Master Shinran's Teachings and Obon

Q: For those of us listening to Shinran’s words, what is the significance of the midsummer Bon Festival?

A: The holiday is popularly known in Japanese as Obon, but its proper name is Urabon. The name comes from Buddhism Urabon Sutra (Sutra of the Festival of the Dead), which tells about the experience of one of Sakyamuni Buddha’s ten major disciples, Maudgalyayana (in Japanese, Mokuren). Maudgalyayana was foremost among the disciples in occult power, and he was an especially filial son. He used the occult power he had gained to search the past, the present, and the future, and found to his deep sadness that his deceased mother was suffering in the hell of incessant hunger. At once Maudgalyayana heaped rice in a bowl and sent it to her, but when she tried to eat the food in joy, it went up in flames and she was unable to eat it after all. Watching her hurl the bowl in despair and dissolve in tears, he was so saddened that he went to Sakyamuni and asked, “Is there any way I can save my mother?” The Buddha answered, “There is nothing you alone can do. On July 15, offer rice and delicacies of every kind to eminent priests of the ten directions. The merit of such offerings is great, and your mother will then be spared the sufferings of the hell of incessant hunger. ”When Maudgalyayana did as the Buddha had instructed, his mother rose straight from the hell of incessant hunger to the world of celestial beings, where she danced for joy. Some say this is the origin of Bon-odori, folk dances performed at Urabon.

Based on this story of Maudgalyayana’s experience, Urabon became a day of prayer for ancestors’ happiness. What are we to learn from this story and this celebration? Let us go over it.

Listen to the Truth of Buddhism Attentively The Sanskrit word “ullambana,” from which Japanese “Urabon” is derived, means literally “those hung upside down.” So the Bussetsu Urabon Sutra is really a sutra that teaches “how to save those who are hanging upside down.” Is it only Maudgalyayana’s mother who suffered such a fate? The hell of incessant hunger exists not only in the world after death. To imagine that hungry ghosts (in Japanese, gaki) are grotesque, skin and bone animals with great swollen bellies is a serious mistake. Buddhism tells us something different. We who do not see our delusion for what it is, we who cannot believe the truth of Buddhism, we who suffer as we go on mistaking our delusion for truth; Seen from the buddhas’ perspective, we ourselves are hungry ghosts, hanging upside down. Shinran said this: In this world as fleeting and unstable as a burning house, inhabited by human beings beset by worldly passions, all is idleness and foolishness, utterly devoid of truth. Only the nembutsu is true.” (Tannisho, Epilogue). To paraphrase, “This world is as unstable as a burning house, and all human beings inhabiting this world consist of blind passions and nothing else. Everything is empty and foolish, without a grain of truth. Only the nembutsu bestowed by Amida is true.”The human lifespan is limited; yet people put off listening to Buddhism, preferring first to satisfy their desires, which are limitless. Such fools are legion. Everywhere we turn, we see nothing but people suspended upside down. Those who have money and possessions, fame and status, marriage and children, suffer on that account; those who lack those things suffer in their search to acquire them. One is the suffering of having, the other the suffering of nothaving. We want things we do not have, and when we have them we only want more, with insatiable greed. We hunger and thirst continually, filled with resentment, knowing no satisfaction. The world is populated entirely by hungry ghosts in the throes of suffering.

Where Can True Happiness Be Found?

Because everyone’s thinking is upside down, on all sides we hear only outpourings of lamentation and grief. This is indeed the hell of insatiable hunger. A world of disturbance and strife where people seek material things and hold them dear: when we take a hard look at this severe reality and our place within it, we find to our astonishment that hungry ghosts is precisely what we really are. In our concern for our departed ancestors, we forget that we ourselves are hungry ghosts. Obon is not a day to help one’s ancestors but a day to help oneself, the self that even now hangs upside down, tortured by perpetual hunger and thirst, facing transmigration for ages on end. Never let it be forgotten that Obon is a day to listen to Buddhism and diligently seek the truth.

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #09 | 2011, Master Shinran's Teachings and Obon

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