About the Holidays we DON'T mark at Treeleaf

  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts
  • Jundo
    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
    • Apr 2006
    • 39237

    About the Holidays we DON'T mark at Treeleaf

    In the discussion of our most common Treeleaf chants ...

    ... I would like to mention a few rather standard Soto Zen chants, rituals and holidays that we DO NOT chant around here, either intentionally or because they are just not so significant I feel.

    For example, Obon [お盆] is a big Buddhist holiday here in Japan, but not so big in the west except among families of Japanese heritage. It is a time of ancestor remembrance, and thus to visit the graves of parents and grandparents.

    We do not celebrate the holiday in our Sangha, and have a day for remembering our family and friends who have passed, as part of our Buddha's Parinirvana memorial in February:

    Here is some information about "Obon" (actually, there are two in Japan, one in July, but most people celebrate now in August. The difference came about because some parts of Japan use the old lunar calendar, while most of Japan moved to the modern solar calendar for calculating the date. It must get confusing to the Ancestors on what date they are supposed to come back from the "other world" ):

    Obon is the festival celebrated in Japan in mid-August, on the 15th in most of Japan. But the Obon festival season lasts for a few days, from the 13th to the 17th of the month, and different areas of Japan celebrate this festival on different days in July. It is the day to remember and honour the spirits of the ancestors. All the Japanese will visit their family and go to the graveyards’ of their families. Actually it can hardly be called a festival, for it is a Buddhist tradition observed in Japan and in the other Buddhist nations as well. It is not an official national holiday, but many companies are closed down in Japan on those days, and the Japanese jam trains to return to their home towns and get together with all their family members. They believe that the souls of ancestors will come back and join them on this particular day.

    The memorial services held at Obon have two meanings. One is to honor the Buddha and show reverence for one’s ancestors and others who have died. The other is to express gratitude to all people to whom we are indebted, including people who are alive such as our parents, relatives, and friends.

    All the houses are thoroughly cleaned in advance to welcome the spirits, and foods such as vegetables, sweets and fruits are placed as offerings in front of the altars in houses and temples. Incense will be burnt during these days in every house. Paper lanterns called chochin and flowers are used to decorate the houses and the butsuden. People will go to the graveyard of their relatives to invite the souls to come home with them, and this tradition is called Mukae-bon. ... During this festival, Bon Odori dance is performed accompanied with a special music and drums. All the people dress in kimonos or yukatas and dance on the stage. They normally form a circle and dance around a lamp or a lantern, and almost everyone in the crowd will join this dance. This is done to welcome the spirits and hence this dance is considered the dance for the spirits. These are usually held at parks, temples or shrines, adorned with countless paper lanterns. Some temples and shrines are famous for their festivals held during the obon season.

    ... Nowadays, Obon is considered a time for the family reunion and, that aspect is more important than honoring the souls in the present day society. People working and living in urban areas, and those living far from their home and family, will be coming back to their homes and enjoying the family presence during these days.

    More info here: http://jpninfo.com/17480

    The full expression for Obon is Urabon-e which is derived from "Ullabana," an old Indian word. According to the Bussetsu Urabon Sutra, the origin of this tradition goes back to a ceremony performed by Shakyamuni Buddha for the deceased mother of Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), one of the Buddha’s immediate disciples. Ullabana means "hanging upside down" and it was by means of this ceremony that the suffering of that world in which she lived (the suffering was so intense it was like hanging upside down) was removed. Maudgalyayana used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. Greatly disturbed, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother from this realm. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and, thus, saw his mother's release. He also began to see the true nature of her past selflessness and the many sacrifices that she had made for him. The disciple, happy because of his mother's release and grateful for his mother's kindness, danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or "Bon Dance", a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.

    Greeting Fires (Kadobi)

    Greeting Fires (Kadobi) - On the evening of the 13th, fires are lit with hemp stalks or pine torches. These lights serve as a guide for the returning ancestors –They are like a voice crying out, "Come this way, Grandpa and Grandma." If these lights are not clearly visible, the spirits will be unsure which way to go.

    Sending Off the Spirits (Shoryo Okuri) - The spirits are usually sent back on the 15th or 16th. Once again, hemp stalks are lit and in some places are set out on small boats with offerings to float down rivers or out to sea. Lately, because of the problem of pollution, the boats are collected at temples and other places. People chant "Obon spirits, go away on this boat," and send them off carefully.

    Obon Shelf (Bondana)


    Obon Shelf (Bondana) - Where will the ancestors who have come for the offerings be greeted? A special shelf called an Obon-dana or Tama-dana is made where the family memorial tablet is place along with various offerings. At those houses where this kind of shelf is not set up, the ancestral spirits are greeted at the Buddha-altar. This is where the temple priest chants the tana-gyo, a sutra read for the ancestors. This Obon-shelf is usually erected on the morning of the 13th. In a home where a family member has died within the past year, this shelf is set up between the 1st and the 7th and should be done in an especially mindful way. On these shelves, dumplings are often offered. They are placed on the altar shelf immediately after the family has greeted the spirits at the grave.

    Here is an example of Tana-gyo in a parishioner's house, at the family Butsudana:

    On the 14th, it is the custom to make an offering of noodles and on the 15th, rice dumplings covered with bean jam are offered. Also, uncooked rice, mixed with finely chopped raw eggplants and other vegetables, is placed in small piles on lotus or paulownia leaves and used as an offering.

    On the 16th, it is said that the ancestral spirits return home riding on cows and carrying luggage on horses. Eggplants and cucumbers, in the shapes of cows and horses, are offered. ... In some areas, there is the custom of fixing green cedar or green bamboo to the four corners of the shelf in the same way that pine decorations are used to honor the gods at New Year’s.

    At any rate, let’s make respectful offerings of those things that the ancestral spirits like, offerings that have been traditionally cultivated, or items that are familiar to the ancestors, in order to have them come back.

    A Ceremony to Comfort the Ancestral Spirits (Sejiki-e) [Also called, "Feeding the Hungry Ghosts"] - The Obon Sejiki-e, a ceremony to comfort the ancestral spirits, is an important ceremony in The Soto Zen School. At every Soto Zen temple, this ceremony is performed as a way of making offerings to the family ancestors, to one’s parents, relatives, and spirits of other people we are connected with, as well as for spirits that are no longer connected to any living person.

    Bon Odori dance at a Soto Zen temple in Hawaii ...

    Yes, you may notice that Japanese Buddhism is a bit ambiguous about whether there are "souls" or "spirits" of the dead that can visit, a belief in souls and such that is not philosophically a usual part of traditional Buddhism. It is more likely a very ancient Asian and Japanese belief of ancestor worship that became part of Japanese Buddhism, rather inconsistent with traditional Buddhist rebirth ideas, and so the Zen and other Japanese Buddhist priests usually just let the question be ambiguous and celebrate Obon and welcome the spirits without trying to rectify the matter.

    We do not undertake this Ceremony here, and the custom strikes me as most probably a non-Buddhist belief in ancestral spirits which was adopted into Buddhism, although long ago. Such kinds of ancestor-spirit beliefs are not widely held by most modern Westerners. Some Zen Sangha in the West have combined the holiday with Halloween for the kids, which is a cute idea. I do support the possibility of turning the ceremony of "Feeding the Hungry Ghosts" (who, in literal belief, are thought to abide in a kind of purgatory where their prior greed causes them never to be satisfied) into a symbolic ceremony for all the greed in this living world, and a reminder that there are hungry and impoverished people in this world too, and have thought of adapting the ceremony here with such meaning.

    Other holidays we do not celebrate here:

    Equinox Ceremony (Higan-e/Shuubun) September

    Equinox Ceremony (Higan-e/Setsubun) in March

    Both equinoxes, like Obon, are considered times when the "other world" is close to this one, so a good time for graveyard visits to honor the dear departed.

    Memorial Service for Dogen Zenji and Keizan Zenji (Ryosoki) September 29th

    Memorial Service for Bodhidharma (Darumaki) October 5th

    The Founder’s [Dogen's] Birthday (Koso gotan-e) January 26th

    While we do not mark off special days or ceremonies for these at Treeleaf, we often honor such individuals with commemorative Zazen during one of our Zazenkai each year.

    We do celebrate Buddha's Birthday, known as Hanamatsuri in Japan, but as part of our closest Zazenkai. We do not usually celebrate in the full Japanese way. Vesak, or Visakha (pronounced way-sak), is a celebration that commemorates the Buddha's birth. It is named for the month of May and is celebrated on a full moon on varied days by the lunar calendar in much of Asia. However, in Japanese Buddhism, where it is called "Hanamatsuri" ... the Flower Festival... it is cerebrated each year on April 8th. Besides special chanting services, it is often celebrated in Japan by bathing the Baby Buddha in sweet tea (said to represent the sweet dew which rained down upon him from the heavens upon his birth), and as here, with the White Elephant which his mother supposedly saw enter her side, our version of the immaculate conception:

    Another celebration which we do not celebrate here is ...

    Commemoration ceremony of the Second Patriarch’s cutting off his forearm (Danpi Ho-on Sesshin) December 9th and 10th

    This follows right after Rohatsu and, frankly, we give this one a miss, as do most western Zen groups that I know. In fact, while a wonderful legend and symbol showing someone's determination to enter the Zen path, it is most certainly a fiction. Not only would he likely have needed a medieval Chinese medivac chopper, but the apocryphal story was also probably borrowed from the biography of another Zen fellow of the time who lost his arm to robbers (you can read about this from middle of p. 137 here ... to start of 142: https://books.google.co.jp/books?red...%20arm&f=false )

    End-of-year events (O-misoka) December 31st

    At Treeleaf, every moment is new! We honor the New Year with Zazen too. At the temples in Japan:

    Eiheiji Head Temple:

    On December 27th, the rice-cake pounding ceremony takes place and great quantities of rice-cakes are made [called "Mochi"].

    Three types of rice-cakes are prepared on the day. One is rice-cakes in the shape of a traditional mirror, to be offered to the Buddhist statues enshrined in the temple. The second type of rice-cakes is called jubyo (lit. the rice-cake for longevity). These are presented to Zen masters in the monastery with the wish for their good health. The third type of rice-cakes is for the monks to eat during the first three days of the New Year. At six o’clock on the evening on that day, the monks gather at the temple kitchen in the building called Kichijo-kaku. They start pounding the rice-cakes after praying for the good health of their masters as well as for the rest of the temple. They use four large mortars to make more than 500 pieces ranging from very large to small. It is a boisterous event where the normally quiet monks come to life, smiling and shouting, while pounding away in a kitchen covered in white flour. [Jundo: So, I don't think the above photo of everyone in the best Kesa is the actual scene. ;-) )

    The end of December sees a series of year-end events. Events such as the rice-cake pounding, cleaning, alms begging for the needy and the striking of the New Year’s Eve bell. The founder, Dogen, once preached at his New Year’s Eve sermon that one should attain mastery of his/her discipline by year end, otherwise the daily practice of the last 360 days would be in vain: a reminder of the importance of each day.

    The New Year (Gantan) January 1st:

    The morning of the New Year’s at Eiheiji starts at 3 a.m. Monks meditate soon after they get up, starting their new year with a lungful of the fresh, cold, almost spring-tinged, air. [Jundo: Which was easier when the New Year under the old Lunar Calendar was in February!]

    For the first three days of the New Year, there is a series of New Year ceremonies known as shusho-e (lit. New Year ceremonies). On January 1st, sutras of six hundred Buddhist scrolls are chanted and the monks offer prayers for the flourishing of the Dharma, the peace of the world, the prosperity of the people and the peace of the nation. On January 2nd is a ceremony in which the great prajna-paramita sutra (Hannya Kyo) is chanted, and on January 3rd, a ceremony praising the Buddha (Tanbutsu-e). Every day, more than ten thousand worshippers come to receive the Buddha’s blessing.

    Until the middle of January, such ceremonies as the Jinjitsu-en are held (entertainment by and for the monks who are divided into groups according to dormitory), and the first calligraphy ceremony of the year. The entertainment event in particular sums up the festive New Year atmosphere and is where the personalities of the monks and the mood of each dormitory are displayed.

    Sojiji Head Temple:

    After the Rohatsu Sesshin (December sesshin) is over, New Year preparations such as year-end cleaning, rice-cake pounding and preparations for the New Year’s ceremony take place. At the end of the year, the monks beg for alms for the needy. The monks make their own footwear, symbolizing a firm foundation for both mind and body, and walk around Tsurumi Town.

    On December 31st, the monks must be in bed by 6 p.m. and be up again at 11 p.m. on the same evening to the ringing of a bell ready for the New Year. The Mukai-karamon Chinese style-gate, normally closed, opens at a quarter to midnight and the bell starts to toll. The bell tolls 108 times to symbolize the eradication of worldly desires. On top of that, Sojiji allows each and every visitor a single strike on the bell. Being a time of year when unexpected incidents and disasters are likely to occur, it is a great opportunity for the visitors to strike the bell with the hope that their worldly desires will vanish and that their new year be a good one.

    At a quarter past midnight on New Year’s Day, the first ceremony of the year known as the New Year’s Grand Service (Hatsumode-daikitoukai) takes place. At the Founder’s Hall, all of the monks who serve the temple gather, and the ceremony is led by the leading Zen Master with prayers for the safety of the temple, the happiness of the people and the peace of the nation. Following this ceremony, other ceremonies are held in the temple precincts, such places as Koshakudai, where Daikoku, the god of prosperity, is enshrined and Sanpo-den where Sanpo Daikojin, the local god of the temple yard, is enshrined. January 1st is filled with the chanting voices of the monks offering up Buddhist sutras in the temple.

    After New Year, comes the coldest season. According to the lunar calendar, Shokan (lit. small coldness) sets in the middle of January. The monks gather winter alms in the coldest season of the year until February 2nd. During this period, after the afternoon service, more than 100 monks set out in straw sandals and traditional gloves for the neighboring town, Tsurumi where they beg for between an hour and a half and two hours.
    Maybe we should have a Treeleaf Mochi Rice Cake making group??

    Source: https://www.sotozen.com/eng/practice/event/index.html

    Around Treeleaf, I do post New Years greetings to everyone around midnight in Japan, and my family will often visit a nearby temple to be sociable with the neighbors, and to ring the big temple bell. That is called Joyu-no-kane, and you can see an example here:

    And, of course, we do have an annual New Year Zazenkai soon after, as Zazen is the ultimate "New Right This Moment!"

    Gassho, J


    img_2021123000530.jpgCx7WBrTXEAAzD60.jpgdlt enso.jpgdlt enso.jpg
    Last edited by Jundo; 09-08-2022, 12:32 AM.
  • Tai Do
    • Jan 2019
    • 1357

    There is also the excellent Buddhist family Holidays thread which gives many ideas to celebrate Buddhist holidays with family and kids:

    Hi, At the following "BUDDHIST FAMILY HOLIDAYS" WEBPAGE sponsored by our Sangha, we present ideas for family celebrations of some traditional Buddhist Holidays. These are ideas to involve the entire family, and especially kids as a way to introduce them to the meaning of the holidays and basic Buddhist teachings in a

    Access Google Sites with a personal Google account or Google Workspace account (for business use).

    怠努 (Tai Do) - Lazy Effort
    (also known as Mateus )

    禅戒一如 (Zen Kai Ichi Nyo) - Zazen and the Precepts are One!


    • Jundo
      Treeleaf Founder and Priest
      • Apr 2006
      • 39237

      Let me add some other wonderful ceremonies and events that we do not celebrate, or do in abbreviated or moderated ways, and which are rarely celebrated outside monastic settings. This is just a partial list:

      Regular Daily Observances
      Sutra Chanting for Stove God

      Monthly Observances
      Sutra Chanting for Tutelary Deities
      Offerings to Arhats
      Reading Aloud of Common Quarters Rules
      Head Shaving Ritual
      Opening Bath (Procedure for Bathing Sacred Monk; Bath Drum; Procedure for Entering Bath; Sponsoring a Bath; Closing Bath)
      Great Master Daruma’s Monthly Memorial Eve
      Sutra Chanting for Idaten

      Annual Observances
      — January 2 — Revolving Reading of Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra
      — February 1 — Reading of Last Teaching Sutra
      — February 10 — Ceremony of Compiling Seniority Chart
      — April 1 — Shutting Down Heating Braziers
      — June 1 — Change of Curtain in Sangha Hall
      — July 20 — Airing Straw Mats in Various Halls
      — October 1 — Change of Curtain in Sangha Hall
      — November 1 — Opening Heating Braziers
      — November 14 — Earth Spirit Hall Recitations

      ... and many more. Plus, those are just the titles of the events, with the actual content of each ritual quite special and intricate. For example, the Sutra Chanting for Idaten (an originally Hindu god, a son of Shiva, who became a guardian of Buddhist monasteries, especially of the temple kitchen) entails the following:

      When morning sutra chanting reaches ancestors hall sutra chanting, head cook leaves place and returns to the administration hall (kitchen-residence), has assistants prepare flowers, censer, and candles, decoction, sweets, and tea before Idaten’s altar. When morning sutra chanting is finished, administration hall assistant sounds first sequence on cloud gong. Head seat leads assembly into administration hall (kitchen-residence). Great assembly forms two rows, standing on left and right of altar. Head cook goes outside hall to great abbot. Abbot first burns incense and bows in gassho, then offers tea and sweets; does not make prostrations. Rector’s assistant rings hand-bell three times; rector initiates chanting of Heart Sutra once, Disaster Preventing Dharani three times. Great assembly chant in unison; rector dedicates merit.

      Eko (Dedication of Merit) Text:

      Having chanted the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra and
      Marvelously Beneficial Disaster Preventing Dharani, we offer the merit
      accumulated thereby to the dharma-protecting Venerable Deva Ida,
      the envoy who oversees meals in the kitchen, the god in charge of hot
      water and fire. We pray for tranquility within the monastery, safety inside and
      out, the prevention of fire and theft, and the support of donors and believers.

      When sutra chanting is finished, abbot bows with hands clasped, returns to abbot’s quarters. Head cook, in front of administration hall, makes sendoff bow with hands clasped. Next, sangha hall assembly returns to hall. Rector’s assistant exits administration hall (kitchen-residence), rings handbell two times (this is called “open floor space hand-bell”); staffs of various quarters return to quarters. Administration hall assistant, hearing rector’s assistant’s altar space hand-bell, rings extended gong.

      Idaten statues at Soto Zen temples in Japan

      About Idaten:

      The Indian deity Skanda, son of Siva and general of his army, who became a protector of the Dharma in Buddhism. ... Idaten is mentioned in the sutras KONKOUMYOUKYOU 金光明経 and DAIHATSUNEHANKYOU 大般涅槃経 , but his appearance is not described. It is thought that in China he was conflated with a famous Chinese general and that his characteristic appearance, wearing armor, with a sword or baton resting on his forearms and his hands clasped together in gassho 合掌, is derived from this. Although in Buddhist texts Idaten is a protector of Buddhist teachings, in various parts of China, especially in Zen, he was considered a protector of monasteries and monks. In Japan he was enshrined in Zen living quarters and kitchens. The oldest example of his image is the Song dynasty sculpture ... in the *shariden 舎利殿 (relics hall) of Sennyuuji 泉涌寺 in Kyoto, which was brought to Japan from China by Tankai 湛海 in 1255 along with relics ... Idaten has a close relationship with relics because of the story that while guarding the Buddha's ashes a demon tried to steal them, whereupon he chased the demon away and retrieved the ashes.

      [D.T. Suzuki adds in Manual of Zen Buddhism]:

      Idaten is a god of the kitchen looking after the provisions of the Brotherhood. The original Sanskrit term for it seems to be Skanda .... He is one of the eight generals belonging to Virudhaka, the guardian god of the Southern quarter. He is a great runner and wherever there is a trouble he is instantly found there. In the Chinese monastery he occupies an important seat in the hall of the four guardian gods, but in the Japanese he is in the little shrine attached to the monks' dining-room.
      ** In fact, we do have a little shrine in our kitchen in Tsukuba for many years which, once, had a little Shinto talisman protecting the kitchen (my wife or my mother-in-law put in there). But, some years ago, the talisman expired (they do that), and we never replaced it. We do replace the fire extinguishers nearby, however.

      Gassho, J

      Last edited by Jundo; 09-08-2022, 12:41 AM.


      • sreed
        • Dec 2018
        • 101

        I grew up in a town with a Buddhist temple that was Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha. All services were spoken in Japanese. While I was unable to attend services due to the language barrier, I did attend the Obon festival in August and really enjoyed all the festivities. Mostly I went for the food! I appreciate the explanation on the holidays we don't celebrate and why.