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Obon is a time to remember all those who have passed through our lives, which
we do by gathering as a community to express our gratitude. The centerpiece of
the Obon Festival, bon odori dancing, comes from a long history that traces all the
way back to Moggallana, one of the Buddha’s closest students.

As the story in the Ullambana Sutra goes, Moggallana discovered that his mother
was leading a terrible afterlife in the hungry ghost realm. The Buddha advised
Moggallana to make an offering of food to the monks, and instructed the sangha
to pay their respects to Mogallana’s mother and other departed parents as if each
person was sitting right there in the temple. This service relieves Moggallana’s
mother of her suffering, which fills Moggallana with so much joy that he dances in
appreciation. The dances we do today reflect Moggallana’s joyful dancing in honor
of his departed mother.

The obligation to make merit offerings on behalf of our departed parents became
the root for the Obon tradition in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. Shinran had a
different perspective that challenged this idea:

As for me, Shinran, I have never said the nembutsu even once for the sake of my
departed father and mother. For all sentient beings, without exception, have been
our parents and brothers and sisters in the course of countless lives in many states
of existence.
(Tannishō, Chapter 5)

For Shinran, it was the nembutsu that gave him all the assurance he needed that
the Buddha, and the forces of interdependence beyond our comprehension, were
guiding us to liberation. Taking refuge in that knowledge is what brought Shinran
joy. Shinran doesn’t say the nembutsu to help his departed parents because, in a
sense, he knows that they, the Buddha, and all those who have come before, in
the course of countless lives in many states of existence, are saying it for him.

Moggallana’s story also teaches us about our lives in the here and now. We can
show the people in our present lives our gratitude every day. Kids can appreciate
their parents’ responsibilities and parents can appreciate their kids’ efforts to
learn and grow. We can set aside the conflicts that make us suffer.

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