Kimonos, lanterns and tribute to the dead
AFor the recent Obon Festival at the Makawao Hongwanji Mission, I sat on a wooden bench under a beautiful Friday evening sunset. A full moon was rising behind us. As the spectators gathered, the dancers moved in synchronized steps around a large circle with a temple-like platform in the center. Elderly ladies with bun hair and expertly tied Obi gracefully gazed down well-known steps, while children in multi-patterned kimono, like a school of colorful koi fish, huddled together and laughed. Together, dancers aged three to ninety-three mingled and woven, moving through the ancient steps. Onlookers munched on steaming tofu curry and feasted on old-fashioned $ 5 price tags. Entire families danced Bon-Odori together to celebrate their ancestors under the stars of the Pacific during an evening punctuated by the deep rhythms of taiko drums.
Originally from Japan, the purpose of the Obon Buddhist festival is to honor his ancestors. It has evolved, like all cultures and customs, 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 the achievements of our ancestors as well as their sacrifices and suffering.
In Hawai’i, the Obon festival has become a summer season of celebration, with every Buddhist temple – one in almost every town – holding a celebratory Obon dance around a seasonal schedule from June through September.
The mythical origins of the dance begin with a disciple of the Buddha, whose mother had fallen into the realm of hungry ghosts. On the advice of the Buddha, the disciple made offerings to the monks of the temple. When his mother was released, he danced for joy. From now on, the festival is an opportunity to honor the sacrifices and the sufferings of our ancestors by dancing for them..
Although rooted in Japanese culture, like many customs that perfume the melting pot of our island, the dance has become more than a celebration reserved only for those of Japanese origin or Buddhist inclination. Others have recognized the value of a festival in celebrating ancestors, even though – or mostly because – modern Western culture gives no structured space to honor the family that came before it. Today’s society is often rooted in the modern fear of death and intense focus on the future. Despite this, many traditional cultures view the ancestor in a ritualized form. During El Dio de los Muertos in Mexico, the dead walk among us for a day; Hindus honor their ancestors seven generations ago by bathing in sacred water; and the Chinese celebrate with the Hungry Ghost festival.
Ancient Asian traditions honoring the dead continue in Maui’s poi-dog culture. It is in the nature of all cultures to change and adapt, the tides of time gradually move on as we look back and bring together threads from our past to tie them to the present. In Hawai’i, we manage to weave many different threads into our cultural quilt. Likewise, the Obon Festival has grown into a contemporary and inclusive cultural event, with many eclectic Maui residents making the trip to participate by eating, dancing, and reveling in the island’s temples.
Everyone is welcome to attend and even to try their hand at dancing. Although most dancers know the steps, they are simple and easy to understand. In an Instagram post, the Makawao Hongwanji festival wrote a few hours before its festival: “The Bon Dance circle is ready to welcome all dance freaks without discrimination or judgment. Opening the dance, the Reverend said to the crowd, “Some idiots dance while others watch; if we are all to be fools then let’s all dance. So we did it.
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 thought about my own ancestors and the idea of lineage, or lineage, in general. Each of our direct ancestors succeeded in procreating, bringing life and humanity into this world, back and forth, with each cell dividing just so we could all dance here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean under a garland of rice paper lanterns, “while the black earth revolved with the living and the dead”, as the poet Pablo Neruda wrote. Dancing unknown but simple steps with my nephews, surrounded by my community, I was far from the source but I was going back in a way.
Prior to the Obon Festival on August 18 at the Pa’ia Rinzai Zen Mission, I spoke to Rev. Yamaguchi, who had led his congregation at the Baldwin Beach Temple for over thirty years. “We’re from Okinawa, the only ones in Maui, so our Obon has traditional Okinawan dances and music,” he told me with his thick but clear and musical accent. “There are a lot of stories behind Obon, but once a year we come together for a temple dance for those who have passed away. They come back once a year. We come together for them, and Obon is a pleasure to give to our ancestors.
The Pa’ia Rinzai Zen Mission festival is always packed, with the eclectic crowd of congregation members and the colorful Pa’ia crowd mingling with the curious from the mainland. “A lot of people are showing up – very fat,” confirms the Reverend. The temple courtyard is lit like a ship in the night against the backdrop of Haleakala, while the ocean waves rumble right through the trees.
“Once a year I see so many people,” the Reverend told me in his soft voice. “That’s the essence of the festival – seeing friends, old members – once a year, they all come back.
This year, the festivals started in June at Lahaina Shingon Mission and will end in September in Hana. Although the season is well advanced, the people of Maui still have time to dance for their ancestors in their community in the light of the stars and the garlands of paper lanterns.
Upcoming Obon Festivals in Maui:
Friday and Saturday 3-4 August
Wailuku Hongwanji Mission
Service at 6:45 p.m. dance at 8 p.m.
1828 Vineyard Street, (808) 244-0406
Friday and Saturday. August 10-11
Lahaina Hongwanji Mission
Service at 6.30 p.m. dance at 7:30 p.m.
551 Waine’e Street, (808) 661-0640
Saturday August 18
Zen Pa’ia Rinzai Mission
Service at 6 p.m. dance at 7 p.m.
120 Alawai Road, (808) 579-9921
saturday 25 august
Mission Kula Shofukuji
Service at 6.30 p.m. dance at 7:30 p.m.
53 Upper Kula Road, (808) 661-0466
saturday september 8
Hana Buddhist Temple
Photos courtesy of Lantana Hoke