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The Spiritual Origins of Obon

Matsuri (祭) is the Japanese word for “festival”. There are many festivals throughout the year in Japan, as the term can loosely correlate with holiday. Among these festivals, this article will explore the spiritual origins of the Obon(お盆), or 


Bon Odori

Bon(盆) festival, and how its spiritual origins are still honored today.

The origins of Obon go back to the story of Maha Maudgalyayana and his mother. Maha Maudgalyayana was aching for his mother after she had passed and was looking for a way to find her soul. Maudgalyayana was a close disciple to the Buddha, who helped him find out that his mothers soul was stuck in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and the Buddha instructed Maudgalyayana to give offerings to the monks and his mother would be freed. Once he had freed his mother, he danced with joy, which is said to be the first Bon Odori. UCSD NSU and UCSD Matsuri have a great video about this story linked here. This Buddhist tale traveled from India to Japan, and started the annual festival of Obon. 

In modern times, Obon is celebrated as a large festival, with plenty of food stalls and games to play for matsuri goers of all ages. While Obon has modernized with the times, the people of Japan still honor the religious beginnings of the festival. It is said that the souls of ancestors come back to the house during Obon, and the festival serves to honor the ancestors that have returned. Many families take time to visit the graves of their ancestors and clean them, as well as pray at shrines.


Another way the Japanese honor their ancestors during Obon is through toro nagashi. Toro nagashi is a tradition where lit lamps are floated down a river towards the ocean. Sometimes lamps are released to float into the air. The lit lamps are 

meant to guide their ancestors back to the spirit world once Obon is over. Some also say that the lamps are meant to symbolize the ancestors who are returning to the spirit world. Toro Nagashi is performed on the third and last night of Obon. These traditions highlight the cultural significance of Obon. It has modernized into a wonderful and fun festival; but, it has not forgotten its roots. The spiritual origins of Obon shine through in the reverence that families show their ancestors, just as Maudgalyayana showed reverence and compassion in getting his mother out of the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

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