By Rev. Dr. Kenji Akahoshi, Resident Minister
THE JOY OF DANCING AND WORKING
Obon, our busiest summer activity, is here. Our individual participation in this “Gathering of
Joy” is as varied as our different personalities. For some, it is a lot of work but is also most enjoyable.
For others, it is work without the joy. For some, it is a time to enjoy new and old relationships, and to
enjoy the food and dance. It is probably a combination of all of these for most people. But how
do our feelings align with the lesson of Mogallana and the intent of Obon?
The Obon event is now called the “Gathering of Joy.” The emotion of joy seems counter-
intuitive to a memorial to our loved ones who have passed. Yet the deep lessons of the Buddha
often override our shallow, conventional thoughts. Much of the ritual and practices in Buddhism
are to prepare us to really listen and HEAR the words of the Buddha. The death of a loved one
awakens us from the slumber of taking life for granted. Obon is a time to really appreciate their
contribution to our lives. Their last message to us is that human life is unique and precious. Their
urgent plea is to wake up and live it with joy. I hope this is the message that all dancers have as
they participate; this is also the message for all those who work so hard, so that others can enjoy
the dance, food and festivities. Those who participate in the “work” (planning, preparation, and
presentation of food, dance, and activities of Obon), might also keep this attitude of joy in mind.
Rev. Carol Himaka has written that the Buddha’s lesson for Mogallana was that dana, his gifts
and food for the monks, was a way to counter his own thoughts of greed. This practice of selfless
giving brings to our consciousness, our own tendencies to think of ourselves over others. Dana, the
first Paramita, can help us get out of our confinement of ego-centric behavior. Even when we give
grudgingly, we begin to experience a hidden joy of participation. This is the deeper lesson of the
Buddha. Our working at Obon, reminds us that we have received the efforts of others. We can
express this acknowledgement, by our participation in working for the benefit of others. Our work or
participation does not need to be recognized. This is the definition of dana.
We are fortunate to have an expanding sangha that reflects a diversity of all ages and
backgrounds. Our attitude and participation in Obon is a reflection of our diversity. Some religions
have a strict orthodoxy of belief and practice. The Asian culture also reflects a provincial attitude
where everyone is expected to behave according, to an unseen standard. Fortunately, Buddhism
offers a broader vision of truth. The core principles of interdependence, impermanence, and the
middle path, release us from the attachments of a singular belief. All views are honored as part of
the dynamics of the whole. Therefore, it is OK for someone to hang on to their current beliefs. But
in the name of awakening, change is offered. All are invited to taste the freedom of the joy of
As we participate in the dance or work, our understanding may deepen. Watching and
dancing may be joyful; this may progress to working as a volunteer. Working and helping others in
the Obon activities, at the expense of our own enjoyment, is a growth step in experiencing the joy
of giving. The joy of working raises the level of our awakening.
As we participate in the Obon dance, we should not worry about how we look, but just enjoy the
dance itself. Similarly, we may feel clumsy or unfamiliar with the process of food preparation, and
hesitate to volunteer. But with the guidance of more experienced workers, we should be able to fit
in. We might realize that everyone at this event is a volunteer; no one does this professionally. The
food, the entertainment, the activities, and the scheduling have all been done by volunteers who
have put in their own time and effort. As Buddhist partners, we all contribute in our own way. The
Obon event is typical of a Shin Buddhist religious activity. We do not just meditate, chant, or be
mindful of our practices. We are practicing, as we joyfully help one another in our participation.
This attitude of co-operation aligns with the message of the story of Mogallana. His concern for
his mother is expanded to his awareness of the needs of others (monks). His act of dana,
apparently frees his mother, but also awakens him to his own selfish desires.
I hope we can extend the primary lesson of Obon to our other activities. As we receive the
efforts of others (we call this the Compassion of Amida), we express gratitude by reciting the
Nembutsu. Affirming our Oneness with the Primal Vow, we work to serve others toward this
awakening. Great joy is our indication that we are on the right path. If you missed the participation
at the Obon event, there are other opportunities to awaken. The rummage sale in mid-August and
over events in the fall, await your involvement. Learning to have fun in voluntary activities will also
help you discover the fun in all of life’s activities. This is the Shin Buddhist life.
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