There’s an old Buddhist story about a monk named Mahamaudgalyayana – let’s call him Mokuren, for short – who was doing alright, as monks go, and had finally developed the skill of peering into the world of the dead.
Mokuren, being a good guy, decided to use this skill – his Way Eye – to thank his dead parents for their work raising him. So he brought his mother into the world of the living. It didn’t go as well as he had expected.
Mokuren’s mom was skin and bones. She hadn’t eaten, but hadn’t withered away. She was what Buddhists call “a hungry ghost,” not quite ready to make her pilgrimage to the next world, but lingering close to this one with an insatiable hunger she could never fill. These ghosts suffer out bad karma for their greed and selfishness in the afterlife.
Mokuren was shocked. He quickly filled a bowl with rice and handed it to his mother, but as she scooped it into her hands it dissolved into burning ashes.
Luckily, all this happened while M. was studying under the Buddha. So Mokuren asked the Buddha what to do about the starving ghost of his mother back at the house.
“I hate to tell you this, Mok, but there’s no fixing this,” the Buddha told him. “I’m going to break it to you the hard way: Your mother screwed up, big time, and there’s just not a lot that we can do. Nobody has the power to solve her problems but her.”
Mokuren was dismayed. The Buddha was a compassionate guy, and decided to see if he could pull some strings.
“Here’s what I’ll do,” the Buddha said. “I’ll make a new rule to help these spirits out. Not for her sake, but for yours and her parent’s sake. Just this once, OK?”
The rule was kind of complicated.
“The fifteenth day of the seventh month, a bunch of the priests come back from their work out in the cities and country. And for the sake of fathers and mothers of the last 7 generations, and for you guys, who are upset about your mom or dad or whatever, you should welcome these priests home by giving them presents. I’d suggest hundreds of flavors and five fruits. And incense. And oil, lamps, candles, beds and bedding, all the best stuff you can find, and hand it over to the temples.”
Mokuren was scribbling these instructions down furiously on some parchment. He stopped the Buddha to double-check the details.
“Does it matter how many lamps?” Mokuren asked.
“Gotcha.” Mokuren scribbled it down: Doesn’t matter how many lamps.
“And what’s the date again?”
“The fifteenth day of the seventh month,” The Buddha held his hands up and counted on his fingers. “So, August. August 15th.”
“Got it.” When Mokuren finished scribbling, he looked up, and the Buddha started talking again.
“If you do that, your mom and dad, and their parents, too, for up to seven generations, (everyone else is too far away by now) and all your close relatives, will escape from the suffering path and be moved along on their journey.”
“Hold on though,” Mokuren interjected. “What if my parents are still around?”
“They’ll be blessed. For a hundred years. Parents of seven generations will be born in the heavens. Transformationally born, they will independently enter the celestial flower light, and experience limitless bliss.”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Seems extreme, is all.”
The Buddha replied that he’s an extreme kinda guy.
Mokuren went back to the other monks and Bodhisattvas and they were pumped. None of them liked having their relatives turn into hungry ghosts.
So they got to work, they organized everything just like the Buddha said. Soon Mokuren’s mom is able to eat rice again and it doesn’t turn into burning ash. She got filled up and was ready to go. Mokuren said his goodbyes and finally thanked his mother.
“You were a totally awesome mom,” he told her.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know.”
Mokuren went to thank the Buddha, and asked if this one-time rule could turn into a regular thing.
“Good man. I’m glad you asked,” the Buddha said. “If all y’all agree to keep this going, and to keep your parents healthy and happy while they’re alive, then I’ll make a deal. I’ll keep this thing going on my end too. It seems like a good way for sons and daughters to honor their families.”
Mokuren was psyched, and so were all the other disciples, and Aug. 15 became the Obon Holiday.
Obon in Japan
Obon is a huge holiday in Japan, one of the few times people take personal days from work. Most Japanese people use the time to travel back to their grandparent’s old stomping grounds and revisit family shrines and keep up graves.
It’s said that the ghosts of the dead come back to the family shrines during Obon, so some people refer to Obon as “the Japanese Halloween,” but in modern times it’s more like the Japanese Thanksgiving, with ghosts.
People are a lot less likely to put full faith in the original story of Obon. Most Japanese will return home to spend time with their families. Many towns host elaborate festivals during the Obon season, including traditional dances called “Ondo.”
Older members of the family teach Ondo dances to the younger members, reinforcing the metaphorical links between generations. It makes it clearer to younger kids that this is what Obon is all about: Thanking those who aren’t here for what they’ve passed on to us.
The dances are unique to each town. Here on Kyushu, there’s an old coal-mining town that has its own Obon dance incorporating the motions of coal miners as they’d dig coal out of a mountain.
There’s also the subtle and respectful Pokemon Ondo dance.
Since the local festivals have become so popular, Obon has the feeling of an American high school’s homecoming game.
After the dances and festivals, the towns will often set paper lanterns into rivers or walkways as a means of guiding the dead back to their destinations.
A lot of English natives will throw around the phrase “ancestor worship” when it comes to Japan, but this is kind of misleading. The Japanese don’t worship their ancestors. They’re just obligated to look out for them, as repayment for the care and nurturing their ancestors offered to their children.
While there’s a shrine in many Japanese homes (and even apartments), the shrine is also a kind of Skype to the afterlife, allowing the living to report on family events, give thanks and seek guidance.
In America we do the same thing, only we visit the headstones of the departed. In Japan, the ancestors are more present in the daily life of the surviving family, often being greeted during breakfast or before bed.
Which brings us to…
It’s Obon season, so I’m actually on holiday. When you’re reading this I’m probably gallivanting in Korea or somewhere else in Kyushu, but: This site now has a Facebook page! If you like it, please like it there.
And, while I’m traveling, sorry for any delays in approving comments! If you’re in Japan, enjoy your Obon festival. If you aren’t in Japan, well, have a great Aug. 15.
You can read the original story of Mahamaudgalyayana and Obon here.
The image used at the top of this post is part of a six-scroll collection at the Kyoto National Museum. From Wikimedia: “This fourth section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll located at the Kyoto National Museum. The scroll depicts the world of the hungry ghosts, one of the six realms of Buddhism and contains tales of salvation of the hungry ghosts.” You can see the original here.