Ullambana and Obon: Buddhists, Japanese celebrate summer festival

Dancing Bon women in kimonos with lanterns

Photo by Jshyun, cortesy of Flickr

MONDAY, JULY 13: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture commences; and, today, the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Worldwide, this festival spans an entire month: “Shichigatsu Bon,” celebrated in Eastern Japan, begins in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon” commences in August; “Kyu Bon,” or “Old Bon,” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors—Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. (Wikipedia has details.) Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common at during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” Bon-Odori—and the Buddhist legend it stems from—recall a disciple of Buddha who used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother. When the disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering, he asked Buddha how he could help her. The disciple made offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat and, soon after, saw his mother released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. With his new-found insight, the disciple suddenly saw the true nature of his mother—her selflessness, and the sacrifices she had made for him—and with extra joy, he danced what is now the Bon-Odori. (Get a Buddhist perspective here.) A primary purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.

THE BON ODORI DANCE AND TORO NAGASHI LANTERNS

The official dance of Obon, though it follows a universal pattern, differs in many details by region. Music and steps typically reflect a region’s history, culture and livelihood. In addition, some regions incorporate items such as fans, small towels or wooden clappers into the dance, while others do not. Nonetheless, everyone is welcome to join in the Bon-Odori dance. When the festival draws to a close, paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers, symbolizing the ancestors’ return to the world of the dead (Toro Nagashi). Fireworks often follow.

Red and yellow lit lanterns on string

Photo by Fabian Reus, courtesy of Flickr

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada. In Brazil, street Odori dancing complements the Matsuri dance, and Taiko (drumming) and Shamisen contests are held. Buddhist Churches of America temples host events throughout the United States, and in Hawaii and California, events are abundant.

NEWS: BON DANCES & 2015 TRAVEL

Bon dances worldwide take on the values and culture of their regions, and in Oahu, Hawaii, 2015 will feature a Super Hero Bon Dance; a Buddhist Sangwa ceremony at Hawaii’s Plantation Village; children’s lantern parades; traditional drumming and dancing. (Learn more here.) Though travel is spread out through the month, experts estimate that the peak of Obon travel 2015 will be between August 8 and August 16.

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Chinese New Year 2014: Zodiac horse rings in energy, intelligence, ability

Lighted horses line the streets at night for Chinese New Year celebrations

Horse lanterns ‘gallop’ toward prosperity and gold coins along Eu Tong Sen Street in Singapore, for Chinatown’s celebration of the Year of the Horse. Photo by Choo Yut Shing, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, JANUARY 31: Gong Hei Fat Choi! (or: Happy Chinese New Year!)

This week, families around the world string red lanterns, partake in good-luck cuisine and hold massive festivals for the 2014 Chinese New Year. From Sydney to London, from Las Vegas to Toronto, millions gather for events that are now anything but restricted to the Asian continent. Traditionally, 15 days of events commence for Chinese New Year, with everything from a myriad of foods to fireworks, dances, red envelopes, wishes for “good fortune” and so much more. In 2014, the world ushers in the Year of the Horse.

Did you know? During the 40 days surrounding Chinese New Year, workers return home and families gather, creating a period, chunyun, that comprises the world’s largest annual migration.

Chinese New Year is steeped in ancient traditions and stories. It’s said that the event started with a fight against a mythical beast called the Nian. Legend has it that Nian would arrive on the first day of the New Year to eat livestock, crops and villagers, until one day, the beast was frightened by a young child who was wearing red clothing. (Wikipedia has details.) The villagers realized that Nian was afraid of red, so they strung red lanterns and scrolls across doors and windows, wore red clothing and set off fireworks, to scare the monster. To this day, Chinese New Year is known for red lanterns, red clothing and the distribution of red envelopes, in belief that red not only scares away bad fortune but also brings luck, joy and a bright future.

The extensive Chinese New Year’s Eve reunion dinner, often enjoyed with family, is known as Nian Ye Fan and inludes dishes like fish, dumplings, hot pot and cake. Following Nian Ye Fan, some families will visit a nearby temple.

Did you know? The Chinese calendar is lunisolar, meaning that it is dependent up on both the moon phase and the time of the solar year.

EARLY PREPARATIONS,
THE FESTIVAL OF LA
AND
15 DAYS OF EVENTS

Overhead view of Chinese New Year market selling red decorations, food and goods

Markets selling New Year goods are common in regions with large Chinese populations. Photo by Choo Yut Shing, courtesy of Flickr

Customs associated with Chinese New Year begin long before its commencement, with families thoroughly cleaning their homes to make way for good luck. On the eighth day prior to New Year, a traditional porridge is made in remembrance of the ancient La festival (the lunar month of La has been compared to the Christian Advent, during which participants consume little or no meat). People get a fresh haircut, businesses pay debts and small gifts are distributed to business associates and family, so that the New Year may begin clean, fresh and in the best of luck. (Find videos, interactive activities and more at History.com.)

Each day has its own specific customs: on the first day, deities are welcomed, elders are honored, red envelopes are distributed and a lion dance is often performed or watched; on the seventh day, everyone grows one year older; on the ninth day, prayers are offered to the Jade Emperor of Heaven. The fifteenth day closes the festivities, with a Lantern Festival, rice dumplings and candlelit windows.

Traditionally, both deities and ancestors are honored throughout Chinese New Year. (Check out 20 Chinese New Year facts at Huffington Post.)

In Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism: Buddhist and Taoist households often clean home altars and statues prior to the start of New Year; old altar decorations are taken down and burned, so that fresh décor can be put up. Taoists burn a paper effigy of Zao Jun the Kitchen God, so that he will report good things about the family to the Jade Emperor—and some bribe the deities with candies! Before the New Year’s Eve Reunion Dinner, Confucian families offer prayers of thanksgiving and recall their ancestors.

Recipes, origami and more: Steamed Chinese five-spice chicken buns and Beef with chilli plum sauce can be on your menu, with recipes for New Year at the Herald Sun. Sites like Food Network and Epicurious also offer full Chinese menus. Kids can find activities, origami instructions and 82 ways to celebrate Chinese New Year with help from Spoonful.com.

IN THE NEWS:
AMERICAN CITIES COMPETE
FOR CHINESE TOURISM DOLLARS

As surveys and polls reveal rapidly increasing numbers of wealthy Chinese tourists traveling to the U.S. for New Year celebrations, major cities are competing for profits. In efforts to avoid the overwhelming crowds at Chinese attractions, many of the newly wealthy are opting for an alternative—and spending plenty along the way, with more than $8.8 billion spent in the U.S. during Chinese New Year in 2012. (Fox News reported.) To accommodate their well-to-do Chinese clients, shops are staffing their stores with Mandarin-speaking associates; restaurants are offering traditional New Year dishes; and elite hotels, such as the Waldorf Astoria, are training their employees in Chinese cultural preferences.

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Categories: Faiths of East Asia