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Obon Origins

Remembering the Past....Origins of Obon

Obon, pronounced "oh-bone", means "night" in Japanese. The correct pronunciation is simply "bone." Adding the "O" to "oh-bone" makes the word more formal.

Obon not only refers to the July festival, but also means a bowl or tray with which one serves guests.

Locally, the Japan Nite Obon Festival emphasizes the remembrance of ancestors and the tie which local Japense Americans have to Japan as well as a time of hospitality. Non-Buddhist members of the local community are invited to participate in the festivities, creating not one, but two celebrations.

Shrouded in ritual and religion, Obon, or the "Festival of Joy" is an annual Buddhist holiday to pay reverence to those who have passed on. Combined with traditional Japanese food, dance, music and dress, Japan Nite is a celebration of culture, sharing and understanding.

"I think people are interested in learning other religions and other cultures," Mary Ann Shimojima, Obon director of publicity, said. "When we understand how people believe, then someday we might have peace in the world."

The Festival of Joy, traditionally celebrated July 15, marking the end of the rainy monsoon season in Eastern Asia, was a time when farmers, merchants, priests and community members could return to their normal lives after the heavy rains had ceased.

The colorful folk dances of the July Obon Festival carry this special meaning and symbolize a time to meditate on the love and affection parents have showered upon their children; a time to meditate on the virtues of forefathers; and a time to mediate on Amida Buddha. "It's like a memorial to those who have passed on," Shimojima said about how what we have today would not be possible without those who came before us.

The religious origins of Obon are traced back to an ancient legend witnessed by one of the Buddha's disciples. Mokuren Sonja (Moggallana) by name, saw with his superhuman sight the agony of his mother suffering in the hell of starvation. When this fact was brought to the Buddha's attention, the Blessed One said that the woman, whose life on earth was characterized by greed and selfishness, was now reaping the fruits of her egocentric acts. The Buddha thus advised Mokuren to offer food to the disciples out of a pure, altruistic heart. When this offering was made, Mokuren's mother was saved. Mokuren and all the disciples clapped their hands and danced in joy.

Obon festivities in Ontario date back to the beginning of the church in the late 1940's and have been held at the Temple on Southeast Fourth Street since 1959, upon the completion of the building. The folk dances, held in the evening, have become an important part of the Japan Nite Obon Festival, as well as the heart-pounding rhythms of the taiko drummers and, of course, the food.

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