Honoring the spirit of obon

by Annie Nakao, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer, July 15, 2005

Japanese Americans keep Buddhist tradition alive

San Francisco, USA -- Nearly every Japanese American community is celebrating with Obon festivals this time of year, but nowhere does this summertime Buddhist ritual resonate more deeply than in San Francisco.

<< Obon remains one of the most important Buddhist observances. It is celebrated in several Asian countries but none with more extravagance than Japan (filepic).

"We are the oldest Buddhist temple in America," says Jeffrey Matsuoka, president of the 107-year-old Buddhist Church of San Francisco. "We were the first to do Obon."

From Palo Alto to Concord, Bay Area Buddhist churches like Matsuoka's are gearing up for Obon, which honors one's ancestors, especially those who died in the past year. Graves are swept and memorial services held. But Obon (O- BOHN) is also festive, with odori, or dancing by men, women and children clad in cotton kimonos, or yutaka, and happi coats, circling a musicians' tower in graceful rhythm as taiko drums keep the beat.

"In those days, it was always at night -- we had lanterns strung up," Matsuoka said. "But now we do it during the day -- it's too cold here in San Francisco."

Besides the temple's Obon festivities on July 23 and 24, the Japantown Merchants Association in San Francisco is having an Obon celebration on Saturday at the Peace Plaza in Japantown.

Obon is a tradition steeped in deep religious meaning and cultural celebration.

"Obon has a spiritual significance, but it also has cultural and community significance," says the Rev. Ken Yamada, of Berkeley's Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. "People can put on their summer kimono and celebrate a Japanese festival."

In Japan, Obon is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh or eighth month of the lunar year.

The origins of Obon, also called Urabon or Bon, can be traced to a Buddhist sutra that tells the story of Mogallana, a disciple of Buddha who, in meditation, saw his deceased mother suffering in the realm of Hungry Ghosts. He tried giving her food but it turned to flames. Buddha advised him to engage in a "jishi," or retreat, and make an offering for his fellow monks. This done, he saw his mother released from suffering and he danced for joy.

Varying interpretations evolved over the years, including the belief that spirits of ancestors actually revisit this world. Pine torches are attached to bamboo to welcome spirits to the family home, and on the final day of the observance, spirits are said to return to the nether world, guided back by candlelit lanterns that are set adrift on water.

To Yamada, the spiritual essence of Obon isn't about bringing rest to the dead or luck to ourselves or others.

"The most important thing is to reflect on our own lives, appreciate our own life and the people in it," he says. "Obon is really a great observance of impermanence."

Obon remains one of the most important Buddhist observances. It is celebrated in several Asian countries but none with more extravagance than Japan, where nationwide travel hits a peak in July and August as millions of Japanese journey home for Obon. The largest Bon Odori festival is in Gujo Hachiman, a city in the mountainous Gifu prefecture of Japan's Honshu island, where as many as 100,000 pilgrims converge to participate in four nights of dancing till dawn.

The first American Bon Odori was held in Hawaii in 1910. It wasn't until 1931 that the celebration reached the West Coast. The very first Bon Odori in the continental United States was held that year at the San Francisco temple. With its introduction to the United States, Bon Odori became one of the great Japanese American traditions of folk culture, noted the Rev. Mas Kodani of Los Angeles' Senshin Buddhist Temple, in his analysis of Obon in this country. "It reveals for all to see what remains of the old culture, what's in it that is still valued because it can still nourish and enrich us, and how much of it has taken root in its new environment to become something new yet familiar."

The typical Obon is a blend of somber reflection and celebration.

At the Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church in Union City, for example, the Rev. Shoyo Taniguchi will lead visits to six South Bay cemeteries, where altars will be set up with flowers and sutras chanted, "to bring everyone together," she says.

But the temple will also hold a mini-bazaar and Bon Odori. Obon-related bazaars are a signature Japanese American event, with cultural attractions such as ikebana, or flower arranging, bonsai and other plant sales, food and music.

At the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, "Bad Kharma," a teen jazz band composed of the church's young Dharma members, will entertain. But, says Aiko Yamamoto, a 69-year-old volunteer, it's not "just fun. We have lanterns hanging with the names of our deceased members. So it's a reminder that this is a memorial."

Seeing young people attend Obon cheers Yamamoto.

"They're carrying on what their parents and grandparents started," she says. "They like these rituals."

If the nuances of Obon escape the young, culture gets absorbed, as if by osmosis.

Lynne Ogawa, of Berkeley, who was raised a Buddhist and grew up going to Obon festivals in her native Maui, started attending Yamada's church when her daughter, Maya, was 5.

"I wanted her to have that experience," Ogawa says.

Giggling with her friends at Obon practice, Maya, now 9, says, "I know all the dances."

The Rev. Gerald Sakamoto, of San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, says festivals like Obon keeps together a community's tapestry.

"They create a cultural presence that people continue to enjoy," he says. "There is that recognition of the connections we share."

Festival schedule

-- San Francisco: Sunday, Japantown, 22 Peace Plaza. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (415) 567-4573.
July 23-24, Buddhist Church of San Francisco, 1881 Pine St. (at Octavia). Ginza Bazaar: 1-10 p.m. Saturday, 11 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Dancing: 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday. (415) 776-3158.

-- Mountain View: Saturday-Sunday, Buddhist Temple, 575 N. Shoreline Blvd. Bazaar: 4-10 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday. Dancing: 7 p.m. Sunday. (650) 964-9426.

-- Berkeley: July 23-24, bazaar, 4-8 p.m. Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday, Higashi Honganji (Ohtani) Buddhist Temple, 1524 Oregon St. (510) 843-6933.

-- Alameda: July 30, Buddhist Church of Alameda, 2325 Pacific Ave. Bazaar 4-9 p.m. Obon: 7 p.m. (510) 522-5243.

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