Obon Festival in Japan Remembers Ancestors

by MSO
floating lanterns send spirits back to their graves

Toro Nagashi are floating lanterns that people use to send off their ancestors. The tradition involves lighting a candle in the lantern and floating it down the river, toward the ocean.

In Japanese Buddhist tradition, people believe their ancestors’ souls come back to their homes and reunite with their family during Obon. In most regions of Japan, the Obon Festival lasts for three days and is celebrated around August 15th, according to the lunar calendar.

The families prepare altars for the deceased and place a variety of food offerings such as fruits and vegetables out for them. On the first day of Obon the family visits the grave site to tidy it up and to help guide their ancestor’s spirit back to the home. Sometimes they light fires called mukae-bi at the entrance of their homes to light the way for the spirits of their ancestors. Incense is lit to remind people that life is constantly changing. Incense, which is made from plants, turns to ash just as the lives that have come before have returned to ash.

The celebration comes from an experience by one of Buddha’s disciples. During meditation one day, he saw his mother, who had died years before, suffering in the “World of Hungry Devils” which is similar to the notion of purgatory. He was greatly distressed and went to Buddha to find out how to release her from her suffering. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the Buddhist Monks and he soon found that is mother was released. The disciple was so happy, he danced with joy.

This dance of joy also relates to Obon as the festival is a time to celebrate with Bon Odori or “Bon Dance,” which highlights the message that ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.

On the last day of the festival Toro nagashi or floating lanterns are lit with candles and are placed in a river where they float toward the ocean and help direct  their ancestors spirits back to the grave.

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