What is Obon?

The Buddhist observance of Obon has its origins in the scripture Ullambana Sutra Spoken by the Buddha. The sutras are the sacred scriptures of Buddhism, and serve as records of the interactions that the Buddha had with various people during the 45 years that he spent sharing the Dharma. The Ullambana Sutra describes an occasion when one of the Buddha’s two chief disciples, Mahamaudgalyayana (pronouced “Ma-ha-mode-gall-yaa-ya-na”), went to the Buddha seeking guidance.

Among the Buddha’s disciples, Mahamaudgalyayana was revered as the Master of the Special Powers possessed by one who has realized perfect enlightenment. Among these special powers is the power of divine vision, which enables one to clearly see the working of cause and effect in all the realms of birth and death. Mahamaudgalyayana felt a deep sense of gratitude toward his loving mother, and after she passed away, he would reflect on how all the things she had done for him continued to bring benefit to his life. On one occasion after his mother’s passing, as he was thinking about all that she had done for him and contemplating her journey through the realms of birth and death. At that time, his special power of divine vision enabled him to see that she had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a state of suffering from unsatisfied desire.

Understandably, he was very alarmed to see his mother in a state of suffering, and immediately went to the Buddha to ask what he could do to care for her and ease her suffering, as she had cared for him over the years while he was growing up. Because there is nothing that we can do directly for a loved one once they have passed away and ceased to dwell in this world, the Buddha advised Mahamaudgalyayana that the most meaningful way for him express his feelings of gratitude to his departed mother would be to practice generosity and kindness toward the people he continued to see every day in his life. The Buddha advised him to make a gift of food, clothing and other necessary items to his fellow monks at the conclusion of their rainy season retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.

Mahamaudgalyayana followed the Buddha’s instructions and provided these gifts on the suggested day. As he practiced this dana and reflected on all the kindness and generosity he had received, his thoughts turned once again to his mother. Again, he used his special power of divine vision to seek her out in the various realms of birth and death. He was delighted to see that his mother had been released from her suffering in the realm of the hungry ghosts. At that time, we are told that the usually reserved and dignified monk Mahamaudgalyayana was so overjoyed by the power of the Buddha’s teaching to bring about liberation from suffering that he began to leap and dance about without any regard for what others might think of him.

This ancient story is rich in meaning for us. It encourages us to be mindful of how the kindness and generosity of those who have come before continues to touch our lives in so many ways. Although this story is about a mother and a son, the meaning can apply to any relationship we have with someone who has passed away, another family member, a dear friend, an inspiring teacher, or professional mentor.

This Obon season provides many opportunities for us to practice the Buddha’s teachings by showing kindness and generosity, or dana, for each other as we remember our departed loved ones. Some people practice dana by volunteering to plan fun games or perform beautiful music. Some show kindness by joining Buddhist Services and providing support and comfort for those who may still feel the natural sadness of parting as they remember a loved one who departed for the Other Shore. All are invited to forget about their embarrassment and pride and join Mahamaudgalyayana in the foolish dance of joy.