Obon: Rescue the Hungry Ghosts

As it happens, today, the 15th of July is, even on some calendars, the beginning of Obon, also called Bon, in Japan. It comes from a Chinese Buddhist/Taoist Zhongyuan festival, which often translates to Ghost festival.

In China, the date for this is the 15th (in some places it seems to be the 14th and others are the 16th day of the seventh month in the traditional Chinese solar/lunar calendar. Easily translated to the 15th of July in the Gregorian solar calendar.

The history of the festival is related to a story from Yulanpen Sutra, where one of the Buddha’s closest disciples Maudgalyayana sees through clairvoyance that his mother has fallen into the realm of hungry ghosts. The Buddha advised him to build merit on behalf of his mother, by providing support for certain monastics. He does and frees him from the hungry ghost kingdom.

In China and later in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, a huge celebration developed from this story. In Japan, Obon features dances, possibly originally part of the Pure Land tradition of Nenbutsu-odori, liturgical dances, in addition to a lantern-lighting ceremony.

Here in North America in the Buddhist Churches of America, Sotoshu Zen temples, and other Japanese Buddhist denominations, Obon has become a big event. The festival usually includes dances, lanterns, food, taiko, and general celebration of Japanese culture.

In some converted Zen Buddhist sanghas Obon was moved to the 31st of October. Not without controversy. Once or twice I have pondered about liturgical calendars for our emerging Western Zen Buddhism. The questions of our (Zen) Buddhist community that take root here are very interesting to me.

The question is still open as to how this holiday became a Western religious holiday with a deep culture in East Asia. Personally I like the layering of meanings on All Hallow’s Eve, its ancient European pagan aspect, and its newer but at this point also the ancient Christian overlay and, frankly, cooption, has meaning for the Western Zen Buddhists, simply because of our own inculturation.

And, I want the holiday in July.

Of course, whether in mid-summer or harvest season, it’s something to touch on the feel of times where the web between the worlds of the living and the dead not only wears thin, but tears. here and there. For many in the West it feels like Halloween.

But, with a somewhat different purpose.