This time of year in Japan, Obon Season, represents a special time in the Buddhist tradition, and in Japanese culture in general. I found this video recently on Twitter where the home temple of the Jodo Shu sect, Chion-in, posted a video on Twitter of their annual service.
Obon season is based on a Buddhist sutra called the Ullambana Sutra (Urabon in Japanese), which focuses on one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, named Mogallana. Mogallana, while in meditation, had a vision of his mother reborn as a hungry ghost. While she was devoted to her son, she did not live a good life,1 and thus she was reborn as a starving, emaciated ghost.
Mogallana attempted to feed her rice, but as part of her curse, the rice turned to flames in her throat. Mogallana turns to the Buddha for advice, and he encourages Mogallana to perform good works such as caring for the rest of the monastic community, and dedicate the good merit from this to his mother. In so doing, Mogallana’s mother’s existence as a hungry ghost ends, and she is reborn in a more positive life.
In popular culture, Obon has many parallels with the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition, even though they have no relation to one another. Japanese families make special offerings to past ancestors, both as gratitude and to make their life easier. It is thought that the spirits of ancestors may return for a night to be with the family too. Meanwhile, Buddhist temples will hold special services to help hungry ghosts through food offerings, dedicating good merit to them, etc.
The importance of the Ullambana Sutra, the story of Mogallana and his mother, and so on are not limited to Japan. Similar traditions can be found through much of the traditional Buddhist world.
While it might sound like superstition at first glance, it’s about acknowledging those who came before you and helped make you who you are. It’s a time to observe filial piety, but also to practice compassion to those condemned as hungry ghosts, while also acknowledging one’s own ancestors and their contributions to your life now.
1 One can find examples of this with modern day parents too.