August Blog: Obon!

Happy August! It’s August which means it’s time for the Bon Festival, called Obon (お盆) in Japan. Obon is a Japanese Buddhist festival to honor one’s ancestors. It’s called the Ghost Festival in China and versions are celebrated all over Asian countries, especially those which have a strong Buddhist presence. 

Obon usually takes place over a long weekend in mid August–this year it is the 13th, 14th, and 15th (and the 12th/16th depending on where you are). It’s the time of year where people return to their hometowns and visit the graves of their ancestors. Due to traffic, it is also a terrible time to take the train in Japan. I repeat, use caution when making travel plans during Obon. 

In Japan, Obon is celebrated by returning to one’s hometown and visiting the graves of one’s ancestors. People usually sweep the gravestones, pour water over the graves, light candles, light incense, and leave flowers and/or food. 

Often people will light lanterns and release them into rivers to symbolize guiding the ancestors. Celebrations of Obon often include Bon Odori–or Bon dancing. 

Traditions vary in the different parts of Japan, Kyoto, for example, is known for its Daimonji (literally–“big writing”) which is lit during Obon. 

By J_o – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Obon has its origins in the Ghost Festival of China with has its origins in the Yulanpen Sutra, a Buddhist Sutra that tells the story of one of the Buddha’s disciples, Maudgalyayana (Chinese: Mu-lien, Japanese: Mokuren) who uses his higher knowledge gained from his Buddhist practice to find his parents. He finds his mother in the realm of the hungry ghosts and rescues her with the assistance of the Buddha. This story propagated a lot of Yulanpen literature–including folktales, films, dramas, and operas. 

For more information about the history of Ghost Festival and its Chinese origins read Stephen Teiser’s The Ghost Festival in Medieval China It’s available to read online or in the main stacks. 

Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1988.

A fuller explanation of Maudgalyayana and the history of his association with the Ghost Festival is detailed in the Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism Volume 2 (Lives) Maudgalyayana (Mulian), available online or at the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library. Call No. 294.38203 B769

Berezkin, Rostislav. ‘Maudgalyāyana (Mulian)’. In Encyclopedia of Buddhism Online, edited by Jonathan A.Silk, Oskar von Hinüber, and Vincent Eltschinger. 

Curious to know more? Checkout the library catalog or come to the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library and happy researching!

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