The Buddhist celebration of the Festival of Souls is widely observed around the world and in Atlanta. With 1.6 billion Buddhists worldwide, the holiday is as varied as are its followers. Believed to have originated in India, it is now recognized wherever there are Buddhists.
The variety of celebratory styles extends to the holiday’s name. In Japan it is called by the name Obon, the Sanskrit equivalent is Ullambana, and the Chinese Zhongyuan Jie.
Loosely translated in English, the holiday can be called the Festival of Souls, Festival of the Dead, or Festival of Hungry Ghosts.
The reason for the season is to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors, who return to earth at this time of year when the veil between the two worlds thins.
Sometime circa 500 BCE, a Buddhist monk named Mokuren (in Japanese), Maudgalyayana (in Sanskrit), or Mulian (in Chinese) realized his mother’s soul was not at peace. After performing a variety of good deeds to balance her bad deeds while on earth, he was able to bring her peace in the afterlife. Upon realizing he had been successful in his endeavor to guide his mother to peace, Mokuren began a celebratory dance.
In Tokyo and Okinawa, the holiday is observed in July, from the 13th to the 15th. The rest of Japan, China and most other Asian Buddhist countries will celebrate it on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. This year that falls on August 24th.
In Atlanta, one local Buddhist Center will be observing Obon this Sunday, July 11th at 10:30 am. For more information, click here.
The traditional three day celebration of the Festival of Souls has evolved into a family reunion, with family members returning to their ancestral roots to visit family graves. The method of celebrating for many Buddhists is to carry lanterns to light the way for the souls and offer food offerings at their ancestor’s tombs. In Japan, Brazil, Hawaii and other areas with a high concentration of Japanese Buddhists, it is also widely celebrated with outdoor dancing, known as the Bon-Odori, and drumming.
The holiday is not one of mourning but celebration. Buddhists remember the good deeds done by their deceased relatives and friends and are thankful for the time they had together with them. It is also common to bring out photos of your deceased loved ones at this time.
Celebrating in Taiwan
While it is difficult to have a precise count of practicing Buddhists, China is believed to have well over 1 billion, Japan 122 million, Vietnam 72 million, Thailand 62 million, North & South Korea 40 million, India 37 million, and the US 6 million.