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August 6, 2008 > Commemorating Life

Commemorating Life

By Justine Yan

"Thankfulness," "appreciation," "love," "happiness," and "life" - these words are often used when describing the meaning of Obon.

Obon, an annual Buddhist event to honor one's ancestors and loved ones, is celebrated worldwide in diverse locations such as in Brazil, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, and Europe. The Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church (SACBC) sets aside time each year to join this observance and this year will be holding its Obon Festival on August 9th and the Obon Spiritual Service on August 10th. Everyone including those not familiar with Buddhism are invited to observe and join the festivities of both programs.

According to Reverend, Shoyo Taniguchi, Ph. D. or "Shoyo Sensei," of SACBC, the origin of Obon can be traced back to some of the oldest Buddhist texts. Many of the traditional activities originated in Japan where the holiday is widely celebrated. "In Buddhist teaching, thankfulness and appreciation is a very powerful source of happiness," she said. "Without having thankfulness and appreciation, we cannot enjoy our lives fully and vice versa. The Buddhist psychology explains that happiness and thankfulness go hand in hand."

To the reverend, many people don't take time to appreciate all that their ancestors have provided. Even after our predecessors have passed on she noted, "We are constantly receiving from our ancestors." Taniguchi stated that we inherit the gift of life not only from our parents, but also from innumerable ancestors before them. "In us, not only all their genetic information, but also their hopes, dream, virtues, and wishes are living. We have been, indeed, existing from the 'beginning-less' beginning till now."

Taniguchi also pointed out that it is important for mourning friends and family members to focus on the true meaning of life rather than dwell in sorrow and helplessness over death. "The true wish of our parents and beloved ones, always, is our happiness and well-being."

Within the church, Taniguchi is determined to extend wishes of happiness from deceased individuals to their family and friends, in order to remind them that death is inevitable and may come at any moment. To live "right now, and right here, and one hundred percent," is the most blessed thing. The reverend says that the final message to loved ones is, invariably: "Life is beautiful. Life is too short to fight. Enjoy life wholesomely." Taniguchi is convinced that, while these values are a large part of Buddhist beliefs, they are and should be universal.

To those who have not participated in Obon, the festival may not seem like an event to honor the dead at all. Colorful kimonos and enjoyable dances help express the spontaneity and happiness felt by performers and audience alike. In fact, Bon Dance is not for watching; audience members are invited to join the dancers.

During the Aug. 9 celebration, the San Jose Chidori band will play traditional Japanese music to accompany the dancers, and a Taiko drum performance will also be featured. Japanese food, curry, and other foods will be sold by the church.

"It's a bit of a party," said Larry Gissible, SACBC's Religious and Education Chair. "Everybody has a good time."

But one may wonder: what is there to celebrate after losing a beloved one? Taniguchi explains that the festival is all about appreciation of the lost ones' good qualities. "So, [we] pick up those beautiful aspects that they shared with us, and make it our guiding light," she said. "Even if they did not possess those beautiful aspects, from this we can learn something important," she said.

The next step after remembering, she continued, is to apply what we learn from our ancestors directly to our human relationships, whether with spouses, children, friends, or coworkers.

The joyful Obon dance, also known as the Bon dance or "Bon Odori" has always been a dance of joy. Taniguchi mentioned how the dance has often been performed in Japan: most participants would not rehearse or even dress fancifully. They would not worry about how they looked. The spontaneity and pure happiness is what mattered most - there aren't many rules.

"Mainly, it's just a bunch of people dancing, especially children, and we're trying encourage the audience to join in," said Gissible. Besides a brief service in the beginning, there is no sermon or minister involved for the rest of the day.

On the day following the festival however, the church will be hosting the "Obon Service," which is also open to the public. "Hatsubon" families, those who have lost loved ones within the past year, are especially welcomed to this "first Obon service," during which candles are lit and placed beneath lanterns to symbolize thankfulness and hope.

While some may be wary of joining these celebrations and the 2500-year tradition, Taniguchi is convinced that meaning of Obon is not hard to accept. It is merely allowing ourselves to find the positive side of reality, despite life's ups and downs, and being grateful for all that we are given. For, "Even breathing in and out can be a most thankful thing, which we take granted and never thank mindfully."

The reverend suggests that, even in a materialistic society, everyone can aim to achieve what Buddhists strive for daily: to move past "arrogance and ignorance" and not to be dominated by our surroundings.

She is confident in the resilience of people. "We are still okay," she said.

Obon Festival (Dance Night for Happiness)
Sat., Aug. 9
Food Sales: 5 p.m.
Bon Dance: 7 p.m.

Spiritual Services (Obon Service)
Sun., Aug. 10
10 a.m.

Southern Alameda County Buddhist Church
42875 Alvarado Niles Rd., Union City
(510) 476-1415

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