The memorial services held at Obon have two meanings. One is to honor the Buddha and show reverence for one's ancestors and others who have died. The other is to express gratitude to all people to whom we are indebted, including people who are alive such as our parents, relatives, and friends.
The full expression for Obon is Urabon-e which is derived from "Ullabana," an old Indian word. According to the Bussetsu Urabon Sutra, the origin of this tradition goes back to a ceremony performed by Shakyamuni Buddha for the deceased mother of Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha's immediate disciples. Ullabana means "hanging upside down" and it was by means of this ceremony that the suffering of that world in which she lived (the suffering was so intense it was like hanging upside down) was removed.
These days, people think that this ceremony will prolong the life of parents and remove all suffering and anguish. This is also one of the traditional holiday periods in Japan when people exchange gifts. The other traditional time is over New Years. Obon is a ceremony to respectfully honor the spirits of the ancestors; it is also to ask for the long life or our parents. In preparation for meeting the spirits, it is customary to thoroughly clean our house and put ourselves in order as if meeting guests.
On the evening of the 13th, fires are lit with hemp stalks or pine torches. These lights serve as a guide for the returning ancestors -They are like a voice crying out, "Come this way, Grandpa and Grandma." If these lights are not clearly visible, the spirits will be unsure which way to go.The spirits are usually sent back on the 15th or 16th. Once again, hemp stalks are lit and in some places are set out on small boats with offerings to float down rivers or out to sea. Lately, because of the problem of pollution, the boats are collected at temples and other places. People chant "Obon spirits, go away on this boat," and send them off carefully. On the 16th, it is said that the ancestral spirits return home riding on cows and carrying luggage on horses. Eggplants and cucumbers, in the shapes of cows and horses, are offered.
Where will the ancestors who have come for the offerings be greeted? A special shelf called an Obon-dana or Tama-dana is made where the family memorial tablet is place along with various offerings. At those houses where this kind of shelf is not set up, the ancestral spirits are greeted at the Buddha-altar. This is where the temple priest chants the tana-gyo, a sutra read for the ancestors.
The Obon Sejiki-e, a ceremony to comfort the ancestral spirits, is an important ceremony in The Soto Zen School. At every The Soto Zen School temple, this ceremony is performed as a way of making offerings to the family ancestors, to one's parents, relatives, and spirits of other people we are connected with, as well as for spirits that are no longer connected to any living person.
In popular Japanese culture, it has evolved into a time of family reunion, which people return to ancestral hometowns and visit and clean their ancestors' graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. There is a kind of square dancing or "Bon Dance", said to come because the disciple, Maudgalyayana, happy because of his mother's release and grateful for his mother's kindness, danced with joy.
I am not too much for the more magical and superstitious elements of the holiday. But, whatever the origins and popular ideas, on Obon, we express gratitude and compassion for the lives of our ancestors, family and friends, past and still living.
We also reflect upon how we are living now.
If you would like to see an image of traditional Japanese 'Bon' dancing ... a kind of celebration to welcome back the "spirits of the dead" ...