Obon is supposed to be a time of joy, reflection, and celebration in honor of our ancestors who have come before us and who now tirelessly work to guide us towards our own liberation. And yet, I feel no joy in Obon as it approaches this year.

CW/TW: Mentions of death, genocide, gore

The title of this article references Rafeet Alareer's poem, If I must die. He was a Palestinian poet, professor, and activist from Gaza, murdered by an Israeli air strike in December 2023.

Photo Credit: Miyako Noguchi

It's Obon time now, and I am having a really difficult time writing down what I want to say. Tonight I watched a video of a boy holding his sister's lifeless body in his arms as he screamed in agony. He cried as he noticed the shoes she was wearing to commemorate Eid, one of the holiest Islamic holidays. She was a child killed by the Israeli regime in the Bureij Refugee Camp in Gaza.

Everyday I open Instagram, Facebook, and X (formerly Twitter) and I unwillingly see headless bodies of children, fathers with no legs, mothers with no eyes, and siblings with nowhere to go. Everyday I wake up and I think about the thousands of people in Palestine who have been killed and have now become ancestors. 

Photo Credit: Devon Matsumoto

It’s Obon time now, and I don’t know what to feel. How can I celebrate and honor my ancestors as others violently become them? My father today, my sister yesterday, and my mother tomorrow. The founder of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Shinran Shonin, is thought to have said “all sentient beings, without exception, have been our parents and brothers and sisters in the course of countless lives in many states of existence.” In this sense, are we not all Palestinian?

I find it incomprehensible that we, as fellow sentient beings, have chosen to look away and seek our own “liberation” over the collective liberation of all beings. Liberation is not an individual accomplishment. Liberation comes from the ongoing realizations of what I have learned, what I have received, and how I have harmed all those I am karmically bound to. It is through these realizations that I can commit myself towards the unbreakable pathway towards liberation where the spiritual and political are intrinsically interconnected.   

I can’t help but think of the Palestinian families who have had to endure and experience their religious holidays—Ramadan, Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter, Eid—not knowing who would live through the night as Israeli missiles indiscriminately rain from the sky. As the Zionist entity bombs mosques and churches to the ground, I remember that even before October 7th I witnessed the Israeli Occupation Forces throwing smoke grenades and flashbangs into Al-Aqsa Mosque and laying siege to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in 2021.

Photo Credit: Nicole Oshima, Yo! Magazine

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but think, “What if this happened to me?” What if it was my sister’s lifeless body I was holding as she wore her kimono in preparation for Obon? What if I had to survive a genocide during Hanamatsuri, Ho’onko, or Bodhi Day? What would I do? What would I ask, from those watching from the safety of their phones? 

This summer, now more than ever, I think it is crucial that we return to the core of what Obon is about and engage with the ritual and celebration with the utmost of intentions. Obon is supposed to be a time of joy, reflection, and celebration in honor of our ancestors who have come before us and who now tirelessly work to guide us towards our own liberation. And yet, I feel no joy in Obon as it approaches. A multitude of causes and conditions have led us to become disconnected to the ritual of Obon. Maybe our assimilationist goals or fears brought us to emphasize what would be “acceptable” and repress our undesirable foreign practices. Beyond the fundraising, the beer, and the cosplay, what is Obon about? It's time to turn our attention to the spiritual foundation of Obon.

Photo Credit: Nicole Oshima, Yo! Magazine

Sakyamuni Buddha teaches us that Obon is not only about us making offerings to our ancestors, but also about our ancestors guiding us and giving us the opportunity to seek the Buddhist path towards non-suffering. In the Ullambana Sutra where Obon originates from, the monk Mogallana, despairingly searches for his mother throughout the realms of existence after her death and finds her in the realm of Hungry Ghosts. He sees her starving with her skin almost falling off the bone, the outline of her skeleton visible from malnourishment, eating even dirt in an attempt to satiate her hunger.

As Mogallana attempts to feed her and ease her suffering, the food he offers turns to ash in his mother’s hands and everything he tries is to no avail. Seeing this, he goes to the Buddha to ask for guidance and the Buddha instructs Mogallana to make offerings to other monks to alleviate his mother’s suffering. It is only through the help of others that Mogallana’s mother’s suffering is eased and she is freed from the realm of Hungry Ghosts. 

I see the plight of the Palestinians in the Ullambana Sutra and the story of Mogallana and his mother. When I think about the physical state of his mother, I can't help but draw the connections to the horrific pictures I have seen of Palestinians starving to death because of a U.S-backed humanitarian blockade. When I see the broken bodies bombed out of recognition, I can't help but be reminded about the world of suffering we are in today and how I can learn from the story of Mogallana and the Palestinian resistance about collective liberation. 

Photo Credit: Nicole Oshima, Yo! Magazine

With this in mind, it's worth remembering that the dancing everyone associates with Obon comes from the story of Mogallana who danced with joy upon seeing his mother liberated from the realm of Hungry Ghosts. The story of Obon is not so much that Mogallana was doing something for his mother in the afterlife but rather about Mogallana’s mother and that her experience was important in teaching him a lesson about what it means to selflessly give to others. In this way we can understand Obon as a time to reflect on our ancestors guiding us and in this case, the Palestinian ancestors guiding us, calling out to us to participate in liberation.

As Rev. Mas Kodani puts it, Bon Odori is the opportunity for us to realize that we are deeply connected to the larger universe. He continues, “the essential thing [is] to dance, not showing off, not being embarrassed, but to forget the self long enough to “just dance”, and in that moment of just dancing to suddenly remember and sense a deep connection to our deceased loved ones and, on a deeper level, to all things living and dead. It is a “tariki-like moment” where everything is perfect and in its harmonious place. And when you come out of that moment, everything old becomes suddenly new; it has a new vibrancy that is seen individually and communally. Bon Odori is after all and at long last: not just a summer festival to eat, drink, be merry, and make a few bucks. It is a religious event celebrated by a religious community by members living and dead.”

Photo Credit: Nicole Oshima, Yo! Magazine

As we make our offerings this year, dance Bon Odori, and light our lanterns, we must remember that we are not guiding our ancestors back to this world, but our ancestors guiding us through the dark towards the path of liberation from suffering. It is the reflection of the Buddhist notion of appreciating the lives that make our life possible, and the realization that we are connected to something much larger than ourselves. Rev. Patti Nakai reminded me of the essence of this as it relates to Palestinian liberation. She reflected that “the Palestinians referring to their loved ones' killed by Israel's actions as "martyrs" means each of those lives is connected to something larger than the brief span of their physical body - a martyr is a life that continues to inspire community and encourage the efforts for the liberation of all. That is the spiritual dimension, an awareness that all religions uplift.” 

Photo Credit: Nicole Oshima, Yo! Magazine

And so I close with these questions. What can we offer to our Palestinian martyrs to realize liberation? What is being asked of us as we sit in the comfort of our homes? What does it mean to engage with the ritual of Obon in the midst of a genocide? 

Let us remember that we have the privilege to be able to mourn our loved ones at Obon without the fear of bombs and drone strikes raining from above. It is in recognition of our privilege, our shared humanity, and our collective liberation that we must be compelled and committed to act against the genocide of Palestinians and support the right of return and a free and liberated Palestine. 

We must continue to interrogate our own histories and traditions as the world continues to burn around us. We must seek to understand that Palestine is not an isolated genocide and is in fact connected to the manufactured suffering of millions across the globe. Human selfishness is driving all sentient beings—olive trees and watermelons, rocks and oceans, insects and animals—to extinction. We can no longer sit on the sidelines and debate what is right and wrong when what is being asked of us is to actively resist the genocide of Palestinians. 

As we prepare for Obon, I encourage all of us to help our community learn and take ation by having conversations about Palestine with our template and church conversations. What can we learn from our elders’ experiences and what can our elders learn from us as we try to make sense of how our lives are connected to something much larger? How can our religious institutions build meaningful relationships with our Palestinian neighbors? What can we do to show up for communities directly experiencing suffering? 

Photo Credit: Miyako Noguchi

How to take Action:  

Nikkei4Palestine has created a resource hub for Japanese Americans to take action and learn about how our histories are intertwined with the colonization and liberation of Palestine. Many of the resources below have been pulled from the Nikkei4Palestine Resource Hub.

Resource Hub 🇵🇸 | Nikkei 4 Palestine (N4P) Collective

Actions:

Donate:

Learn about the Japan’s role in the on-going genocide: 

Resist misinformation:

Learn about the history of the Palestinian liberation struggle: 

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