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​​​​​Obon- Gathering of Joy

By Rev. Masao Kodani

​The American Jodo Shinshu meaning of Obon and Bon Odori is unique.  It is a meaning that is significantly different from other schools of Buddhism and in particular from the popular Japanese belief that it is dancing performed for the “souls” of deceased relatives who are believed to return to this world at Obon time.

Obon stems from the story of Mokuren (Mogallana), a disciple of the Buddha famed for his meditative prowess.  While in a deep meditative state, Mokuren sees his mother suffering in the realm of Hungry Ghosts and rushes to the Buddha to seek advice on how to help release her from this realm of suffering.  The Buddha advises Mokuren to participate in the annual rainy season retreat and make an offering to the Sangha of his fellow monks at the end of the retreat.  Having done this, Mokuren sees his mother released from her afflictions and danced for joy.  This dance of joy is seen to be the original Bon Odori.  The name Bon or Obon is from the Japanese reading of the sutra where this story appears- the Ullambana Sutra or Urabongyo in Japanese.   The offering of clothing and food to the monks is popularly seen to be the act which affected Mokuren’s mother’s release, hence the offering of food, lights, and entertainment of Obon.

The Jodo Shinshu rejects the idea of “tamashii” or “soul” and interprets the story of Mokuren as the memory of ones deceased relatives and friends as stimulating or urging oneself to awakening.  It is this awakening to a deluded self and its embracement in the Truth that causes us to “dance in Joy”.

Jodo Shinshu Temples in America observe Obon and Bon Odori over a one or two day period.  The majority of the Temples have the Obon services in the morning or over a weekend separate from the Bon Odori.  In most cases, the Bon Odori is held in conjunction with the Temple bazaar or carnival.  Some temples separate their fund-raising activities from the Bon Odori so that everyone can participate in the dancing as a spiritual and festive activity.

As a spiritual activity then, the idea of Bon Odori is to just dance, without fretting over how one looks or showing off one’s ability.  It is to come and dance just as you are with no conniving, no calculating, no image protecting or flaunting.  According to Jodo Shinshu, Truth-Reality is ours for the receiving.  We need do nothing but hear and receive it.  But to simply hear and receive it as difficult as it is to just dance.  We would much rather practice until we have “got it” before we dance in front of others- in much the same way that we rehearse “really living” and only end up watching life go by.  On the other extreme, when we have mastered the dance, we strut and preen to impress others- much in the same way that we do in life- re-living rather than living anew.  To “just do” anything is extremely difficult, for it involves setting aside one’s ego for a moment.  Bon Odori is an exercise in “just dancing”, in “just hearing and accepting”, in being a river forever flowing and changing instead of the riverbank forever watching.  The beauty and significance of live is a “be-ing” not “being”.

When a people no longer have the energy or inclination to dance the old dances, it means that something of greater value is replacing the life that the old dances embodied.  The old language is the first to disappear and the old foods the last.  Somewhere in between the old songs and the old dances maintain a link to our ancient inheritance, giving form and substance, however unconsciously, to our ancient habits and values.  Sometimes those old songs and dances remain frozen in time, like an exotic insect frozen in amber.  At other times the songs and dances send out new roots to grow and flourish in new soil and new sunlight and shade.  Bon Odori is such a dance.  It cannot remain alive and vibrant if people cannot come “sono mama- just as they are”, join the circle and dance.  It is not meant to be watched, it is meant to be danced- and therefor no professional dancer or singer can preserve it in it s purity.  Its purity is in being done by anyone and everyone.

Bon Odori is the one great Japanese-American tradition of folk culture.  It reveals for all to see, what remains of the old culture, what in it is still valued because it can still nourish and enrich us, and how much of it has taken root in its new environment to become something new yet familiar. 

This Dharma Message was reprinted from Dharma Chatter, which is available for purchase from Hongwanji Place.  Rev. Kodani was a long-time resident minister at Senshin Buddhist Temple and is the long-time advisor for Hongwanji Place.  

​​Dharma Message- May 2019