Hawaii’s Obon Season Is Uniquely Ours

The Obon festival in Hawaii is an invented tradition. It is the Spam musubi of Buddhism. It has its origins elsewhere, but it is re-shaped, repackaged and resold here. It is a popular social and cultural event wrapped in religious motifs that add poignancy and perhaps legitimacy to the whole affair. It ties traditional Buddhist practices inside the temple with decidedly non-Buddhist ones outside.

Indeed, many come to the Buddhist temples during Obon to enjoy the food, games, homemade goods and unconventional songs and dances that have little or nothing to do with Buddhism, unless of course the dance movements to Electric Slide or Tanko Bushi are expressions of enlightenment. Obon only lasts a few days in Japan. In Hawaii, Obon has been re-shaped to last all summer long. (The Ullambana Sutra, the scriptural basis for Obon, specifies only one day — the 15th day of the seventh month — as the day of observance. However, the sutra itself is an invented tradition, as it was not produced in India during the time of the Buddha, but created many centuries later in China.)

Obon season in Hawaii unofficially began with the hugely successful Memorial Day lantern-floating ceremony at Ala Moana Beach Park. This was odd on several levels.

1) The lantern-floating ceremony is traditionally observed at the end of the Obon season, not at the beginning. In the Buddhist tradition, Obon is a time for communities to rejoice, reflect and express gratitude to our ancestors and welcome their spirits back to this world with gifts of food and other offerings. The bon dance is understood as part of the celebration of this reunion. The lantern-floating ceremony thus concludes the reunion by guiding the spirits back to the other world until the following year. The Memorial Day lantern-floating ceremony — repackaged so that it is observed before the traditional start of the Obon festival and before the first bon dance is held — sends the spirits back to the other world before they’ve even arrived.

2) Memorial Day is a national holiday that pays homage to those in the United States Armed Forces who gave their lives in service for their country. Lantern floating, by contrast, resells the holiday as a time to offer prayers for all spirits, “even endemic, endangered and extinct plant and animal life (lanternfloatinghawaii.com).

By extending the honor reserved for those who died in military service to all ancestors from all traditions — religious and otherwise, human and non-human alike — does the lantern floating ceremony embrace the meaning of Memorial Day or dilute it?

3) The tradition of one culture (Memorial Day) is mixed with the tradition of another (Obon) to create something different (lantern-floating ceremony) under the guise of something traditional (universal peace and harmony) that ultimately gives prominence to something new (Shinnyo-en). The sponsor of the Memorial Day lantern floating ceremony is Shinnyo-en, a Japanese religion founded in 1936. Scholars view Shinnyo-en as a new religion in part because it has unconventional, if not innovative, beliefs and practices: Believers venerate a deceased Japanese man and his family (the current leader is his daughter, and followers believe his two sons willingly died in childhood as sacrifices for the faith), ordinary followers may become spiritual mediums after several years of training, and the sect is adept at utilizing contemporary practices that garner public attention. Shinnyo-en is skilled at inventing tradition.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Traditions are meant to provide continuity and are enriched by contributions from diverse sources. Traditions change. Standing tradition is thus an oxymoron. A floating tradition is not.

Though the festival has its origins in Buddhism, the themes that characterize Obon and the lantern-floating ceremony are neither uniquely Buddhist nor particularly Japanese. The layers of meaning that inform Obon are shaped and tied by people from different backgrounds, and blend sentiments that resonate in various traditions, invented and otherwise.