August 2020 Message

The Fullness of Obon
by Reverend Dean Koyama

We are living in truly unusual times as we have had to cancel our Obon Festival due to the Covid-19 virus pandemic. Unfortunately, as a country, we have not bent the curve of the number of cases nor deaths caused by this unforgiving virus. States, including California have had to roll back and ease their efforts of “re-opening” and of making the hard decisions to not have in-person classes for the coming school year.

This affects us as we will not be able to gather with one another for our Obon services, Festival and Dance. It will be a very lonely feeling for me as I walk out of my front door and not see the game booths, lanterns, stage yagura and banners. I will miss seeing people hustling and bustling as they are busy preparing the many delicious food items that we are famous for having so much that the lines extend throughout the temple grounds even before we officially open. And I will, of course miss, the many smiling faces of all those who dance with us into the evening. The idea of spending an empty and lonely Obon reminded me of an article that I had written many years ago and thought I would re-share it again.

As I think of Obon, I am reminded of the wonderful opportunity that I had while a student in Japan over 30 years ago. I received an invitation from a former BCA minister, Rev. Tsuguru Kinugasa (who served at the Los Angeles Betsuin from 1978 to 1980) to visit and participate at the Obon observances of his temple, Gansho-Ji in Tottori Prefecture. Gansho-Ji is a famous temple because it is the home temple of the myokonin, Genza.

The Obon dance at Gansho-Ji was so much fun. They played only one song all night and the dance was only a few steps so that even I was able to learn it without any practice. The members would dance for a while, drink a little, go back and dance again. Various people would get up and help sing the song. Sometimes they wouldn’t know or would forget the words (because of the sake), so they would make them up on the fly. It truly was a festival of joy.

However, what were so interesting were the Obon services. Unlike here, where everyone comes to the temple for one service, the minister In Tottori visits each member’s home. I was surprised to find out that because there were so many members, not only Rev. Kinugasa but also his father and mother had to help out so they could go visit each home. They had to visit between 15 to 20 homes each for the next 3 days. Rev. Kinugasa thought it would be good for me to experience how Obon is observed in Japan by joining him, as he would go from house to house.

At the first home, Sensei announced at the genkan (front entrance of the house) in a hearty voice, “Gansho-Ji desu! (I’m from Gansho-Temple).” The family came and welcomed us in. We proceeded immediately to the O-butsudan (family altar), chanted the sutra and had the family o-shoko (burn incense). Sensei chatted with the family explaining that I was from America and came to Japan to study to become a Buddhist minister. We both politely accepted mugi-cha (cold barley tea) and then proceeded to the next house. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and my knees ached tremendously from sitting seiza (Japanese style) for all the services.

The next day, to my horror, Rev. Kinugasa informed me that he had to take care of a Hatsubon service for a very important member of his temple and asked if I could go on a route all on my own. Fortunately, all the homes were located along one street very close to the temple. I went to the first house and mimicked everything Rev. Kinugasa had done the day before. I approached the entrance with a barely audible, timid voice whispering, “Gansho-Ji desu.” The members of the family came out and warmly welcomed me in. I proceeded to the family O-butsudan, chanted the sutra, had the family oshoko, drank the tea and chatted very briefly before I announced that I had to be on my way just as Rev. Kinugasa had done the first day. Later I discovered that Rev. Kinugasa had made prior arrangements with all the families I was to visit, telling them that an American would be coming to conduct the Obon services for them. They had expected a blond haired, blue-eyed person to come to their house, but instead I showed up. After the first several home services went without a hitch, I slowly gained confidence and fell into a comfortable routine.

At the next house, with my newfound confidence, I announced, “Gansho-Ji desu!” I waited for a few seconds, but I didn’t hear a sound. Again I yelled out, “Gansho-Ji desu.” And still no sound. I didn’t know what to do. Just then, Rev. Kinugasa came by to check up on me. I explained to him that no one was home. He told me to go ahead in and conduct the service anyway. To my surprise, I found the front entrance door unlocked. Once again, I announced, “Gansho-Ji desu,” just in case. I walked into the main room and found the O-butsudan. I lit the candle and burned the incense, chanted the sutra. Since no one was there, I got up to leave, but just then I caught site of a tray with a glass of cold tea and a donation envelope to the temple. I was amused that the family knew they wouldn’t be here when I came around for the service, yet they still went through all the trouble to prepare for the service anyway. I decided it would be rude to just take the envelope without drinking the mugi-cha, so I took a few minutes to enjoy the tea.

A few houses later, again, there was no response. I proceeded to open the front door. Again, it was not locked. I went into the house, found the family altar, lit the candle and incense, and proceeded with the chanting of the sutra. Mid way through, I heard a set of footsteps behind me. After I finished chanting, I turned to greet the person who sat with me for the service. It turned out to be a twelve year-old boy, who had apparently overslept because his hair was still ruffled and unkempt. He must have missed going out with his family. I invited him to burn incense. After he did so, he proceeded into the kitchen area and brought out a tray. On the tray were again, a glass of tea and the envelope for the donation. He politely set the tray down in front of me and invited me to drink the tea. Imagine, a 12 year-old boy recognizing that since his parents and family were absent, he took on the responsibility of “hosting” the minister and provided the hospitality. I was deeply impressed with him.

In these two circumstances, it may seem strange and perhaps rude that the families were not home when the Buddhist priest made his rounds for the Obon services. Here in the states, there is no way that we would ever leave our front door unlocked and our security system unarmed for someone outside of our family to have the opportunity to walk into our home freely. Later, I found out that it is very common during Obon for the family not to be there when the minister would make his visitation.

Later that evening Rev. Kinugasa and I talked about my experience at the homes where no one was present for the service. I remarked that I could have just gone into the empty, unoccupied house, picked up the donation and left without anyone ever seeing me actually do the service. Flippantly, I asked Rev. Kinugasa, “Who would know if I, as the minister, actually chanted the sutra or not?” Rev. Kinugasa’s immediate, without-any-hesitation, response was, “You would.”

As I reflected upon his words, I realized that indeed I wasn’t the only one in the house. Perhaps physically, the members of the family were absent. But they still took the time to clean the O-butsudan, offer fresh flowers, and even have the mugi-cha and donation envelope prepared. And as I reflect, especially about the little 12 year-old boy, who woke up after hearing the chanting begin, came down the stairs and sat in silence, burned incense and offered the tea and envelope to a person who looked Japanese but had a strange accent, I became even more impressed and humbled. He could have taken the easy way out. He could have stayed upstairs and pretended to stay asleep. Here, he had the awareness and kindness to offer me in his very polite manner, his appreciation for my conducting the service. For him to have learned to do this can only be attributed to the upbringing he received from his family and ancestors. It was a tribute to them.

Although there may have been only one small boy in one house and no one in another, while I chanted the sutra for Obon, the houses indeed were never empty.

Namandabu, namandabu
Rev. Dean Koyama