by Carolyn Bick
Colorful ribbons of sticky syrup trailed down children’s chins as their spoonfuls of shaved ice rapidly melted beneath a warm sun. Nearby, teens helped one another dress in yukata, Japanese summer garments made of light cotton, and settled with their families under tents to enjoy the night’s festivities.
The evening marked the end of Obon (or Bon), a multi-day Japanese Buddhist festival during which participants commemorate and honor their ancestors. While the starting date varies from place to place, the Seattle Betsuin Temple held its festival on July 21 and July 22. It was the temple’s 86th festival since it opened in 1901.
While in Japan the festival is seen as more of a cultural event than a religious one, Seattle Betsuin Temple’s Reverend Katsuya Kusunoki said Obon has its roots in Buddhism.
“Obon is the occasion to reflect upon our ancestors,” Kusunoki said in an interview before the festivities. “Our ancestors that [have passed] away before come back to this world during the Obon season. Then, at the end of Obon, they are going to return to the Buddhist Pure Land.”
The festival itself originated with a Buddhist story. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the tradition Seattle Betsuin Temple follows, Shakyamuni Buddha’s disciple Mokuren used his powers to locate his deceased mother, who he believed had moved on to the Pure Land or the “good place” where the dead go in the Mahayana and associated traditions. Much to his horror, though, he discovered she was in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, where the dead go to suffer.
Mokuren appealed to Buddha for his help, Kusunoki explained, but Buddha said Mokuren had to serve and perform dharma, or good deeds for the people practicing Buddhism, in order to save his mother.
“He served food and drinks to the people practicing Buddhism,” Kusunoki said. “Because of that, his mother was saved. Everybody was happy. The people … started spontaneously dancing.”
The dance, called, “Bon Odori,” is commemorated during the festival. Kusunoki said that each temple has its own kind of dance and that it is not standardized throughout the Japanese Buddhist world. In the Seattle Betsuin Temple, the first dance performed is meant for those whose loved ones have passed away and “for us to express appreciation and respect to our loved ones.”
“It’s really important for Buddhists to … think about our loved ones,” Kusunoki said. He added that the weekend before the festival, the temple holds a formal service during which attendees are encouraged to reflect and “think about how our life is related to our loved ones.”
Beyond the fact that it is an important festival in her culture and religion, Judy Matsudaira said she and her family try to attend the festival every year in order to spend time together and to honor their deceased loved ones.
“It’s very meaningful for us, because this is where we celebrate our culture and our ancestors, especially the ones that have just passed,” she said, pausing as tears filled her eyes. “Sorry … We lost a member of the family — it was a while ago, but it’s still really fresh.”
The family has a special meeting place they call the Matsudaira Hill, she continued. And while she doesn’t know exactly how long they have been visiting the temple and the festival, she knows they have been coming for “a long time.”
“The family has been there for many generations. My husband is like third, fourth generation, depending on what side you’re looking at … and it’s such a big family,” Matsudaira said. “My father-in-law’s family, I believe, there were 14 children, so that’s how big they are. We have this joke that wherever you are, there’s a Matsudaira within five miles’ radius around you.”
Carolyn Bick is the interim Editor in Chief of the South Seattle Emerald.
Featured photograph by Carolyn Bick.