Obon, as one of the most popular of the Buddhist observances known to non-Buddhists, it is seen as an observance solely dedicated to the departed. However, Obon is also deeply tied with the present. As we reminisce about our departed loved ones, we can clearly understand the interdependency of all life and things.
The origins of Obon can be traced to the Ulambana Sutra that relates the story of Mokuren, the most gifted the Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples in the area of extraordinary sense perceptions. A very good son, Mokuren, one day used his extraordinary powers to visualize the whereabouts of his mother who had died. Searching all the realms, from the highest of the heavens to the lowest of the hells, his mother was in the realm known as world of hungry ghosts. With his powers again, he filled a bowl with food and sent it to his mother. The food burst into flames each time she put it to her mouth. Finding himself helpless in aiding his mother, he ran to the Sakyamuni Buddha seeking help.
The Sakyamuni Buddha tells Mokuren that he needs the combined help of all the monks to help his mother. He was told to bring offerings of food at the end of the rainy season. The rainy season was from the 15th of April to the 15th of July. They were to stay in one place to listen to the Buddha's talks, study, and meditate. Mokuren made the prescribed offerings and his mother and seven generations of his ancestors were relieved of their sufferings. He was so overjoyed that he clapped his hands and danced for joy. This is the beginning of Bon Dance. So, Obon is called the Gathering of Joy.
Most people tend to believe that the significance of the Obon lies in the fact that the spirits of the departed will be returned and saved through the services, offerings, dances, and so forth. However, this is not the case as it is beyond our power to save those who have fallen into hell like above story which is the only literature which relates the Obon.
Jodo Shinshu or Pure Land Shin Buddhism does not look upon Obon as the time when the souls or spirits of one’s ancestors return. It is rather a time to remember and honor all those who have passed on before us. It is to appreciate all that they have done for us and to recognize the continuation of the influence of their deeds upon our lives.
The true significance of the Obon lies in the rededication of ourselves to the Buddhist way of life by reflecting upon us. Obon is a time for self-reflection. Let us endeavor to rededicate ourselves to live our life to its fullest in the light and wisdom of the Nembutsu, Namo-Amidabutsu, and show our gratitude to our departed loved ones throughout the Bon Dances and in our daily lives.