Two days before the Obon service at Daifukuji Soto Mission in Honalo, banners hung in the temple’s main hall along with blue and white lanterns meant to guide ancestral spirits back for Obon. Near the altar stood nine o-toba, wooden pillars each inscribed with the name of a temple member who had passed away in the last 12 months.

Typically the Obon service is open to everyone, often drawing members of Taishoji Soto Mission in Hilo, said Rev. Jiko Nakade, resident minister at Daifukuji Soto Mission. This year’s service would be smaller though, Nakade said, limited only to the families of those whose names were written on the o-toba.

Obon, a season of celebrating community and honoring ancestors, had been transformed by the pandemic.

The Rev. Jiko Nakade, minister at Daifukuji Soto Mission, talks about preparations for an Obon service. The service was limited to temple members with relatives who have died in the last year. Cameron Miculka/Civil Beat/2020

Daifukuji Soto Mission and other temples have had to adapt to new norms: arrows on the floor of the main hall direct foot traffic, and pews have been carefully marked to ensure adequate social distancing. The temple, like many others in Hawaii, also canceled its bon dance, which attracts crowds every year for an evening of music and celebration.

Nonetheless, temples and their members are determined to find opportunities to celebrate Obon, especially during a time when values like family and community are a source of strength and resilience.

“I think that what we’ve learned over the past three months of the pandemic is, ‘What are the essential things in our lives?’” said the Rev. Blayne Higa, resident minister at Kona Hongwanji in Kealakekua. “It’s family. It’s home. It’s these simple things that we oftentimes take for granted. And so I think even more so, Obon has become more special for people as they remember their loved ones and the values which ground their lives.”

A Long Tradition

The celebration of Obon is rooted in the story of Maudgalyayana — known in Japan as Mokuren — a disciple of the Buddha who, on perceiving the suffering of his deceased mother, was advised to feed the monks on July 15 at the end of their training and do good deeds in dedication of his mother. He did so, and, seeing the spirit of his mother suffering no longer, danced with joy.

Obon made its way to Japan with the arrival of Buddhism around the sixth century, where it melded with local festivals, dance ethnologist Judy Van Zile wrote in her book “The Japanese Bon Dance in Hawaii.”

After Japanese immigrants began arriving in Hawaii in the 1800s, Van Zile wrote, life on the plantations afforded little opportunity for traditional celebrations. It’s questionable to what extent bon dancing took place before the establishment of missions and temples toward the end of the century. The earliest reference to bon dancing in Hawaii she found appears in a 1905 Japanese-language newspaper clipping.

“Obon is a joyful gathering to express appreciation to family and friends who have gone before me.” — Betty Takeoka

These days, the tradition started by Mokuren’s celebration of his mother continues around the yagura, a towering bandstand at the center of bon dances, as dancers step to traditional folk songs and modern music that have made their way into the repertoire of Obon.

On Hawaii Island alone last year, there was a bon dance planned for nearly every Saturday from June through August, according to a schedule published by Honolulu Magazine.

“Obon is a joyful gathering to express appreciation to family and friends who have gone before me,” said Betty Takeoka, a Captain Cook resident and member of Kona Hongwanji for more than 30 years. “Those who love to bon dance, even if they are not church members, look forward to dancing and just having fun.”

Obon’s universal draw attracts residents and tourists to the festivals throughout the state, making them something temples can offer to Buddhists and non-Buddhists. And by perpetuating Japanese cultural traditions and Buddhist spiritual practices, Nakade said, it’s an opportunity for people to find common ties among them and celebrate life.

“Which is something I think many of us became aware of during this COVID-19 pandemic,” she added. “We awaken to how precious life is.”

Within the Soto Zen tradition, Nakade said, Obon services include a sutra offering prayers for the hungry spirits, those suffering from endless cravings and desires who are never spiritually fulfilled.

“So it’s really a time for us to reflect on that too within ourselves,” Nakade said. “How much do I really need to be happy, to live happily? It’s not just about hungry spirits out there, but I think we look at our own spiritual hungers and thirst and reflect upon how we’re living our daily lives.”

Finding New Ways To Celebrate

While some temple groups have been slowly coming back to the temple with social distancing and health requirements like temperature checks in place, Daifukuji Soto Mission remains closed to visitors and the general public. Meanwhile, Nakade said, she hopes people at home can take the time to reflect on their ancestors and find ways to give thanks.

“Maybe they can dance in their living room or their garage,” she said. “There’s a lot of bon dance music on YouTube.”

At Kona Hongwanji, Higa said he too has been considering how he can help his temple members “tap into the spirit of Obon,” such as telling a family story or sharing meaningful moments.

“That memory, that family history, the family stories that we share, that sharing is the spirit of Obon,” he said.

The Daifukuji Soto Zen Mission opened in 1914. This year it had to limit attendance at its Obon service. W Nowicki/Wikimedia

The two temples have also found ways to create virtual spaces for their members. At Daifukuji Soto Mission, a Buddhist study group, writing group and women’s spirituality circle all meet via Zoom. Higa meanwhile has been sharing videos and written messages with Kona Hongwanji members, and the temple held its first Zoom service in June.

At both temples, those efforts have extended their ability to reach members beyond Hawaii Island. Daifukuji Soto Mission members living in Oregon, Arizona and Washington state take part in Dharma study, Nakade said. And at Kona Hongwanji’s first Zoom service, Higa said, a temple member visiting family on the mainland joined from Atlanta, while another member’s daughter joined from Boston.

“So technology has been I think one of the unintended consequences, maybe, of adapting to this time of isolation,” Higa said.

And while the cancellation of the dances was disappointing for members — Takeoka said it was “like there is a big empty hole” — she also emphasized the celebration’s spiritual significance.

“The pandemic has definitely put a damper on Obon season,” said Takeoka, who is also a dance leader at Kona Hongwanji as well as its director of spiritual affairs. “However, Obon is an outward expression of joy, and I can still appreciate its importance inward, in my heart.”

Winifred Kimura, a Kainaliu resident who teaches bon dancing at Daifukuji Soto Mission, also said the inability to gather with others doesn’t stop her from embracing the traditions she was raised on.

“Even if I can’t go to church or get together with other people, in my home I can do whatever I was taught to do: to honor our ancestors, not only this time of the year, but throughout the year,” she said.

Last month, Ewa Hongwanji Mission posted a virtual Obon Service and Bon Dance to the Mililani and Ewa Hongwanji YouTube channel, as did Moiliili Hongwanji Mission on its own YouTube channel.

“Some people may be watching the video alone at home, and I’m hoping that as people see our video, I hope they will realize that they are not alone,” said the Rev. Toshiyuki Umitani, resident minister at Moiliili Hongwanji Mission. “We’re always together, religiously speaking, I think we’re always together in Buddha’s wisdom and compassion no matter who you are.”

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About the Author

  • Cameron Miculka
    Cameron Miculka is a freelance journalist. He is a former staff journalist for West Hawaii Today in Kailua-Kona, and he has previously worked as a journalist at the Pacific Daily News in Hagatna, Guam, and the Weimar Mercury in Colorado County, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he is pursuing a master's degree in Public and Urban Policy at the University of Glasgow.