There are a lot of references to death in my debut novel, DEBRIEFING THE DEAD. (The title should be your first clue!) But in Western Europe and the United States, we have a weird relationship with death, compared to many other cultures. We either spend much of our time ignoring the fact that we’re all headed to the same place, or much of our money on products or services designed to delay the Final Event. But in many cultures, particularly Eastern ones, death is viewed not as an end, but as the beginning of our next adventure. And the dead are not permanently gone, only separated from us for a while. But unlike Judeo-Christian concepts of Heaven, where we might meet again only in a self-contained, no-return Afterlife, in Buddhism and other religions, spirits are viewed as coexisting with us in our world. They are simply in another state of being, as “real” as the living, although we may only be able to see them at certain special times.
One time of year when spirits return to walk amongst us is during the Japanese festival of O-Bon (or Obon, or even just Bon). Timing varies around the world (and even by region in Japan), but O-Bon generally occurs around the 15th day of August, so in the middle of summer. It is a time to reflect on and honor one’s ancestors, and families will celebrate with feasts and religious ceremonies. It is also the time when our ancestors’ spirits will cross over from the other side, to visit their altars in the homes of their descendants, and to check up on us.
Living in the Portland, Oregon area, I am extremely fortunate to have a world-renown Japanese Garden right inside the city limits. (Nobuo Matsunaga, Japanese Ambassador to the United States in the 1980s, famously visited our garden, and said it was “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan.”) Even more fortunate is that the garden hosts a lovely and moving O-Bon Festival each year, culminating on the final day in the dancing of Bon-odori (a traditional Japanese folk dance, whose origins have to do with a Buddhist disciple, whose mother was trapped in the land of Hungry Ghosts—I know, right??), and with the ceremony of Tōrō-nagashi.
Tōrō-nagashi is a beautiful time after sunset, when visitors light candles inside paper lanterns and release them on streams or lakes. (In our case, it’s on the Upper Pond of the Garden, near the Moon Bridge.) This is to symbolize that humans come from water, and therefore must return to it, and the fire of the candles sends the ancestors on their way back to the spirit world. A Buddhist reverend will chant the Lotus Sutra as the lanterns drift away, and we will say, not good-bye, but “au revoir”—until next time.
For more information:
Portland Japanese Garden O-Bon Festival 2018 – http://bit.ly/Obon18
More about what typically happens – http://bit.ly/Obon17
Portland Japanese Garden Bon-odori 2017 – http://bit.ly/BonOdori17
Buddhist beliefs about the Spirit World – http://bit.ly/BuddhistSpirits
The story of Maudgalyayana (Mulian), who originated the Bon-odori after his mother was released from the realm of the Hungry Ghosts – http://bit.ly/MuliansMother, and how it relates to O-Bon – http://bit.ly/BonOdoriOrigins.