August 2018 Message
"Hanging Up-Side Down"
For many, our Obon Festival has often been labeled simply as a Japanese cultural tradition. And perhaps, it is easy to understand why: We do have Japanese cultural programs such as koto (Japanese harp), Kendo, Judo, and origami (Japanese paper folding); we do make Japanese foods such as sushi, udon, chicken teriyaki, salmon misoyaki and shave ice; and our Obon odori is a type of festival street dancing related to some forms of classical Japanese dance.
But being only a Japanese cultural event is the tip of an iceberg. The meaning of Obon is very much deeper. Obon is a religious observance that goes beyond the bounds of sectarian religious definitions. It penetrates and embraces our very existences as human beings. However, our existence as a temple is no longer limited to Japanese culture. Many of our members have never been to Japan or speak the Japanese language. We have members who have joined our temple that reflect the diversity of the world, not just of Asia and Europe, but of South and Central America as well. I look forward to the time that our Obon will reflect that diversity and we offer foods like kim chee burritos and chicken tika marsala in addition to our delicious chicken teriyaki. I look forward to the time where we emphasize the talents of our own diverse temple members who enjoy Burmese or hula dancing along with our very own Bad Karma rock band.
And I think this will all still be in accord with the religious meaning of Obon.
The origins of Obon can be traced to the Ullambana Sutra. Ulla literally means, “to hang upside down.” If we look at the world while hanging upside down, we have an inverted view of the world and because of this, Ulla refers to the unbearable suffering, whether physically, mentally or spiritually caused by not seeing things as they truly are. Bana refers to a bowl. In ancient India, monks used bowls to beg for food as part of their religious practice to deflate one’s ego and pride. It also was used to signify that one’s existence is dependent upon an infinite number of lives. Thus, the bowl symbolizes salvation. Combining the words, Ullambana can then mean to rescue those who are suffering because they hang upside down.
One of my favorite gathas or Buddhist songs is called Seiya.
How beautiful the starry sky!
Who could know the mystery of the heavens?
When these countless eyes shine brilliantly (from the skies),
My heart is filled with joy!
More numerous than the sands of the Ganges
Are the Buddhas.
When I hear that they watch over us night and day,
My heart is filled with peace.
This song is based upon the Buddhist idea that our universe is made up of many worlds; as many as the grains of sand that line the Ganges River. And in each world there is a Buddha who shines his light of wisdom and compassion. For me, the imagery of these many countless Buddhas makes such an impression on me, not in the sense of some god or deity physically looking down upon us. Rather, I take this as very poetic language reflecting a clear understanding that we are the result of infinite causes and conditions. Our lives are made up of the lives of infinite others. Some we can clearly identify. Others we cannot, simply because of the multitudes like the grains of sand that line a beach.
Rev. Ryumei Iguchi, in his book Eternal Light and Life – Shoshin Ge-, tells the story of an elderly man who lived in a poor remote mountainside village in the Kurobe Valley of Toyama prefecture about 150 years ago. There were only a dozen families living in this village. Being such a long time ago, the people of this village did not enjoy the many wonderful conveniences that we enjoy today, such as central air conditioning, flush toilets, HD TVs, etc. But the people of this village were very devout Jodo Shinshu followers. And it was the life long wish to make a pilgrimage to our Hongwanji main temple in Kyoto for one elderly gentleman of the village.
Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and is known for its many sites important in the history of Japan. It is also known to have been the center of many of our Japanese cultural arts such as flower arranging and tea ceremony. Also, Kyoto cuisine is famous not only for the delicious flavors of the food itself, but also in it’s presentations.
This elderly man worked hard and saved his money, and finally, one day, he was able to realize his dream. He enjoyed the wonderful historical sites. He tasted the delicious flavor of Kyoto’s food. He enjoyed the wonderful entertainment area of Kyoto. Toward the end of his trip, he realized that he had to bring back some souvenirs for all of his friends and relatives back home to commemorate his trip to Kyoto.
He took a couple of days looking just for the right gift. After he carried them home, he invited his relatives and friends over to his home to share in his adventures of Kyoto. As each one walked in, he passed out his souvenirs. They were balls of glass but not completely round. They were rounded on one end but long and tapered on the other. He tied a piece of rope to the long skinny end and attached the rope to a nail in the ceiling.
The old man said, “Just watch, in few minutes something magical is going to happen.”
There the glass ball hung while the old man talked about the many wonderful things he saw while he was in Kyoto. After awhile, the sun set and they were all sitting in the living room in darkness. One of the villagers got up and asked the old man,”
"Hey, Uncle, what was supposed to happen to the glass ball. It’s so dark in here, I can no longer see it.”
The old man scratched his head in bewilderment and said, “Huh, I don’t understand it. When I visited people in Kyoto, they all had these glass balls in their homes and at night they glowed!”
What the old man had brought back were...Light bulbs!
Neither he nor the villagers had ever seen a light bulb before. (Remember this was some 150 years ago.) The old man thought that if he had only the light bulb, it would somehow magical light up. But we, of course know now, that is not the case. It took someone to realize and understand the laws of electricity. It took someone else to figure out how to generate electricity. It took someone to build the generators. It took someone to manufacture the wires that carry the electricity. It took someone to string the wires throughout the countryside from the generators and finally into our homes so that we can go into a dark room and with a flick of a switch, enjoy light in our homes.
Usually we do not ever think about these countless unknown individuals. This is living hanging upside down. Many of them have already passed away many years before us. We may not be aware of them, yet their lives still contribute and influence our lives today.
On the banks of a river, there must be millions of millions of grains of sand. We must look closely to differentiate each grain when we hold just a handful in our hand. Yet each grain is surely unique.
Infinite are the grains of sands that line the bank of the Ganges River. Infinite are the causes and conditions that make up our lives. Today, as we reflect upon our lives, we recognize the contributions and gifts that we have received from these causes and conditions or the Life and Light of our loved ones. In their passing, they give no greater example of the truth of this human life. They give no greater opportunity to reflect and think about matters of true importance in our own lives. And for that reason, we regard them as being important teachers, Buddhas who have awakened to the truth of this life and compassionately gives us a chance to awaken to a life of gratitude as well. For that reason we need to become fully aware and appreciative of the many gifts and treasures that we encounter along our way. May we recognize the great debt of gratitude that we owe to them. May we awaken that heart of true appreciation and gratitude realizing that they continues to guide us, they continues to teach us, they continues to grasp and embrace us, never to be abandoned by them. And for that we gather in Joy!
Have a Joyful Obon!
Rev. Dean Koyama