By Gerald Hirata, President of Kaua‘i Soto Zen

Lanterns at Kaua‘i Soto Zen. Photo by Brian Howell

Lanterns at Kaua‘i Soto Zen. Photo by Brian Howell

Obon is an important annual observance of Japanese tradition, together with Oshogatsu, or New Year’s Day.

One ushers in the new year, while the other starts the second half of the year. The bon odori, a Buddhist folk dance performed outdoors around a yagura (raised platform), has distinctive music, while colorful lanterns strung around the platform create a festival mood.

Japanese customs, however, acquired new observances when Obon came to Hawai‘i, adding food and game booths that are now a vital part of the local festivity. As we busily prepare for the upcoming festival next month in Hanapepe, I remind myself what Obon means to me.

I have many memories while growing up in McBryde Sugar Plantation’s Camps Two and Three where the old Zenshuji Temple was the gathering place for all of our social, cultural and religious activities. Summer was Obon season and on Kaua‘i, it meant a continuous celebration that extended from mid-June to mid-August.

Bon Dance 1

Bon Dance at the Kaua‘i Soto Zen. Photo by Brian Howell

Weeks before the event, the women started the food preparation in the community hall, where the spirit was one of a busy school cafeteria. The men were out tending the temple grounds, mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges and setting up the yagura and the ring for the dancers, in addition to the booths for the festival. The temple itself underwent meticulous cleaning from top to bottom.

During this time, at my grandfather’s insistence, the whole family would do a haka mairi (gravesite visitation) with flowers and offerings to our deceased ancestors. We’d pour water over the gravestones, burn incense and offer food and our prayers. When both sets of grandparents died, it meant special trips to the Port Allen and Kapa‘a cemeteries. Gravesite and temple visits are part of what I do today in order to honor deceased relatives, and it attains added meaning during the Obon season.

Traditionally, my Buddhist upbringing taught me that the ancestral spirits come home to visit with their family and feast together at Obon. The lanterns help guide the spirits home. Each home had a butsudan, a household shrine, where we presented offerings, as if our ancestors were still with us. It’s a joyous feeling to know that although beloved ones have passed, family ties with the deceased are not severed.

Buddha's statue at Kaua‘i Soto Zen.

Buddha’s statue at Kaua‘i Soto Zen.

When my father passed away, my initial thought was that I could be with him again during the next Obon season. I started taking bon odori lessons when the churches offered them in the spring. It was the first time I had made a conscious effort to learn, so that I could be part o the circle of dancers. Coincidentally, our church undertook a chochin (lantern) project to honor loved ones, and nearly 100 of them were strung over the temple grounds. I felt that more lanterns would mean a well-marked path were anyone, including my dad, could easily find his way home.

I’ve learned that Obon is a good time to reach out and extend feelings of joyousness to everyone, not the kind of joy or happiness that you get from getting what you desire, but one of awareness. The joy of discovering that there is a selfless giving — such as the love and care exhibited by parent for their children or adults with their parents and grandparents. We should extend this selfless practice of giving to our friends and the rest of the communinity.

Next month, our temple will have more lanterns strung up. I will be one of many dancers in the ring and I will be dancing with the spirits of my ancestors. I will take time out at the food booths to enjoy a plate lunch, saimin, flaying saucer, mochi and manu. Finally, I would welcome everyone to take part and join in on the festivities.

  • Gerald Hirata, president of Kaua‘i Soto Zen Temple in Hanapepe, describes himself as a “born-again Buddhist,” having returned years ago to the temple of his youth.

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