Summer is O-bon season. O-bon is one of the most important events in Buddhism. I would like to discuss why we Buddhists venerate our ancestors at O-bon season. O-bon originated in "The Urabon Sutra", which tells the following story.
There was the Venerable Mokuren, who was one of the Ten Great Disciples of the Buddha. The Venerable Mokuren had the most mystical power of all the Buddha's disciples. With his power he not only propagated the teachings of the Buddha, but also acted as an escort to the Buddha.
One day the Venerable Mokuren was worried about his late mother. He used his powers to look for her, but he found her suffering from the torments of the Gaki World. The Gaki World is a place where people who were stingy, self-indulgent, or envious during their lifetime suffer for their sins. Their bodies are burned by hot flames, or they are always scurrying around seeking food because they are hungry and thirsty. There is food and drink in front of them, but they cannot put it in their mouths - they spit it out immediately if they try to put it in their mouths.
The Venerable Mokuren was surprised to find his mother in the Gaki World. Her eyeballs were ready to pop out, her neck looked like a thread, her hands and feet were only skin and bone, and her stomach was swollen like a drum.
The Venerable Mokuren tried to save his mother from the Gaki World with his powers, but for some reason his power did not work. When he tried to serve her food, the food turned to flames and burned her face. Trying to help her, he poured water over her, but the flames leaped up as if he had poured oil on her, and his mother suffered badly.
He didn't know what to do. He asked the Buddha what he could do to save his mother. Hearing his story, the Buddha answered, "Your efforts to save your mother are very precious. But you cannot save her unless you save not only your mother, but also all the people who suffer from hunger and thirst. Prepare food and drink for the people who suffer, invite the priests, and hold a service on the 15th of July. Your mother will not be saved until you do this".
So it is said that the Venerable Mokuren's mother was saved from the Gaki World. O-bon has been held in Japan since the seventh century. Some readers may have doubts. "My late father worked hard and contributed to the community till he passed away. I believe that he must have gone to the Buddha World - I can't believe that he could go to the Gaki World". Please take another objective look at your past. How many people can confidently say, "I have never been a nuisance or created sadness for others?" Some readers may think, "We had a complete funeral service for my late relatives. Must we have a memorial service, too?"
This reminds us of something. Because of today's busy social climate, many parents have less time for their children. The action of parents could cause sadness to others, because their neglect has made their children unhappy.
Please remember the message that the Buddha told the Venerable Mokuren. The Buddha has taught us that our ancestors will not be saved until we give a helping hand to all people who suffer from hunger and thirst. The teaching contains the spirit of Mahayana, that the Buddha sought enlightenment not only for himself, but preached to make all living beings friends, seeking enlightenment together.
We can find a story in the Lotus Sutra that the Bodhisattvas of Jiyu, emerging from the earth as Buddha's messengers, go down to the Shaba World and save all living beings. Therefore, it is very important for Buddhists that we make offerings and chant the sutra for not only our ancestors, but also for all souls. Some people think, "I don't believe in the Buddha and God, much less the world after death. So I have nothing to do with O-bon." Can this idea be right? Please review the opening poem by Archbishop Iwama. A Department Manager of a Mission at Minobusan Kuonji Temple for a long time, Archbishop Iwama's sermons have left a deep impression on all who heard them. Whenever O-bon season comes, I always remember a sermon by Archbishop Iwama on eternal life. "In this world we were not born only of ourselves. Our lives are not our lives alone. We have inherited our lives from our fathers and mothers. Our parents have inherited their lives from our grandparents. If we have a child, that child has inherited life from us. All people inherit their lives from our parents."
I could not understand Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, which says, "The life of the Buddha is eternal, always with us and saves us," until I heard Archbishop Iwama's sermon. Our birth, and what we are, cannot be accomplished by ourselves. Our existence and happiness are not ours alone. They are from our parents and from our ancestors. So it is very important that we put our hands together, bow from the waist and express our gratitude to our late parents and ancestors.
There is a city in Japan called Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital from 794 to 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. Kyoto was the center of Japanese politics, economy and culture for approximately 1100 years. Because there are many historical and cultural places in Kyoto, the U. S. Army removed Kyoto from the list of targets in the Second World War. Taking a walk in Kyoto, we can see that Kyoto is a wonderful city with a liberal atmosphere.
Kyoto has carefully planned its growth bymaintaining a balance between its historical and cultural heritage and the modern requirements of today. Daimonji no Okuribi, or Daimonji Yaki, (the burning of the character meaning "large" on a hillside) is one of the traditional cultural events observed in Kyoto. It is held on August 16th of each year. The event is held as a send-off for the souls of the dead as they return to the beyond after O-bon. When I watch the bonfire, I can't help but be impressed by Kyoto's spirit. Kyoto may seem to be conservative because of its long history and tradition, but Kyoto has also accepted the latest trends and liberal ideas. In the Meiji era, Kyoto used the water of Lake Biwa to generate its hydraulic power to provide electricity for its city, and operated streetcars for the first time in Japan. Kyoto has also produced many liberal politicians and scholars. Objecting to militarism, some people lost their jobs and their lives. If a city only keeps its traditions and doesn't accept current ideas, it will be just a historical city, and will be left behind by progress. In comparison, if a city neglects traditions and pursues only the current trends, eventually the city will be like a floating weed. People are fascinated by Kyoto because it has respected tradition and formality on one hand, while also implementing fresh ideas into their city.
What I am trying to
instill in people is that what Kyoto is doing is how human being should
live. Respect your heritage as you look ahead to future changes. O-bon
is a very important event which joins the past and the future; when reflecting
on the past, look at our present lives and think of the future.
Rev. Kanshin Mochida
Buddhism embraces not only various mental practices such as Zen meditation, but also many seasonal events based on the deep tradition of 2500 years. Like Easter in Christianity, or Passover in Judaism, performing these events is an important part of the practice of the religion in daily life.
For example, if a Christian believes merely the idea of God without celebrating Easter or Christmas, do we call him a real Christian? Beginners to Buddhism may be interested only in meditation or study classes, but to believe in a religion is not to extract the convenient ideas or training methods, but to live the teachings in daily life. Various religious events give a certain rhythm to our life and make the teachings more familiar to us.
Therefore, to practice the Buddhist teachings and to seek Enlightenment, we should also perform various ceremonies based on the deep Buddhist tradition. Seeking Enlightenment without regard for Buddhist roots can cause one to become self-complacent.
In this article, I would like to introduce some important Buddhist events, especially "Urabon" (O-bon) and "Segaki", usually held in summer. Depending on the denomination, there are many religious events in Buddhism, including Buddha's birthday in spring and "Jodo-e" in winter. Buddha's birthday is generally known as "Hanamatsuri" (Flower Festival) in Japanese Buddhism. "Jodo-e" is the celebration of the attainment of Enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha, from which all of Buddhism was born.
The celebration of the equinox, "Higan," is a common tradition in Japanese Buddhism, and as Nichiren Buddhists we have Nichiren Shonin's birthday in February and the commemoration of his death, "O-eshiki", in October.
Since Urabon and Segaki share many elements, they are considered to be related events in most Buddhist denominations. Urabon and Segaki have both developed from basic Buddhist world views, so it may be interesting to search out the origins of those two events.
The term Urabon comes from the Sanskrit word "ullambana," which means to hang upside down. This symbolizes the suffering of being in a situation where the more we eat, the hungrier we get, or if we do something to avoid pain, and it brings another, greater pain. This situation also symbolizes the suffering of the world of the "Hungry Spirits" called "Gaki", based on a Buddhist world view of "the Six Ways" or "the Six Worlds." Segaki also means to offer something to the Hungry Spirits.
In the Buddhist world view, all living beings wander among the Six Worlds depending on one's "Karma", through the Law of Cause and Effect. The Six Worlds are "Hell", "Hungry Spirit", "Animal", "Asura", "Mankind", and "Heaven." Hell is the world of suffering, Hungry Spirit (Gaki) is the world of hunger, Animal is the world of oppression, Asura is the world of conflict, Mankind is us here on Earth, and Heaven is pleasure. We are reborn into one of these world depending on what we do in this world.
To understand the Six Worlds, it may helpful to think of them as six stages of emotion. Sometimes we suffer and then feel joyful. Sometimes we starve and then feel angry. Whether we suffer or feel joyful, there is a reason for it. Since we are related to the causes of suffering, we suffer. Since we are related to the causes of joy, we feel joyful.
When this relationship between cause and effect goes beyond birth and death, it is called "the Cycle of Reincarnation", a distinctive feature of Buddhism. The Cycle of Reincarnation, "Rinne," is not just a mysterious idea, but comes from the relationship between cause and effect.
For example, no matter how many people are born or die, this world is always this world. The current world comes from the past world, and the current world is always creating the next world. Even if something looks like an accident, its causes can always be found in the previous world. The people of 1000 years ago may be gone, but no matter how many people come and go, the world is still the world.
The Cycle of Reincarnation appears when the Law of Cause and Effect is applied to each of us. I was born because there was some reason for me to be born. I am living because there is some reason for me to live. And I will die because there is some reason for me to die. When the sum of the causes and effects concerning my existence go in a certain direction, it is called my Karma. My Karma was in existence before I was born, and continues beyond my death, influenced by many things and influencing many things. This is the Cycle of Reincarnation.
If I do a bad thing now, it has a negative effect on my Karma, and even though it may not bear fruit in my lifetime, its result will appear in my Karma at some point. If I must endure a great pain now, I should endure this pain because I made its cause; because my Karma is closer to me than any other person or thing. We must accept and endure sufferings, overcome the bad results of our Karma, and contribute good causes to our Karma.
Both Urabon and Segaki are meant to serve the Hungry Spirits, but the roots of these events are very deep, originated from the Six Worlds and the Cycle of Reincarnation, the very foundation of Buddhism. Urabon and Segaki put these Buddhist world views into our daily life as seasonal events.
The origins of both Urabon and Segaki are based on the stories of the Ten Great Disciples of Sakyamuni Buddha. The main character of the story of Urabon was Saint Mokuren (Maudgalyayana), known for his supernatural power. One day Mokuren, using his power, searched all the Six Worlds to find his late beloved mother, wondering how she was doing since her death.
He thought that the mother of a saint would certainly be in Heaven. He looked for her, but she was not there. Then he looked for her in the human world, but she was not there, either. He checked the worlds of Asura and Animal, and finally found her mother among the Hungry Spirits, horribly emaciated.
Mokuren immediately used his powers to send his mother delicious food and drink to relieve her suffering, but every time she tried to eat or drink, the food and drink caught fire and burned her body. Mokuren realized that his powers could not help his mother, so he asked Sakyamuni Buddha how to save her. The Buddha said, "It is the rainy season, and all my disciples are busy training themselves. But the season will be over in the middle of July. You must then invite the monks, hold a service, and offer food for all who are suffering from starvation like your mother."
The origin of Segaki is also related to one of the Ten Great Disciples of Sakyamuni Buddha, a disciple named Ananda, known for his powers of memorization. Ananda traveled with the Buddha as his secretary, and it is said that all the sutras were written according to Ananda's memory after the Buddha's death.
One day, Ananda had a visitor. He was a horrible Hungry Spirit, belching fire from his mouth. He said, "You will die in three days and fall into the world of the Hungry Spirits. This is your fate. If you don't like it, serve meals to all of the Hungry Spirits tomorrow."
It seemed impossible to serve meals to all the people in the world of Hungry Spirits, so Saint Ananda asked the Buddha how he could be saved from his fate. Sakyamuni Buddha said, "Instead of serving meals, hold a Buddhist service for them, and chant sutras for them. The merits of holding services and chanting sutras will save all of them from the suffering of starvation."
That tale is the origin of Segaki. Segaki could be held anytime, but the purpose of the event is almost the same as Urabon, so Segaki has become one of the summer events, tied in with Urabon.
In one point of view, Urabon is held to save relatives or other persons, and Segaki is to save oneself. The first Urabon service was held by Saint Mokuren to save his mother, and the first Segaki was held by Saint Ananda to save himself from falling into the world of the Hungry Spirits. But the result is the same - to try to save all living beings and all souls from suffering.
Although the subject of the offering is specified as the Hungry Spirits, the Hungry Spirits generally symbolize all living beings who suffer from starvation. The Hungry Spirits are unfulfilled or unsatisfied beings. Urabon and Segaki suggest that the best way to fulfill or satisfy oneself, or even to help another person, is to try to fulfill or satisfy all beings. To hold Urabon or Segaki means not only to hold Buddhist services or chant sutras, but represents all of the ways we can try to help others. Even a smile could be a wonderful offering to comfort others. And we should remember that serving others contributes to our own salvation.
Sometimes we go to churches or temples to clean up or to help with events. We hold memorial services for our ancestors, and we give donations and offerings to churches and ministers. But these efforts are not actually for the churches, or our ancestors, or the ministers. We do these things for ourselves, to bring ourselves closer to our own Enlightenment. We serve others to eliminate bad causes in our Karma, and change them to good ones. This is the fundamental attitude towards others in Buddhism. Serving others, "Dana," is also the first step to becoming a Bodhisattva.
For instance, imagine that you smile at someone with a warm heart as a offering, but that person does not care for your smile and remains sullen. If you can continue to smile with the same warm heart, you are taking another step toward Buddhahood. But when you lose mindfulness, Enlightenment is still far away. Remember that your smile is not just to comfort others, but also a step toward your own Buddhahood.
In this season
of Urabon and Obon, may all of us have great compassion for all living
"If you see what we have deep in our minds,
And assure us of our future Buddhahood,
We shall feel as cool and as refreshed
As if we were sprinkled with nectar.
Suppose a man came
From a country suffering from famine.
Now, he saw the meal of a great king.
He did not partake of it in doubts and fears.
After he was told to take it by the king,
He took it once.
We are like that man."
The Lotus Sutra, Chapter 6, "Juki-hon" - Assurance of Future Buddhahood
The hot summer months will arrive soon, signaling the season of Obon and Osegaki. At this time of the year, Buddhist churches hold their Obon service. No particular season for the Osegaki service exists, because the Osegaki service is for people who land in the world of stavation (Gaki). Therefore, the temple holds Osegaki service every month.
During the Segaki service the ministers chant the above Sutra. It comes from the Lotus Sutra, chapter 6, called "Juki-hon". Juki means to receive a prophecy or an assurance from Sakyamuni Buddha for attaining Buddhahood in the future. To receive the Juki from Sakyamuni Buddha is to assure us that we can attain Buddhahood in the future and to gain encouragement from Sakyamuni Buddha.
In our daily lives, receiving encouragement gives us hope to live for tomorrow. Hope strongly influences the human effort. For example, imagine yourself climbing a mountain. The many trees growing on both sides of the mountain make climbing almost impossible. If you don't know what lies ahead, you may doubt that a trail to the top of the mountain exists. If it seems unfit for travel, you may feel discouraged and quit climbing the mountain. However, if someone who has already climbed to the top tells you that there is a trail and says to you, "Hey, you can climb to the top. Just find the trail. Keep it up! Come on!", you will be encouraged and will continue to climb the mountain. We are influenced and encouraged by hope.
The same thing was said in the Lotus Sutra, chapter 6. Some of Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples asked, "Sakyamuni Buddha, please tell us that we can attain Buddhahood in the future if we continue to practice the Buddha's teaching. When we get assurance of our future Buddhahood, we will feel cool and refreshed like being sprinkled with nectar. Sakyamuni Buddha, please suppose a man came from a country suffering from famine. He sat in front of wonderful meal with a great king. The man did not know whether or not to eat the meal. He trembled. At that time, the king told him, 'Please help yourself to the meal.' The poor man will feel relieved and can eat the meal joyfully. We are like that man, Sakyamuni Buddha. Please give us an assurance of future Buddhahood so we can continue to practice the Buddha's teaching. Then we can continue our ascetic discipline with joy and encouragement. We want to redress the afflicted with Sakyamuni Buddha. Please give us a Juki."
Sakyamuni Buddha gave them an assurance of future Buddhahood. And it is clear that they were able to attain Buddhahood after the practice of the Buddha's teaching. So even we can become a Buddha. By the way, they are Shomon (sravaka ) people who were not able to attain even Boddhisattvahood. There were many case where Boddhisattva and good persons were given Juki from Sakyamuni Buddha in other Sutras, but bad people and animals could also get Juki. Only in the Lotus Sutra are they redressed.
But it is not
to easy to become a Buddha. If we continue to practice Buddha's teaching
and save other people, we can attain Buddhahood as a result of our
efforts. Even Gaki people, those who live in the starvation world,
can become a Buddha, along with those of us who offer food or drink
to the Gaki. We just believe in Sakyamuni Buddha's words and continue
practice of the Lotus Sutra.
Q & A on Nichiren Buddhism
Practice of Nichiren-Shu
(Q) In previous issue of the Bridge, Copying sutra was introduced as one of Buddhist practices.
What else kinds of daily practice of Nichiren-Shu can we do?
(A) First of all, we should realize that our daily life is based on the teaching of the Lotus Sutra and Odaimoku, Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. And we practice the Buddhism to strengthen each oneís faith.
(1) Five Practices of Dharma Teacher in the Lotus Sutra
In the Lotus Sutra, there are five kinds of practices that we should perform. They are 1) to receive and keep the Sutra in each oneís body and mind, 2) to read the Sutra with eyes, 3) to recite the Sutra, 4) to explain the Sutra to others, and 5) to copy the Sutra.
In order to receive and keep the Lotus Sutra, you must have a heart to believe in the teaching. That fundamental heart is called ìfaithî (Shin) and ìprayî (Nen). Having faith in the Lotus Sutra is that we take the teaching into our daily life and follow it. Therefore, we should not receive and keep the Sutra with vague mind.
Reading the Sutra does not simply mean ëreadingí letters of the Sutra but reading the Sutra with trying to understand it. However, if you have read the Lotus Sutra, you may think that the Sutra is very difficult to understand. So some Nichiren-Shu churches and temples hold study class on the Lotus Sutra to help you understand the Sutra more. By participating in the class and listening to ministersí lectures, you will be able to understand teachings of the Sutra that you didnít understand before.
Not only reading the Sutra with eyes but reciting it with loud voice is another practice. We usually recite ch. 2 Hoben-pon and ch. 16 Nyorai Juryo-hon at church service and daily family service at home. The reason why these two chapters are recited mostly is the two chapters expounds the most important teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Ch. 2 expounds that everyone is able to become a Buddha and ch. 16 expounds that Sakyamuni Buddhaís life is eternal. But even if you recite other chapters of the Sutra besides ch. 2 and 16, itís also great reciting preactice because every single letter of the Lotus Sutra is as valuable as the Buddha himself.
Next, when you achieve understanding of the Sutra, do not keep the merit in youself only but try to transfer what you learn from the Sutra to your family, friends and people around you. It is said in the Lotus Sutra that by being transfered one after another, the merit that fiftieth person recieve is as great as the first one recieve.
And there is a practice of copying the Sutra. You may copy the Lotus Sutra in Kanji characters or in English. Nichiren Shu is promoting a practice of copying Odaimoku as an event of 750th Anniversary of the Proclamation of Nichiren Buddhism.
(2) Odaimoku - practice of the Lotus Sutra in Mappo Period, Declining Latter Age of the Dharma.
Our founder, Nichiren Shonin aimed to save people living in this defiled time of Mappo, Declining Latter Age of the Dharma. He appealed them to take a good medicine, Odaimoku, Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. Odaimoku was left by the Eternal Buddha for people of the Mappo Period and was revealed by Nichiren Shonin from the bottom of the scriptures of the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren Shonin wrote in "Kanjin Honzon Sho,"
He teaches us that the right practice in the Mappo Period is to keep and hold the Odaimoku, Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. By practicing so, we receive the greatest merit from the Buddha. Receiving and holding the Odaimoku is exactly equal to receiving and holding the Lotus Sutra, reciting the Odaimoku is equal to reciting the whole Lotus Sutra, and copying the Odaimoku is equal to copying the whole Lotus Sutra.
A question, "How many times of Odaimoku should I chant?" is asked very often. Of course, the more Odaimoku you chant, the more merit you accumulate and the greater benefit you receive. But some people abuse by saying, "If you do not chant Odaimoku 100 times or 1,000 times everyday, you will fall into hell." There is no authority to prove such a statement, and on the contrary, such a ridiculous statement perplexs people who have pure faith in the Buddha and Nichiren Shonin. No matter how many times of Odaimoku you chant, when you chant with admiring the Buddha, respecting Nichiren Shonin and appreciating everybody around you from the bottom of your heart, your merit is truly equal to the merit of the Lotus Sutra consisting of 8 volumes, 28chapters, 69,384 letters. As long as your time permits, please try to chant Odaimoku heartly.
(3) Morning and evening services at home
The most important practice at your home is morning and evening services.At the morning service, let us pray to the Buddha and Nichiren Shonin for our familyís safety and best effort on their work and school, doing good deeds following the Dharma and contributing to other people in the community. At evening service, let us show our appreciation for our familyís safety on that day.
Ch. 2 Hoben-pon and Ch. 16 Juryo-hon are recited the most frequently; however, you may recite Ch. 12 Daibadatta-hon, whole Ch. 16, Ch. 21 Jinriki-hon (whole or from "Shobukkusesha") or Ch. 25 Kannon-gyo. Furthermore, it is a great practice to recite the whole Lotus Sutra from the beginning little by little everyday. You may choose which chapter to read by yourself.
There are two kinds of the Lotus Sutra, one is Japanese version and the other is English version. You may recite either one. NBIC handles a cassette tape for daily service at home. It is helpful for you to practice recitation.
(4) Seminars for lay people
There are some places for you to practice and study Nichiren Buddhism besides your local church and temple. The Nichiren Order of North America sponsors the "Dharma Conference" and the Nichiren Mission of Hawaii sponsors the "Rainbow Conference" regularly. There are various kinds of program are offered at the Conference such as lectures on Sakyamuni Buddha, Nichiren Shonin and the Lotus Sutra, copying the Sutra, practice of chanting Odaimoku and discussion. The Conference is also a good oppertunity to meet and make new Dharma friends from other churches and temples. Next Dharma Conference sponsored by Nichiren Order of North America will be held on November 7 (Sat) and 8 (Sun) at Sacramento Nichiren Buddhist Church. Please join this event.
(5) Prepare yourself for practice
You must understand how you should prepare yourself to practice. Buddhist practice is not something that you do because you are told to do. Buddhist practice is something you pursue and do with joy. Anywhere and anytime you want to, you may practice. Even while you are working, you may chant Odaimoku in your heart.
The ways of
practice introduced in this article are some examples. Please find
your suitable way of practice and encourage yourself to endeavor
to practice daily.