Today, we dwell upon our dead

I just unearthed this piece, which I wrote in August/September 2009 in Taos, NM. I had forgotten all about it until now, and though the 2011 Obon season has just passed, it is especially apropo for me to share it since Bachan died this spring. In addition to my gratitude and thanks to Nanao Sakai (December 2008), Arthur Okamura (July 2009), Joe Holt (July 2009), I dedicate this article to Miyeko Kebo (April 10, 1917-February 7, 2011. She was 93 years old!)

About a year ago my mother called, urgency burnishing a discernable edge to her voice, to tell me that Bachan, my grandmother, had stopped eating. It was expected that she would rapidly deteriorate in the coming weeks, maybe days. Come home, she said, it was time to say goodbye. Within a day, I found Bachan in an armchair in her bedroom at my aunt’s house in Fresno. As I held her fragile hands between my own, I was especially sensitive to feeling her bones swimming beneath the skin, its surface freckled with age and blue with veins, still delicately vital. We were alone in her bedroom, yet I struggled mightily to contain my emotions, seeking privacy even from her intimate audience. It was August, and the dry, blasting heat of the desert bore onto the blacktop roads, the dusty grasses between the house and the curb. Her chair faced out a curtained window onto the driveway, where I imagine she could watch the comings and goings of the house. Looking around her room, I recognized all of the familiar articles that I had memorized from the time that I was a child, although she had moved residencies at least three times since her husband had died. A faded color portrait of her with her husband, Johnson, in a white polyester jacket and a brown patterned dress shirt sprouting lapels of a ridiculous wingspan; she in large plastic framed glasses, her graying hair a singular crest of curl undulating over her head, a gleaming tooth from an easy smile.

Most prominent in her room was the family butsudan, the solemn, lacquered shrine devoted to ancestor worship. Non-Asians aren’t as familiar with having something within the household that needs regular upkeep like a butsudan- its caretakers feed it a tiny mound of cooked rice, a glass of water, a piece of fruit or a sweet bean manju to satiate the hunger of ghosts, and as a small reminder that we are indebted to our forebearers for the life we have. Butsudans are a bit like books to me- with two sets of shuttered doors, one paneled, one solid, that opened to more tiers where candles and photographs of the deceased are placed. Before the butsudan sit its accessories: a pert, gilded cushion sat atop a carved pedestal, a resonating bowl for awakening distracted ancestors, Bachan’s crystal ojizu with its rich purple and white tassel. In this fashion, she visited with the departed everyday and remained connected to the worlds of the living and dead. As we talked in gentle voices, I hoped my love would be conveyed more through my touch than through my words. I sat in fear that this was the last chance to thank her for the immense, infatigable love she surrounded me with throughout my entire life. We fluttered around the subject of life’s great rewards and all the good times. As I stood to leave, she patted me again reassuringly, clear-eyed and chirped, “You’ll see me again!”

It wasn’t until later, on my train ride back to Oakland that I pondered one of the enigmas of being raised Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, and the weight of Bachan’s comment. We are taught that with death, the unenlightened are reborn into this world, again destined to seek nirvana. Most of us don’t contemplate the reincarnation wheel with much regularity let alone consider when we’re going to bump into the recently deceased next, and whether they might be disguised as a roundworm , a morning glory vine, or even a ghostly human. What I failed to remember on that journey home was the fact that it was early August, and I was unwittingly speeding directly into Obon season.

The Obon festival has been held annually in Japan since 657 A.D. and even today, between July and August 15th, millions of Japanese living in metropolitan cities flock to their hometowns to celebrate . “Obon” is an abbreviation of “urabon”, the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit word Ullambana which literally means "to hang upside down”, implying the unbearable suffering born when you’re hanging upside down, or forced to bear the discontent and unfulfilled desires of your earthly life. The legend of obon proportedly is as follows: Mokuren Sonja, a disciple of the Sâkyamuni Buddha, gifted with supernatural powers bestowed upon his priestly devotion, visits his mother who has passed to the spirit world, only to discover that she has fallen onto the path of hungry ghosts and is in great suffering. To release her from her wanderings, he brings her food and makes offerings at his local temple, then bursts into spontaneous dance when she and seven generations of ancestors are released from their earthly desires. Obon then became a ritual of both filial piety and to offer gifts of food to the deceased, coinciding with the end of summer and the beginning of the harvest season. Obon was established as a major festival in Japan in the 7th century, but it wasn’t until the onset of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and shift to the solar calendar that Obon officially fell on July 15 and in some places, August 15.

Thus, at the peak of summer’s intensity, when the skies boil with humidity and a witching shrill of dying cicadas, the spirits of our ancestors descend back to earth to visit kin. To pay respect and homage to who they once were, offerings of rice, cakes, fruits and vegetables—usually the most splendid and choicest, symbolizing the fruition of the family’s efforts— are laid at the butsudan and occasionally at the front door of the household. In order to properly guide the spirits of one’s ancestors, lanterns or mukaebi, small bonfires, are lit on the night of Obon, filling the night with the soft pulse of light suffused through paper. Additionally, in the Hiroshima area where both my maternal and fraternal great grandparents immigrated from, elaborate hexagonal paper lanterns, both multi-colored and white, are placed at the ancestral graves. The white lanterns are for those who passed away during Aug. 16 of the previous year till Aug. 15 of the current year. Although an exact evolution of Obon cannot be definitely traced, the festival has become synonymous with ritual folk dancing performed at night by the light of lanterns. Bon Odori (dance) is itself an offering of joy and celebration, a magical twilit evening when one can literally dance in tandem with the dead.

It was likely in a fit of nostalgia for ancestors left in distant villages in Japan that Obon became one of the predominant Japanese traditions that survived the centuries old lag between United States and the home country. The first Bon Odori in U.S. Territory was performed in Hawaii in 1910 (which technically wasn’t an actual U.S. state, but was the earliest immigrant community of Japanese migrant workers. Twenty years later, the Jodo Shinshu priest Reverend Yoshio Iwanaga introduced the Bon Odori to temples in California, Oregon, Washington and Canada. The first organized Bon Odori in the continental United States was held in the auditorium of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco in 1931. Bon Odori is still performed outdoors, the dancers clad in summer yukata, moving in concentric circles of flickering fans and sweeping hands around a raised platform called a yagura. Although I grew up attending the Obon festival annually in West Fresno, I never participated in the odori itself, and was more content just to prowl the stalls for dollar plates of somen salad, deep-fried Okinawan donut holes on a skewer, teriyaki sticks, paper cones of shave ice, or to spend quarters playing carnival games. Death and the observance of the past were the furthest things possible from my mind. For all of my hours throwing rings at rows of old coke bottles at the Fresno Obon as a child, it wasn’t until I moved north to Oakland for college, that I took my first flailing steps towards learning the folk dances of Obon odori.

It is early evening in July, a year after my trip to visit Bachan, and I am standing in a stately white Victorian in Alameda, California with a cluster of other Nikkei, clutching fans, tenugui, and kachikachi. A Victorian is the least likely building to ever house a Buddhist temple, but despite appearances, the Alameda Buddhist Temple has housed itself in this turn of the century clapboard since 1916. Tonight, we are here to practice for Obon. Amongst the middle aged mothers with young children who wheel about in the middle of our dance circles, there are teenagers in shorts and tees (one girl wears a YBA or Young Buddhist Association t-shirt that shows a lean athlete reaching for nirvana under the words, JUST DO IT), and a couple of older folks like myself. We never tear our eyes away from Sensei Eileen, who leads us through the repetitive step point, step point, back step, back step clap! which occasionally leads to run-ins with the dancer directly in front of you. Warbling from an ancient boombox at the front of the room pipes the age-old drums, flutes and synths of the “Tanka Bushi”, “Tokyo Odori”, the “Baseball Odori” and this year’s new dance, a hybrid samba number that incorporates some suspiciously Nikkei Brazilian cha-cha shakes. (Why do I dance Obon now? What draws me to it?) At the end of the rehearsal, the reverend blesses us and we all gassho before hustling round uchiwa fans and other dance props into minivans and scooting off till next time.

A cursory look at the Hokubei Mainichi newspaper in mid-July will give the reader a listing of half a dozen Obon festivals scheduled in Northern California alone: Palo Alto, San Jose, Mountain View, Oakland, San Francisco, Walnut Creek. If you were to add the Central Valley and Southern California Buddhist temples, you could count close to three dozen Obon celebrations to choose from on any given year. Beyond California’s borders, Obon is celebrated in Hawai’i, Seattle, Chicago, as well as in Sao Paulo, Lima, and Manila. Today I am in Berkeley, and since I never quite remember how to bind myself properly into my yukata, I arrive early at my friend Kimi’s house to have her help me tuck the yukata tightly, followed by three under sashes tied tight as a boa! around my waist before the wide obi is wrapped and tugged into a neat bow around the back. My yukata for the past ten years has been an mustard green patterned with black summer grasses and purple tombo dragonflies, accented with a knockout purple and metallic gold obi. However, as I near 40 years of age, I am considering retiring this flashy attire for a more somber pattern and color of yukata more suitable for a woman out of her youth. The professional dancers who circle in the center of our concentric rings of amateurs wear uniform indigo and white yukata of a decidedly modern style. It is the girls who provide the candy-colored pyrotechnics of the evening, wearing fuschia tipped yukata cascading with grape, tangerine and jade profusions of chrysanthemums, koi, irises and even fireworks on their hems and sleeves. The dancing begins at seven, and many people arrive early for the teriyaki dinners and to get dressed with the assistance of several obasans who truss you into your yukata mercilessly. As the day wanes, gem-like lanterns strung along the block are lit, glowing in the crepuscular light. Berkeley cordons off the entire block in front of the temple for Obon Odori, giving the dancers and spectators ample room. Up on the yagura, a microphone squeals. The reverend welcomes the crowds to Obon and calls us to remember those who have passed in the recent year. We bow our heads, breathe, and somewhere the music starts. We shuffle forward, always in a circle, returning to where we began.

We are taught that Obon is a time to appreciate all that our ancestors have done for us and to recognize the continuation of the influence of their lives upon our own lives. Obon is a time of self-reflection; not only from the happiness of getting what you want and desire, but the joy of awareness, a reminder to love and care for others, especially our parents. It also encourages the practice of dana, selfless giving, to all beings, and to reflect the universal experience that in living life, we must know loss. However, in knowing true loss, we begin to understand the meaning of love. Bachan didn’t, in fact, expire quickly as we had feared. In fact, at age 91, she’s still tottering about with the aid of a wheelchair and the occasional donut to satisfy an insatiable sweet tooth. When last I saw her, at a banquet dinner in Fresno celebrating her birthday, she seemed genuinely surprised at the cake placed before her, ablaze in candles too many to signify anything beyond a life well journeyed. With candles amassing in coronas of gold reflected in her eyes, she clasped her hands in sheer delight, exclaiming, “Is this for me?” before gathering every ounce of energy left in her and blowing with all the breath that she could possibly muster. In an instant, the room went black.