The Honomu Henjoji Mission (Odaishisan) holds its annual O-bon dance Saturday night.
By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
HONOMU — The Honomu Henjoji Temple sprung to life Saturday night with the sound of flutes and drums and the anthem of the “Betcho” dance. O-bon season has returned to Hawaii.
The joyful dancing and the solemn service that preceded it are a legacy of Hawaii’s Japanese immigrants, who introduced the bon dance, characterized by their synchronized arm and leg movements as dancers move around a central tower to Japanese songs. While it’s a time for socializing, the story behind O-bon goes back some 2,500 years to the time of the historical Buddha.
According to legend, his disciple Moggallana, having attained enlightenment, used his clairvoyant powers to search for the spirit of his deceased mother. There he was distraught to see that his mother had been trapped in a hell known as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
Disturbed by this, he sought guidance from the Buddha and asked how he could release his mother. The Buddha told him to make offerings to the monks who had completed their summer retreat.
Moggallana made the offerings and was thrilled to see his mother released from suffering. He danced for joy; today this dance is commemorated in the Obon ceremony.
From northern India Buddhism spread throughout south and east Asia — to China, then Japan and Hawaii.
In Japan, temples observe O-bon mostly in August, while some do it in July. Most observe the ceremonies between Aug. 13 and Aug. 16, with the lighting of lanterns and grasses to tease the spirits out of the grave, and offerings of food. Dancing is usually done by the very young, and it’s uncommon among modern-day Tokyo residents.
But in Hawaii, the various Japanese Buddhist temples around the islands string out the season from June through September, and people of all ages and ethnicities join in.
Honomu Henjoji Mission is affiliated with the esoteric Koyasan Shingon Shu branch. During the nearly two-hour long ceremony, in an homage to Moggallana’s offerings, congregants made offerings of food and water to those who have died. Fifteen candles were lit in the ornately decorated temple, and the ministers chanted sutras and led dozens in solemn meditation.
“This is a very big — a very special — time of the year,” said the Rev. Clark Watanabe, “when we give our thanks to our ancestors.”
Honolulu-based Bishop Dean Okimura, who has been out of commission for at least eight months for a medical emergency, told the congregation how his heart had stopped three times.
“Had anybody had that experience of dying? It’s great, you know,” a smiling Okimura said. The first time he died, he saw his grandfather. The second time, he saw his father. Both told him that it wasn’t yet his time to go.
“On the third time, Kobo Daishi (a Buddhist patriarch from 8th- and 9th-century Japan) wasn’t home,” he said.
“I have too much things to do. That’s why I came back,” he said. “Heaven is a beautiful place. It’s what we do that makes a great difference to where we go.”
“Please enjoy your life,” he said.
They did. Outside, preparations around the yagura were in full swing as dancers began arriving. The music started around 7 p.m., and the first of a few hundred people began their dance. Some had been practicing for months; others needed to go around the yagura, the central tower, a few times to shake off the rust.
Others stood and waited for their one song to start.
“I try to hang out, have fun and relax. That’s pretty much why we come,” said Ashley Silva, 20, of Kurtistown, who’s been going to these things since he was a senior in high school.
Like many Silva’s age, he’s here for the “Betcho,” the popular flute and drum song with a catchy beat. Some come for more traditional dances, and some, like Seiichi Sako of Hilo, have hung up their towels for good.
“I haven’t danced in over 50 years,” Sako said inside the temple’s ground floor community hall, where he was helping with concessions. The songs these days are “not too much different, I think.”
But then again, he says he forgot the old dances.
“All the dances, they changed. They have the new steps,” daughter Brenda Sako said.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the rain. It fell in a drizzle over the dancers as they moved to of the newfangled songs, the “Electric Slide.”
Betty Kosora, 68, was there with her two granddaughters. Kosora is a member of Tsukikage Odori Kai, a Hilo club that rehearses for bon dances 11 months out of the year.
“We take it for exercise,” Kosora said. “We love to dance bon dance.
“We do it all year ‘round.”
Email Peter Sur at firstname.lastname@example.org.