Obon or “Ullambana” (S) is a Buddhist festival which invites us to celebrate our connectedness to our ancestors. Obon reminds us that we have a great responsibility to repay our deceased family/friends for the love and sacrifice they offered us. The Buddha said, “The gravity of the debt we owe to our parents is as boundless as the heavens.” The celebration of Obon symbolically repays some of this debt, by reaffirming our responsibility to honor our families and loved-ones. It also reminds us to treat all sentient beings with compassion, understanding and patience. During Obon, we celebrate the lives of our ancestors/friends, by inviting them to enjoy an evening of live music, food and drink with us. Through our being, our ancestors once again visit with us, reminding us of their presence within our lives; within every breath we take, they sit in shadow, hidden by our linear mind, awaiting for their names to once again be called.
Obon is celebrated in mid-August, this year it will be celebrated on August 19 2017, and has been celebrated since the 7th Century. Obon finds its roots within the Urabon Sutra, and it is based on the teachings of Gotama Buddha. The Urabon Sutra contains the story of a monk called Mokuren Sonja who through his meditative practice sees that his deceased mother has become entangled within the realm of hungry ghost. Mokuren Sonja, soon after, asks the Buddha for his guidance on the matter. The Buddha instructs Mokuren to be compassionate to the young monks who were just returning from a retreat and offer alms. In return, Mokuren’s efforts frees his mother from her torment, and allows her to ascend to the pure land/heaven. Today’s Obon celebration keeps this spirit of giving alive. Through the celebration of Obon we give our love, respect and remembrance to those who have come before us. We open ourselves to an unseen interconnected web which bonds us all together. Obon is a time for deep reflection; however, it is also a time of great celebration.
Obon at Blue Mountain Zendo is open to the public and you do not need to be Buddhist to attend. The ceremony begins with the lighting of the temple lanterns and the bonfire which guide our ancestors back home. Pictures of our ancestors are then placed on the main alter while lanterns are offered to individuals to decorated. This decoration time is a fun time for the kids, they get to color and decorate while they are reminded of family they may have never met, or who they only knew for a short time. Family is something that is too often forgotten in this culture, and without their efforts, we would not have the honor of this life. A vegetarian meal is then served in an atmosphere of live classical music. After dinner, a special service and Dharma talk are offered outside under the stars. During this service, the names of the deceased are recited by the temple priest, while the lanterns are lit and placed in rows along the alter. Rice and water are then offered to the hungry ghosts. After the completion of the ceremony, thanks are offered during a period of silent contemplation; when ready, participants say goodbye to their loved one by extinguishing their lantern’s flame. To conclude, the community turns and faces the bonfire while it is extinguished and the spirits are sent home.