O-Bon Special Service

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Welcome everyone to our O-Bon Special Service. At O-Bon we stop to remember, reflect upon, and celebrate our deceased friends, family, and Buddhist ancestry. It is traditional to celebrate O-Bon in the month of July or August.

Today, I would like to talk about O-Bon and its significance in Zen. In Japan, the tradition and celebration of O-Bon is centuries old. Also known as the festival of lanterns or festival of light. O-Bon involves embracing the positive spirit of one's ancestry, welcoming that spirit by lighting lanterns, nurturing that spirit by offering food and festivities, and carrying and remembering that spirit after the celebration has ended.

The word O-Bon can be translated as meaning the suffering in human life. On O-Bon, we feel gratitude for the lives of our ancestors and friends and show compassion for all living beings. The main feeling on this day should be gratitude for what our forbearers have done for us.

Although O-Bon is a time when we remember our deceased friends and relatives, it should not be a time of sorrow. O-Bon is the time when we reflect upon the positive and inspiring qualities that our many ancestors possessed, the good deeds they performed during their lives where on earth, and the way that our life has been influenced by them.

In Zen, we practice the way of action, which encourages us to live full compassionate lives and to put our time in this life to good use. This reminds me of a story about a tombstone engraving that my teacher, Kongo Roshi, found in the Smokey Mountains. Roshi was on vacation and he happened upon an old cemetery. As he walked through the tombstones in the cemetery he came across one that had an epitaph that really struck Roshi. The engraving read:

As you are now, so I once was.
As I am now, so will you become.
Try harder now.

Roshi was so taken by this that when he returned to the Temple he had these lines put on a plaque that greets you when you come into the back room when we have tea, along with a real skull to add an exclamation point.

In Zen, we speak of death, but we actually know little more about it then to motivate us to not waste our time in this life. We are gathered here today not to focus on the death of our loved ones, but rather to think of their lives and our lives and how we might use the example they have given us. Recognizing, with respect, their efforts, imitating their positive example, and learning from their shortcomings. Zen teaches us to make use of all that we inherit or experience in our lives and to live our lives to our fullest potential.

In Addition, O-Bon is an important day for us because we realize on this day, that although we too will as some point pass from this earth, our efforts will also influence future generations. How will we be remembered? I would like to share the following story and remarks from our Temple Founder, Matsuoka Roshi, which he made at the Temple O-Bon service in 1964.

There is a beautiful story that I would like to tell on this O-Bon. It is about the beautiful cherry blossom. We have an old saying in Japan, which compares our human destiny to a delicate cherry blossom. The cherry tree in full bloom is simply beautiful. But when the time comes the cherry flowers begin to be blown away by the wind. Some of them are gone with the first spring wind, while others have the destiny to stay in bloom a while longer. Yet by and by, the very last cherry flower will also be blown away. Our lives are much the same. Every Buddhist knows that we are born, grow older, and someday will die. But, one is not sorrowful about it. We know that it is the way things are. Like the beautiful cherry blossom that blooms for a while, and then is blown away by the wind, our lives will bloom for a while, and then end. But our lives, like the lives of the cherry blossoms, are not forgotten. What is beautiful in them lives on.

In Zen, there is only this life. We are only alive in this life. There is only this moment in which we live. There is only this moment to make the most of our lives. To a Zen Buddhist, there is no fear of death, no regret at the loss of the physical body. The Zen Buddhist sees the way of the universe in everything. One sees the death of the flowers, of the leaves of the trees, and the end of the day. And yet, one looks forward to the blooming of the flowers once again, the budding of the trees, and the dawn of the following day. In Zen we understand we are part of this ever changing universe where dying is as much a part of life as is birth itself, just as the fading of the flower petal is as much a part of life as was the beautiful bloom. A Zen Buddhist does not fear death nor attached to one’s life. One makes little distinction between life and death, and only resides in one’s innate Buddha nature. This is the true Zen life.

We have all been given so much by those who came before us. We all have a great debt. I am not speaking of a heavy debt, rather, a joyous debt we should feel and reflect upon in deep gratitude.

From the perspective of our Buddhist and Zen ancestry, the tradition of O-Bon is very significant and rich. We have so many ancestors to thank for keep our practice alive since the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. Reflect on the unbroken line of teachers who tirelessly practices and taught the way of zazen, the way of wakefulness in the present moment. We are all very fortunate to find this Zen practice and to be able to engage in this practice.

Indeed we owe much to our great teachers who came before us. I feel this most deeply with respect to my teacher Kongo Roshi, and our Temple founder Matsuoka Roshi. How do we acknowledge and return their great kindness and understanding?

The best way to return this kindness and understanding is to reaffirm our own commitment to our Zazen practice, to our Zen Way that was passed on to us. Practicing mindfulness each moment. Kongo Roshi often used the expression: "Watch your feet," meaning, be mindful of your every step and action. This is the spirit of Zen. We honor our Buddhist ancestry, by continuing to cultivate this spirit and carrying on their tireless resolve for the Buddha’s Path. Learning from our teachers and carrying on our Temple’s Soto Zen traditions for the benefit of all beings. This is our Great Bodhisattva Vow.

O-Bon give us a great opportunity to reflect on the inherent oneness, and the interdependence of all things. Returning to our original natures, that we all have in common, through our Zen practice. We should take this opportunity at O-Bon to cultivate our deep gratitude for the universes assistance in helping us find our way. Step by step, moment by moment, with such an open, wholehearted spirit we are in the most receptive position to receive help from the universe. Place your hands in gassho and bow in this spirit of gratitude. Cultivate this wholehearted spirit.

As I mentioned, the word O-Bon can additionally be translated as meaning the suffering found in life. O-Bon is a reflection of the entire human and universal condition of things. The question concerning the cause of suffering is at the very root of our Buddhist Way. This question was the key catalyst that drove Shakyamuni Buddha to his great awakening. He discovered that a degree of suffering (or dukkha – bitterness) is inherent in life. We all suffer to some extent. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths. We need to recognize this suffering and understand it deeply in order to be liberated from it. This is Buddha’s second Noble Truth. Through looking deeply in our Zen practice we cultivate letting go of our attachment to self-centeredness which binds us to our suffering, the third Noble Truth. By continually cultivating the Buddha’s Path, we can free ourselves from the cycle of suffering, the fourth Noble Truth. O-Bon also brings us to this very fundamental issue of suffering in our lives and in the lives of all beings and enables us to gain insight into its resolution.

There is a related Zen story about a man and a horse. This horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere very important. A second man, standing along the road shout to the horseman, "Where are you going?" To which the rider replies, "I don’t know! Ask the horse!" This is all of us on this horse. This is our human dilemma. Our self-centered habits and attachments are taking the lead. We are in a struggle within ourselves. This is the suffering that we are dealing with in our Zen practice. We must continue to practice letting go and stopping our self-centered chasing habits. Through our Zazen practice we can let go of our cravings, our fears, our anger, our despair and enable our inherent complete original nature to shine forth. Our O-Bon tradition is very rich and deep with meaning. It embraces the basic fabric and essence of our lives.

Kongo Roshi would encourage his disciples by saying the student should stand on the shoulders of the teacher. This is the essential spirit of O-Bon. Reflect on the great contribution that our ancestors have made that we are standing on today. Remember the Great Bodhisattva Vow to resolutely continue our Zen Way. The Bodhisattva’s practice is wholehearted practice. Dive in completely. Practice deeply each day. Cultivate the present moment each day. The present moment has limitless possibilities and reflects your true nature, your Buddha nature. Don’t spend any effort being concerned about results, this is the chasing horse, the chasing mind at work. Put all of your energy in your wholehearted practice. In this way we keep our intentions and practice pure. In this was we deeply bow to our ancestors and acknowledge their kindness and continue on in their spirit for the benefit of all beings.