At a recent Obon festival at the Makawao Hongwanji Mission, I sat on a wooden bench under a beautiful Friday evening sunset. A full moon rose behind us. As spectators gathered, dancers moved in synchronized steps around a wide circle with a temple-like platform at the center. Elderly ladies, hair in buns and Obi expertly tied, gracefully considered well-known steps, while children in multi-patterned kimono, like a school of colorful koi fish, clutched at each other and giggled. Together, dancers aged three to ninety-three blended and wove, moving through the ancient steps. Spectators munched on steaming tofu curry and chow fun with old-fashioned $5 price tags. Whole families danced the Bon-Odori together in celebration of their ancestors under the Pacific stars in an evening punctuated by the deep rhythms of taiko drums.
Originating in Japan, the purpose of the Buddhist Obon festival is to honor one’s ancestors. It has evolved, as all cultures and customs do, to become a Maui family and community reunion, a chance to dance together under the moonlit sky. Paper lanterns help guide the spirits of the dead, and a ritualized dance celebrates our ancestors’ achievements as well as their sacrifices and their suffering.
In Hawai‘i, the Obon festival has evolved into a summer season of celebrations, with each Buddhist temple – one in almost every town – timing a celebratory Obon dance around a seasonal calendar from June to September.
The mythical origins of the dance begin with a disciple of the Buddha, whose mother had fallen into the realm of the Hungry Ghosts. On the Buddha’s advice, the disciple made offerings to the temple monks. When his mother was released, he danced with joy. Now, the festival is a chance to honor the sacrifices and suffering of our ancestors by dancing for them.
Though rooted in the Japanese culture, like many customs flavoring our island’s melting pot, the dance has become more than a celebration for those only of Japanese heritage or Buddhist inclination. Others have recognized the value of a festival to celebrate the ancestors, even though – or especially because – modern Western culture gives no structured space to honor the family that came before. Present-day society is often rooted in the modern fear of death and the intense focus on the future. Despite this, many traditional cultures consider the ancestor in ritualized form. During El Dio de los Muertos in Mexico, the dead walk amongst us for a day; the Hindus honor their ancestors seven generations back by bathing in sacred water; and Chinese celebrate with the Hungry Ghost festival.
The ancient Asian traditions honoring the dead live on in Maui’s poi-dog culture. It is the nature of all cultures to change and adapt, the tides of time ever-inching forward while we look back and gather threads from our past to tie them to the present. In Hawai‘i, we manage to weave many different threads together in our cultural quilt. So, too, has the Obon festival become a contemporary, inclusive cultural event, with many of Maui’s eclectic residents making the trek to take part by eating, dancing, and reveling at temples around the island.
Everyone is welcome to attend and even try their hand at dancing. Although most dancers have knowledge of the steps, they are simple and easy to pick up. In an Instagram post, the Makawao Hongwanji festival wrote a few hours ahead of their festival, “The Bon Dance circle is ready to welcome all dancing fools without discrimination or judgement.” When opening the dance, the reverend told the crowd: “Some fools dance while some fools watch; if we’re all to be fools, then let’s all dance.” So, we did.
Sitting at the festival with my family, feeling at home despite my lack of Japanese ancestry, and enjoying a plate of tofu curry while watching the dancers, I gave thought to my own ancestors and the idea of lineage, or bloodline, in general. Each and every one of all of our direct ancestors managed to procreate, bringing life and humanity into this world, back and back and back, each cell dividing just so so that we could all be dancing here, in the middle of the Pacific ocean, under a string of rice paper lanterns, “while the dark earth spun with the living and the dead,” as poet Pablo Neruda wrote. Dancing unknown but simple steps with my nephews, surrounded by my community, I was far from the source but somehow back at it.
Ahead of the August 18 Obon Festival at the Pa‘ia Rinzai Zen Mission, I spoke to Reverend Yamaguchi, who had led his congregation at the temple at Baldwin Beach for over thirty years. “We are Okinawan, the only on Maui, so our Obon has traditional Okinawan dances and music,” he told me in his thick yet clear and musical accent. “There are many histories behind Obon, but once a year we gather together for a temple dance for those who passed away. They come back once a year. We gather for them, and Obon is enjoyment to offer our ancestors.”
The Pa‘ia Rinzai Zen Mission’s festival is always crowded, with the eclectic crowd of congregation members and colorful Pa‘ia crowd mixing in with curious mainlanders. “Many people show up – very big,” the Reverend confirms. The temple yard is lit up like a ship in the night against the backdrop of Haleakala, while the ocean waves rumble just through the trees.
“Once a year I can see so many people,” the Reverend tells me in his soft voice. “That’s the main thing the festival is – to see your friends, old members – once a year, they all come back.”
This year, the festivals started in June at the Lahaina Shingon Mission and will end in September in Hana. Though we are well into the season, Maui residents still have time to dance for their ancestors among their community in the light of the stars and strings of paper lanterns.
Upcoming Obon Festivals on Maui:
Friday and Saturday, August 3-4
Wailuku Hongwanji Mission
Service at 6:45 pm; dance at 8pm.
1828 Vineyard St., (808) 244-0406
Friday and Saturday. August 10-11
Lahaina Hongwanji Mission
Service at 6:30 pm; dance at 7:30 pm.
551 Waine‘e St., (808) 661-0640
Saturday, August 18
Pa‘ia Rinzai Zen Mission
Service at 6 pm; dance at 7 pm.
120 Alawai Rd., (808) 579-9921
Saturday, August 25
Kula Shofukuji Mission
Service at 6:30 pm; dance at 7:30 pm.
53 Upper Kula Rd., (808) 661-0466
Saturday, September 8
Hana Buddhist Temple
Photos courtesy of Lantana Hoke