The annual Obon Festival at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple honors the departed spirits of one’s ancestors as well as serving for a time when families come together from afar to clean the graves of their departed loved ones and celebrate the spirit and love of family. On July 30 and 31, this celebration included dance, song and traditional Japanese Taiko drumming. Traditionally, the festival starts on July 15, although in more modern times it can extend clear into August to coincide with summer family holidays. Strikingly similar to the Mexican observance of Dia` de los Muertos, the celebration brings together family in a time of remembrance and release, celebrating life and love.
The story goes that the holiday is derived from the legend of Mokuren, a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha. Mokuren was haunted by a vision of his deceased mother trapped in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Distressed, he turned to Buddha, desperate for a way to release his mother’s trapped soul. Buddha instructed Mokuren to hold a feast on July 15 for the past seven generations of the dead. Mokuren did so and in turn was blessed with a vision of the many sacrifices his mother had made for her family. Her soul was released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and Mokuren danced with joy, thus kicking off the first Obon Festival.
Another essential element to the Obon Festival is traditional Taiko drumming. Although Taiko variations can be found in a variety of cultures, it is thought that the art of Taiko was prevalent in Japan as early as the 6th century. Taiko continues to be the rhythm of Japanese culture as an important element of gagaku, or traditional Japanese classical music regularly played at the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Taiko provides the beat for ceremonial dances as well as festival dancing and celebrations. During the Japanese feudal period, Taiko even served a military purpose; drumbeats were used to sound out orders, marching paces and announcements.
A traditional legend accompanies this art form as well. Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, had sealed herself in a dark cave out of anger. Darkness engulfed the land and many tried to persuade her to abandon her anger and leave the cave, bringing light back to the countryside. None of the pleas reached her, until Ame-no-Uzume, goddess of the dawn, emptied a barrel of sake and began beating out a rhythm on the empty vessel. Amaterasu was so drawn to the music that she left the cave and light returned to the land.
The West Los Angeles Obon Festival included a great many other activities as well: traditional dancing, food and drink, games for the kids, and even a showing of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. If you missed this year’s celebration, keep your calendar open next summer and check out the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple for more local events including weekly services for adults and youth. http://westlosangelesbuddhisttemple.org/