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OBON:
GATHERING OF JOY

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Every summer, BCA temples celebrate a uniquely American version of the Japanese Obon Festival. Along with traditional folk dancing known as Bon Odori, a variety of food, drinks, games, and entertainment may be offered. All attendees are encouraged to “just dance" as we remember those who have passed on and enjoy the present moment together.

 

2021 Obon Festival plans are still to be determined due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Visit this page for more information as the summer approaches. 

ORIGINS

The Ullambana Sutra

The Obon tradition arose from the story of Mahamaudgalyayana (Mogallana in Pali) and his mother in the Ullambana Sutra. The mother has fallen into a terrible state in the afterlife, and the Buddha advises Mogallana that the only way to assist her is to make offerings to the monks at the end of their rainy season retreat. When Mogallana does so, his mother’s suffering is relieved, causing him to clap his hands and dance for joy.


This story became popular in China for its theme of family respect, and Obon has been held in Japan since 657 CE to express gratitude to our departed loved ones and ancestors.


From a Shin Buddhist perspective, the occasion is not about making supernatural requests or offerings to ghosts. The Ullambana story is a call to reflect on all those who came before us and consider what they gave to our world so we could be here today. Realizing this compassion beyond ourselves, like Mogallana, we are brought to dance joyfully in gratitude.

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OBON IN AMERICA

Buddhist minister Yoshio Iwanaga introduced Bon Odori to communities along the North American West Coast in the 1930s (see this exhibit for more early history). As Obon dances attracted large crowds from the surrounding neighborhoods, they evolved into larger festivals with culinary bazaars and cultural demonstrations.


Today, a festival can be found nearly every weekend between June and August. Obon Festivals are typically temples’ largest event of the year and most visible presence in their local communities. Obon dances have been passed from parents to their children and grandchildren, while new dances continue to be developed and introduced each summer. It is a special time for temple communities to come together and orchestrate their own event, while visiting others out of support and friendship.


Taiko drums herald the centerpiece of the Gathering of Joy, when everyone makes a circle around the yagura (tower) for Bon Odori. Whether you dress in traditional Japanese attire or your best beachwear, everyone is encouraged to “just dance.” Setting our egos aside, we find kindness in everyone’s care toward each other, in a friendly wave, or a knowing laugh on the dance line. As the sun sets and the festival lights begin to shine, we think of those who have passed on and celebrate the paths that brought us together in gratitude.

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OBON AT HOME

Obon went virtual in 2020 due to the pandemic. The idea seemed impossible, but with the resilience of our sanghas, these conditions produced a number of innovative videos on Obon history, traditions, and dances.