Obon is an important Buddhist holiday where we invite the spirits of our loved ones back to us to feed, chant sutras, and offer the merit generated thereby to be given to them, that they may find their way to becoming a Buddha. The story of Obon goes back to the time of the Buddha, when one of his senior desciples, Mokuren (Maudgalyayana) was deep in meditation.
Mokuren was well known in the sangha for his insight abilities. One day Mokuren was having thoughts of his recently departed mother and decided to try and find where she had been reborn. Mokuren looked for her in the heavenly realms, human, and asura, but did not find her. He looked in the animal realm and the hell realms, but she was not there. Finally he saw her in the hungry ghost realm living life as a gaki, or hungry ghost. Seeing her suffering from unsatisfiable hunger and thirst was a torment to him.
Not knowing what he could do for her, he went to the Buddha and asked advice. Buddha said to hold a special service where monks could chant sutras and make offerings to the Sangha of food and water, transferring the merit of these offerings to Mokuren’s mother. When Mokuren’s mother’s time was at an end in the hungry ghost realm the merit generated for her would help her to get back on the road to Buddhahood. So, Mokuren did as he was instructed and there was a great ceremony of Sutra chanting and food offerings made to the community.
Mokuren then used his insight abilities to look for his mother. Upon returning to thehungry ghost realm he could not find her. Knowing that the merit offered to her had helped ease her sufferin, now she had moved on from the hungry ghost realm. Mokuren began to dance with joy! It is said that this is the origin of the Obon dancing we participate in at today’s Obon. I have had the pleasure to participate in conducting the Obon services for Long Beach Buddhist Church, Sozenji Soto Zen Temple, and the upcoming Empty Moon Zen Sangha celebrations. No matter how warm the summer gets I always enjoy dancing with the sangha and greeting my long deceased loved ones.
-Namu Shakyamuni Butsu!