I grew up loving corn on the cob, but I’ll never eat it from the grocery store. There is only one place where I will eat corn on the cob, and that is from my Uncle Doug’s corn booth at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple Obon. Every year since I was little, I would arrive to temple early in the morning and shuck freshly-picked corn to get it ready to be sold in the afternoon. Everyone helping shuck was either a family member, a close family friend, or someone we persuaded with food to help with the heavy corn load. After everyone was done shucking corn, we would all get together to eat hamburgers and hot dogs that one of the Uncles cooked on the BBQ. To me, this is what Obon is: coming together to give our time and labor to our temple, eat delicious Japanese American food, and be in community with one another.
For many Japanese Americans, June marks the beginning of Obon season, a three-month period that lasts until August, during which Japanese American Buddhists across the U.S. celebrate the Obon festival. The celebration of Obon is not limited to only Japanese Buddhist traditions, and can be found in many different variations in Buddhist traditions across Asia.
The origins of this festival are in the Ullambana Sutra, where the Buddha advises Moggallana to make offerings to monks in order to ease the suffering of his mother who has fallen into a realm of suffering in the afterlife. Upon making offerings to the monks, Moggallana's mother’s suffering is relieved, which causes him to dance with joy. In the U.S., Obon festivals have become closely associated with the Japanese American community due to our deep roots and connections to the Buddhist tradition. During this time, we gather together to reflect upon all those who came before us and express our deepest gratitude towards our ancestors. Because of this, Obon is also referred to as “a gathering of joy”, where Japanese Americans participate in Bon Odori to express our joy and happiness in realizing that we are only here because of the sacrifices of our ancestors.
As I reflect on my experience in the Japanese American Jodo Shinshu Buddhist community and my positionality as a Buddhist of color in the U.S., I have come to place more significance on Obon. Obon, like many Japanese American cultural practices, exists in the intersection of culture and religion. Although today Obon is a more widely accepted cultural-religious practice, this was not always the case. During the nineteenth- and early-to-mid-twentieth centuries, the government viewed Buddhism as a threat to national security, causing Japanese American Buddhists to be heavily surveilled by law enforcement agencies. In order to survive, Buddhist temples and their Japanese American Sanghas were forced to hide certain aspects of their practice and change other parts to fit into a white Christian society. “Temple” was changed to “church,” and Christian architecture masked Buddhist aesthetics, all while Japanese Buddhist priests and leaders were rounded up and incarcerated.
Through the hard work of Japanese American Buddhist activists in the 1960's and 70's, many of the cultural practices that were lost during the incarceration were revitalized and used as a tool for discovery in the coming-of-age during the Asian American Liberation movement. Taiko, odori, ikebana, shodo, and sports were ways to sustain community in Buddhist Sanghas. However, there are some who view the traditions and practices of Jodo Shinshu Buddhists to be “cultural baggage” and advocate for the removal of these practices from the Buddhist temples for a more “authentic” Buddhism.
What does this have to do with Obon?
I recently had the opportunity to hear Asian American Buddhist priests Myokei Caine-Barret Sensei (of the Nichiren school of Buddhism) and Cristina Moon Sensei (of the Rinzai Zen school of Buddhism) speak at the Future of American Buddhism Conference in New York on a panel about Buddhist tradition and innovation. During their panel they were asked about their thoughts on the cultural appropriation and gentrification of Buddhism. Moon Sensei responded by explaining how white convert Buddhists often disguise cultural erasure of Buddhist traditions by naming their actions as “innovative efforts away from tradition.” She also noted that the tradition they were moving away from were almost always connected culturally to Asian Buddhist communities, and they were instead removing aspects of Buddhism they deemed as “cultural baggage”.
Although there have been no major efforts in recent years to stop the celebration of Obon by white convert Buddhists, more subtle efforts have taken place in Japanese American Buddhist communities to erase Japanese American culture. Many white convert Buddhists, non-Japanese Buddhists, and some Japanese American Buddhists call into question the importance of Japanese American Buddhists in the future of Japanese American Buddhism. I have heard many times that Japanese American temples are “too cultural” or that Japanese Americans are “not the future of the BCA (Buddhist Churches of America)”. In other words, the practice, and not the people, is what is wanted.
What does this mean for Obon which centers community, families, and people of the Japanese American Community?
At the same Future of American Buddhism Conference, I had the opportunity to speak with Myokei Sensei after her panel presentation. I expressed my appreciation for her comments on cultural appropriation and the erasure of Asian American Buddhists. In parting, she said to me, “Obon will always be Obon,” or at least that is what I heard her say. Obon will always be eating good food and being in community with one another, and it will always be a time for us to recognize the sacrifices of our ancestors who established Japanese American Buddhist Sanghas. Obon will always be Obon because of the people who celebrate it. And Jodo Shinshu Buddhism will be Jodo Shinshu because of the Japanese Americans who practice it. In the face of erasure, Japanese American Buddhists persist. Obon is the manifestation of our fighting spirit.