For Buddhists, Ohigan ceremonies hold special meaning this year

The Associated Press, March 17, 2011

Tokyo, Japan -- Friday begins a special annual period in Buddhism called Ohigan -@ "the other shore gathering," or enlightenment -@ when Buddhists in Japan go to their family's graveyards to worship on behalf of their ancestors and relatives.

Most temples throughout Japan also hold Ohigan ceremonies during spring and autumnal equinoxes to express gratitude for being awakened to wisdom and compassion.

This spring, of course, Ohigan holds additional meaning.

Japan is reeling from death and destruction wrought by an 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami last Friday. The official death toll is more than 5,000. Another 8,000 people are reported missing. Much of the northeast corner of the country is a graveyard.

That's why every morning for the past week, when he awakens, the Most Venerable Daiun Iba prays to the spirit of the universe for family members, friends and all his fellow Japanese. He is chief monk at the Ohio Buddhist Vihara in Springfield Township, Ohio.

In Buddhist tradition, all human beings are connected in the deepest recesses of their minds, Iba says. He prays for the survivors that their condition improves. He prays for the dead, wishing them "good merits and future existence in a happy state."

The Buddhist and other spiritual traditions of Japan are unique to the country. Though religious scholars say Japan has become more secular in recent generations, many Japanese remain nominally Buddhist and connected to a local temple. Buddhism is generally more important in rural Japan than in urban areas.

About 91 million Japanese are Buddhist, and 51% of all Japanese practice Shinto, an indigenous religion teaching respect for nature. The two faiths most often blend into one complex belief system.

Shinto focuses on the land and ecology.

"People will ask for the spirits of nature @ the spirit of the forest, the mountains, the river, sun, rock formations and the sea @ to purify the land," Iba said.

They will pray to the spirits, even now, and even to the spirit of the sea, despite the widespread destruction caused by the tsunami.

"Water has the power to clear and purify," he said.

Iba, 62, went to college as a math major in Sendai, a northern Japanese city swallowed up by the 33-foot tsunami wave. He has spent time the past week sending e-mail to check on the conditions of family members and friends.

"After the damage to the earth, people will ask for the spirits to help us recover," he said.

Buddhism is largely about the quest to reach peace and higher consciousness. Through meditation and prayer, Buddhists try to connect to all human beings and call upon spirits of healing and recovery, Iba said.

For Americans and other non-Japanese wishing to pray for the ravaged nation, Iba asks simply that the follow their own faith tradition @ "We believe all religion is working in the same direction," he said " and put the faith into action with a donation for Japan to International Red Cross or other relief organization.