The memorial services held at Obon have two meanings. One is to honor the Buddha and show reverence for one’s ancestors and others who have died. The other is to express gratitude to all people to whom we are indebted, including people who are alive such as our parents, relatives, and friends.
The full expression for Obon is Urabon-e which is derived from "Ullabana," an old Indian word. According to the Bussetsu Urabon Sutra, the origin of this tradition goes back to a ceremony performed by Shakyamuni Buddha for the deceased mother of Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s immediate disciples. Ullabana means "hanging upside down" and it was by means of this ceremony that the suffering of that world in which she lived (the suffering was so intense it was like hanging upside down) was removed.
These days, people think that this ceremony will prolong the life of parents and remove all suffering and anguish. This is also one of the traditional holiday periods in Japan when people exchange gifts. The other traditional time is over New Years. Obon is a ceremony to respectfully honor the spirits of the ancestors; it is also to ask for the long life or our parents. In preparation for meeting the spirits, it is customary to thoroughly clean our house and put ourselves in order as if meeting guests.
On the evening of the 13th, fires are lit with hemp stalks or pine torches. These lights serve as a guide for the returning ancestors –They are like a voice crying out, "Come this way, Grandpa and Grandma." If these lights are not clearly visible, the spirits will be unsure which way to go.
The spirits are usually sent back on the 15th or 16th. Once again, hemp stalks are lit and in some places are set out on small boats with offerings to float down rivers or out to sea. Lately, because of the problem of pollution, the boats are collected at temples and other places. People chant "Obon spirits, go away on this boat," and send them off carefully.
Where will the ancestors who have come for the offerings be greeted? A special shelf called an Obon-dana or Tama-dana is made where the family memorial tablet is place along with various offerings. At those houses where this kind of shelf is not set up, the ancestral spirits are greeted at the Buddha-altar. This is where the temple priest chants the tana-gyo, a sutra read for the ancestors. This Obon-shelf is usually erected on the morning of the 13th. In a home where a family member has died within the past year, this shelf is set up between the 1st and the 7th and should be done in an especially mindful way. On these shelves, dumplings are often offered. They are placed on the altar shelf immediately after the family has greeted the spirits at the grave.
On the 14th, it is the custom to make an offering of noodles and on the 15th, rice dumplings covered with bean jam are offered. Also, uncooked rice, mixed with finely chopped raw eggplants and other vegetables, is placed in small piles on lotus or paulownia leaves and used as an offering.
On the 16th, it is said that the ancestral spirits return home riding on cows and carrying luggage on horses. Eggplants and cucumbers, in the shapes of cows and horses, are offered. These are similar to the straw horses which are used as decorations during the Tanabata Festival. In some areas, there is the custom of fixing green cedar or green bamboo to the four corners of the shelf in the same way that pine decorations are used to honor the gods at New Year’s.
At any rate, let’s make respectful offerings of those things that the ancestral spirits like, offerings that have been traditionally cultivated, or items that are familiar to the ancestors, in order to have them come back.
The Obon Sejiki-e, a ceremony to comfort the ancestral spirits, is an important ceremony in The Soto Zen School. At every The Soto Zen School temple, this ceremony is performed as a way of making offerings to the family ancestors, to one’s parents, relatives, and spirits of other people we are connected with, as well as for spirits that are no longer connected to any living person.