What is Obon?
OBON is an abbreviation of urabon, the Japanese transliteration of
the Sanskrit word Ullambana which literally means "to hang upside down." This word implies
the unbearable suffering that ones has to bear, whether spiritual
or physical, when being hung upside down.
The ritual of obon is conducted according to the teaching of Sâkyamuni
Buddha as preached by him in the Urabon Sutra. The Urabon Sutra
tells of Mokuren Sonja, a disciple of Sâkyamuni who was a priest
famous for being the first amongst all the disciples for his supernatural
powers. When he used his supernatural powers to look upon his
mother who had died, he discovered that she had fallen into the
path of hungry ghosts and was suffering. In order to save her,
he asked Sâkyamuni for instruction, and was told to make offerings
to the many priests who had just completed their summer retreat.
Through the merits of this action his mother was saved from the
path of hungry ghosts and was able to become a buddha. This is
the story told in this sutra.
The meanings of obon as given in this short story lie first of
all in filial piety and repaying one's gratitude, secondly in
the notion of hell and paradise, and thirdly in the idea of making
offerings to the community of monks.
On the first point, we can share in the mind of Mokuren Sonja
in which he yearned for his mother even after she died, and wanted
to repay the obligation and gratitude he felt toward his parents.
There is an old saying: "If by the time you want to practice filial
piety your parents are gone, you cannot lay a quilt over their
graves.?, In the ?Sutra On The Weight Of Obligation Owed To Parents,?
Sâkyamuni said repeatedly to Ananda, "The weight of obligation
we owe to our parents is as boundless as the heavens." The Chinese
character for the word "obligation" is written with two parts
meaning "dependent mind," and in a like manner the most important
sentiment of the human mind and heart is that which knows obligation
and repays obligation.
The lifestyles of modern Japanese are blessed by a civilization
of material things and machines, but our thoughts arise from the
source of a mind that is explained in the Urabon Sutra, and it
is this mind that we should want as the basis for our lives and
The conditions of hell and paradise are also described in the
Urabon Sutra. Hell is referred to as the "suffering of the three
evil paths," while paradise is expressed with the words "the immense
joy of the great gathering of bodhisattvas? From ancient times
we have spoken of the rivers of the three evil paths and the pure
land of paradise, and this is an explanation not only of the world
we face after death, but also of the karmic causes and effects
in the past, present, and future. Hell is the world of suffering
in the three evil paths, and the path of fire is the pain of being
burned by fire. The path of blood is the living hell of the blood
bath in which the strong prey upon the weak. The path of swords
is the world in which people inflict wounds upon each other with
Paradise is the world filled with the joy brought about by the
words of Íâkyamuni to "make offerings to the assembly of monks."
Even today obon is a vessel for making offerings to people, and
the Bon dance that follows the making of offerings is a dance
for the harmony of people made possible around the figure of Mokuren
and his joy. This is how the world of eliminating suffering and
granting joy creates the pure land.
©1998 Shingon Buddhist International Institute