marked the end of the rainy season. The Buddha further said that while planning and hosting the festival, Mogallana was not to think about his mother because if he did, the reason for the festival would therefore originate from a selfish reason and not be in the spirit of true "dana" (selfless giving).

Mogallana worked diligently to have a successful festival. All of the monks who attended enjoyed themselves, but they had no idea that Mogallana was in a state of despair. He knew that he had failed because he had continuously thought of saving his mother while he was arranging the festival. Feeling totally defeated, Mogallana jumped into the air to release his disappointment and pent up frustration. At that moment, Mogallana was overcome with a feeling of relief and jubilation because for the first time in a very long time, he did not think of his mother. At that very instant, Mogallana’s mother was released from the Hungry Hell and reborn in the World of Heavenly Beings. Mogallana was so elated that he danced and danced. Bon dance is said to have been started in this way, and the dancing represents an expression of sheer happiness

(Part 2 will be continued in Auguest issue)

Namu Amida Butsu