During August 10-12, we celebrated O-bon, an annual memorial ceremony to honor and bless the deceased in our lives, and per the tradition’s origin, even free their spirits from suffering. Thursday and Friday nights we did short versions of the chanting ceremony, and Saturday and Saturday night held the full expression of all the rituals. O-bon originated during the Buddha’s life, when a disciple asked him how he could help free his mother’s spirit from the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. This realm is where spirits are caught in relentless dissatisfaction and insatiable craving. Whether or not such a realm exists, the celebration also serves to acknowledge the hungry ghost aspect that is in each of us.
the seemingly ceaseless wanting for ourselves, others and circumstances to be other than they are; to want what we don’t have and be rid of what we have that we don’t like. It is a cycle that is truly vicious.
It does not take much to recognize this ghost in ourselves, and its almost relentless agitation of wanting what it does not have, and be rid of what it does not like. Sometimes the craving is discreet, sometimes tempestuous. Aside from any high spiritual ideals, the practice of sitting in stillness and silence cultivates the ability to observe and be present with whatever arises in our bodies and minds. This helps us develop the capacity to remain non-reactive to their energies, and consciously choose our inner experience and outward behavior from this still, silent clarity, not from craving or repulsion. The process is not comfortable, but the fruits of transformation are sweet. This in itself is the practice of awakening, and the realization of enlightenment.
Preparing for O-bon is a big deal, and is started a month in advance with cleaning the floating lanterns, followed by grounds care in the weeks prior. The week of the ceremony, about forty volunteers arrived to help gather the ceremonial materials, clean the monastery and prepare rooms, set up altars and decorations, plan and shop for meals, and much more.
The week prior, I was asked to weed the paths of Sangha Meadow, the monastery’s cemetery area, as well as the grave site of the parents of Eido Shimano Roshi, DBZ’s founding abbot. Sangha Meadow is a shrubby area, mainly composed of the native Spirea alba, or meadowsweet. Winding grass are cut through it, weaving around the cemetery section, offering a maze-like experience and the occasional surprise of resident statues.
I enjoy weeding and valued the quiet time alone to meditate while working in nature. In the O-bon spirit of blessing the deceased, all the while I weeded, I chanted the phrase “Namu Dai Bosa.”
The week of August 8 was full of preparation for O-bon, with more volunteer participants arriving each day. The zendo foyer was transformed both a festive room and somber memorial. Photos and “ihai,” or spirit/memorial tablets, that normal reside on the Dharma hall altar, are placed, in a specific order, on a temporary altar in the foyer. Later in the week, paper lanterns on which each participant writes the names of deceased family and friends would line the walls.
With all gatherings at DBZ, there is a social joy that is vibrant, even for O-bon and its focused on those in our communities and lives who have died. The spirit of collaboration was as nourishing as the food we prepared. Making an elaborate dinner for 75 was, fast-paced, meditative and straight-up fun. I and others assisted the tenzo, or head chef, to prepare dinner starting immediately after breakfast right up to 5PM serving time. We working along side those making lunch at the same time. All day the sky and air were heavy with the possibility of rain, but inside we were basking in our own sunshine.
Making vegetable creatures for some of the altars kept playful energy in the atmosphere. The eggplant-radicchio dragon lived on the alter with the lineage holders.
A large part of O-bon ritual is for each person to write and/or draw on a paper lantern, writing the names of deceased people in their lives being the most common. The monastery entrance, or genkan, a formal and sacred space, was set up with cushions, brushes and ink for us to make our lanterns.
Making my lantern had been on my mind through the day, but as dinner prep became busier it slipped my mind. Thankfully, someone reminded me around 4:30. I went from the bustle of the kitchen to the quiet of the genkan, took a moment to settle, and began writing the names of family, friends and my dogs on the taught rice paper. It was a powerful moment as subtle waves of grief came forth, including for grandparents I never met. As I felt my mind constrict and my head hang with sorrow, I recognized the opportunity to liberate the energy, thus myself, and those whom I was grieving. I sat up and breathed in to my heart center, drawing the grief in to it, and dispelling its painful quality as I exhaled. A quiet, reverential sadness lingered, balanced with love and gratitude for those I was memorializing.
The ampersand is for additional friends and family, and those who have died of whom I have not heard the news.
After making a lantern, each person takes theirs to the altar in the zendo foyer, lights an incense stick, purifies the lantern three times in the fragrant smoke, then sets it along the wall. After the evening chanting and reading of the names of the deceased, they would all be lit and carried down to the lake.
A chant called “Dai Segaki” which honors the deceased, was chanted in call-and-response style. The chanting leader, a Japanese woman and long-time Zen Studies sangha member, had a hauntingly gorgeous voice. Her tone blended perfectly the beauty of life and the sadness of death. The group, over 75 strong, repeated each line back with both vigor and a poignancy that was stirringly deep. The whole service lasted about 90 minutes, and was a profound meditation like none I had ever experienced.
After the service, we all carried our lanterns in procession. Earlier in the day, the heavy sky let loose a huge rain storm, which felt like a powerful cleansing, a deep release. We were concerned it would continue in to the night and prevent us from going outside, but it stopped in time. Under the pitch black wilderness sky, the lanterns and path torches were all the light we had. The importance and nurturing energy of shared ritual was palpable as we moved as one living being to the edge of the lake. It made me wish for our society that such sacred rituals were more common and more frequent. This kind of soul food is only found in communal experience, not the anonymity of an increasingly isolated and digitized world. How can we light our way to shared experiences of wonder and reverence in our time and culture?
All of our lanterns were loaded on two row boats, which in itself was a moving. Again, it was revealing the mysterious beauty of life, as the boats began to glow as two big lanterns in the night; at the same time, sending the lanterns off echoed the sorrow of letting go of the physical presence of loved ones when they leave this world. The crowd was silent like the night as the oarsmen asked Shinge Roshi if it was time for them to set off across the black water.
They quietly rowed to the center of the lake and one by one set the lanterns afloat. The scene was sublimely gorgeous, small lights adrift in a deep darkness carrying the names of the deceased, the living energy and murmurings of the people on the shore, the fullness of the vast wilderness around us, and all of this just one speck held by the infinite night sky.
The next day the sky was bright, the air calm and fresh. It literally felt like new life. That the rituals, ceremony, chanting and weather were all powerfully intertwined and self-expressive was truly magical and transformative. The miracle and joy of life and the mystery and sadness of death were clearly revealed to be one, and in that unification, an ineffable peace filled the valley.
Who really knows what this life is, or what does or does not happen after death? No one. Despite all the mind-boggling realizations coming out of quantum physics, we do not really know how or why this worldly existence comes in to being, nor what will become of it. It seems the best we can do is appreciate and honor the mystery of it all, and attune our bodies and minds to harmonize with its flow as we journey through this human life, relishing its joys and accepting its pains. As The Bodhisattva/Awakened One’s Vow says: “May we awaken and recognize this Mind throughout the whole universe, so that we and all beings together may experience maturity in Awakened Mind wisdom.”