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O’Bon (Urabon) & Segaki 御盆と施餓鬼

Obon andSegaki are both celebrations in which we pay respect to, and try to help the deceased and our ancestors. As they are closely linked observances, they are usually both held together at around the same time.

O’Bon (Urabon) 御盆:

Urabon orObon as it is commonly shortened and known, is the Japanese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word Ullambana which means to ‘hang upside down’. This term signifies the sufferings both physical and psychological experienced by an individual when they are hung upside down.

The Obonceremony is conducted in accordance with the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, as recorded in the Ullambana Sutra- known in Japanese as the Urabon Kyo. In the Urabon Kyo Shakyamuni Buddha tells a story about one of his disciples Mokuren Sonja (Maudgalyayana in Sanskrit). It is said in places that Mokuren was foremost among the Buddha’s disciples in having attained supernatural powers. In the Urabon Kyo, we are told that Venerable Mokuren’s mother has just passed away. Having supernatural powers, and being concerned about the faith of his mother, Mokuren uses his supernatural vision to see into the lower realms. While investigating, he discovered that his mother had fallen into the realm of the Hungry Ghosts (Preta, Gaki).

Distressed by this discovery, Mokuren set out trying to help his mother. He asked his, and our, Great Master Shakyamuni Buddha how he could elevate his mother’s state, and remove her from the immense suffering she was now facing. The Buddha replied that he should make offerings to all those monks who had just finished their retreat. In doing so, he would accrue merit. This merit could be transferred to his mother and therefore provide her with the karmic fruit, required to leave the world of Hungry Ghosts.

Having done this, Mokuren was delighted to see that his mother had been released from her sufferings. He was so happy that he began dancing in joy, and it is from this, that we get the Obon Odori or the Obon Dance, which can be seen at many Japanese temples throughout the celebrations.

The Obon celebrations have over time become one of the most important traditions in Japan. It is popularly believed that at this time, the ancestors and relatives of an individual who have fallen into the lower realms, come back to visit their relatives by virtue of the merit accrued during the celebrations. Therefore, Obon is an incredibly family oriented occasion. Many family members who might live far away from their original family homes, often travel home during this time to pay their respects, in much the same way as it is believed the ancestors come home at this time.

In our tradition, Obon is held between the 13th and 16th of August. However, in some parts of Japan, it may be held around the same days in July. Before Obon begins we clean out our homes and properties, ensuring that they are presentable to the ancestors. Offerings such as vegetables and fruits are placed on a special altar set up for Obon, as an offering both the Buddha’s and the ancestors. Do not under any circumstances, offer meat during Obon. Even if a particular meat, or meat dish were a favourite of a deceased relative. This is because meat requires killing, and an endorsement of killing. If you present offerings of meat during this time, you will accrue karmic debt for yourself, and for your deceased relatives and ancestors. It might seem obvious why we ourselves might accrue some form of karmic debt from offering meat to the Buddhas. But why would our ancestors and deceased relatives accrue karmic debt when we offer meat to them? Because we are offering it on their behalf during Obon. Because we, the type of people we have become, represent what they raised us to be. We represent their ‘continuation’. And so when we offer meat during Obon, this reflects upon them, and can only worsen their circumstances further. For scriptural/ Sutra reference regarding the dangers of this, please read the ‘Original Vows of Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra’ (sutra of Jizo Bosatsu).

On the First day of Obon, families light lanterns called Chouchin inside their house in front of the Butsudan (Buddhist Shrine). They also leave a light on, or put a lantern outside, so that the ancestor might find their way home. These lanterns are usually plain, or have the family or sect crest on them. Another popular activity on this first day, is visiting the grave sites of deceased relatives and asking them to return home with you. Sometimes, large fires are lit in communities or towns, again to light the way back for all those who might be coming home.

Another part of the Obon observances and one in which children should get involved is the making of a Cucumber Horse, and an Eggplant Cow. These are made by simply using some disposable chopsticks for legs and putting them into an eggplant and a cucumber respectively. The motivation behind this is to provide the ancestors with transport. We want the ancestors and deceased relatives to come home quickly and so we provide them with a horse. We don’t want them to leave so soon so we provide them with a cow that rides back slowly. On the first day, we place them at the front door, or gate so that they can do their job. Sometimes, we might burn some incense at the door as well, so the smoke can lead them home. On the last day, we place the cow and horse on a river bank if we can find one. This is to signify them returning to their other world. We do not put them in the water. If you cannot find a river bank, or natural body of water, remove the chopsticks and put them outside to be eaten by bugs and animals.

Sometimes, people make a small paper boat, on which they place a candle to send their ancestors home. However, in Australia as we are prone to bushfires, do not do this, unless you are sure it will not cause a fire.

The climax of the Obon festivities is the Obon Dori or the Obon Dance. Temples, Parks and Gardens are filled with people who dance around a tower containing singers and Taiko drum players. Banners of red and white stripes are placed around along with lanterns. The evening is usually closed with a fireworks display.

As you can see, there is nothing particularly macabre about Obon. Death is part of life, and is something that children in Buddhist cultures are made aware of, and comfortable with.

Segaki {施餓鬼}(Offerings to the hungry Ghosts):

However, there are those beings that have died in unfortunate or unhappy circumstances. Or those that have passed away without loved ones to remember and help them on Obon. It is for this reason that we also hold observances for the ‘Hungry Ghosts’ (Gaki in Japanese, Preta in Sanskrit). These may simply be sad and lost ghosts who have no one to care for them. They may also be those who lived particularly bad lives, perhaps even hurting or killing other people and beings, or been filled with insatiable greed. Either way, while they may be scary at times, we should feel sorry for them, and attempt to help them on their way. In Buddhist tradition, Hungry Ghosts are those who having led harmful lives, are now assailed by insatiable desire. It is said that they have huge stomachs but small mouths so that little food passes through. Everything they eat or drink turns to ash, and so they are unable to quench their yearning. They wander in a limbo-like state until they have spent the karmic debt that led them to rebirth there.

Therefore, during Obon we should hold services welcoming them and helping them on their way. We should show them compassion, and transfer our merit to them, so that they become free of their suffering.

But we are also urged to be cautious during this time. It is sometimes said that sickness during this time might be the result of a hungry ghost following one around. Such stories make us chant sutras more often, and so accrued more merit for us, and for them. In line with this, there are some tradition cautions during Obon that we should be aware of. For example, it is said that one shouldn’t go swimming in rivers, lakes, or the ocean during Obon. This is because it is believed that those Hungry Ghosts who lived bad lives, and remain bad may set out to harm you. In this case to drown you. Another example is that it is recommended that you don’t go walking in the mountains- as they may cause you to get lost or cause you to become injured. And of course, you should not kill any living thing, be it a cockroach or a spider because it may be a relative or ancestor who has come back to see you.

Temple Observance:

During Obon,there will usually be a ceremony at the temple on the first (13th) and the Last (16th) day of Obon.Also during the duration of Obon a ceremony will be held at the temple for Segaki, making offerings to the Hungry Ghosts.

Home Observance:

At home during this time, you should include in your Gongyo each day, a small personal prayer wishing for the well-being and enlightenment of your deceased relatives and ancestors, as well as for all in the realm of Hungry Ghosts.

You should also perform all or as many of the activities describe above at home.

Many families also like to have a Priest/Monk come to their home during this time for a service at their shrine, and a dinner together following. Usually, duringObon you should eat in front of the Butsudan area. This is because you are eating with the deceased and ancestors. Therefore you should place some food offerings (no meat) in front of the Butsudan first- before anyone else has received their food. Then you should place, or serve food for the Priest/Monk who is in attendance. Then everyone else may be served. If you wish for a Priest/Monk to visit your home duringObon, please inform your Priest or Monk. During this visit, usually a small monetary offering is made to the Priest to go towards temple maintenance and activities. This offering need not be big, it simply needs to reflect your gratitude to the Sangha of which you are a part. These offerings are usually put inside a special offering envelope which you can pick up from your temple. This is so that no one need see how much you have offered.

Summary remarks:

Within these two observances, are many fundamental Buddhist practices and guiding moral principles. Compassion, and Filial Piety are clearly visible. We have the opportunity to reflect on our own lives- if I continue on the way I am, will I become a hungry ghost? Do I want that? Etc. These ceremonies are a way of introducing these fundamental ideas into our lives in a concrete way. Children who grow up with this tradition will be less likely to fear death, or see it as something to be avoided. They will have a strong appreciation and respect for the family. They will also grow up knowing that these values and observances are the norm- and this will lead them to embody the Buddhist teachings wherever they might find themselves in the future. Come practice Obon and Segaki with us!


Rev. Jikai Dehn