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Obon Reflections

Matt Morgan • Aug 14, 2014 at 2:00 PM

Onjii, Onbaa, kore wo akarini ocha nomini oidenashite kudasare.

(Dear grandpa and grandma, come over here to have a cup of green tea following this light.)


We are in the traditional height of Obon, a Buddhist event in Japan wherein we welcome back our ancestors from the other world to visit us. In Japan, this is one of the busiest traveling times and one of the major three holiday seasons of the year; the New Year and Golden Week being the other two. In addition to gathering with family and remembering those who came before, many will also perform various rites to help welcome back and reflect upon the spirits. Graveside visits are common complete with a washing of the marker, burning incense, and/or making food offerings. Many who celebrate will put lanterns or other lights outside their houses to help guide the spirits back home to be with the family.


Dances, called Bon Odori, are often performed at Obon. Fireworks (hanabi) are displayed, and at the end of the fun and reflection, floating lanterns (toro nagashi) are released into the water to guide the ancestral souls back to the afterlife.


What's fascinating is that across the world, practices such as you'll find in Japan during Obon are by no means unique. The gathering of family, the celebration of life and light, and the eventual sendoff of the spirits during a supernaturally liminal time of year seem to resonate globally. Some of the acts and terms change per language and custom, but the sentiment that we should respect our dead remains at the core of our beliefs. In fact, the way we are expected to handle our dead is still very much codified in modern law and not relegated solely to religious dogma nor folklore custom.


While Obon isn't necessarily celebrated as overtly in the United States as it is in Japan, it is still an excellent opportunity to take a moment in the life you have to reflect on those lives who came before yours. Invoke a late relative in your mind. Respectfully visit a grave, even if it is of a non-family member. Take a moment to read the postmortem biography of someone you never knew, but served as an inspiration in your life. Our past as a species is filled with hard-learned lessons, crucial triumphs, and unlimited anecdotes which can help us to better enjoy our lives today. It is a shame to leave such a massive amount of information on a proverbial shelf to collect dust. But, collect dust it shall as both Obon and Samhain illustrate the dead need our help to guide they and their wisdom back into the world. Until we are willing to accept them into it through our minds and hearts, their advice and examples cannot manifest.


Use this Buddhist event to reflect on your life and others'. Raise your favorite beverage to celebrate someone not with you today. Through celebration and mourning learn from the past. Indulge in history, philosophy, and the funny moments life has always thrown at us throughout it. For as much strife as we are going through given the events within and without our borders, it is up to us with help from those who've come before, to find our answers.


Have you learned from someone who has passed away?


In our own small celebration of Obon here, are there any messages you'd like to pass along to your ancestors?

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