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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 lifestyles.

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 swords.
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