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Memorial for the Dead Becomes Joyous Rite in Buddhist Festival

July 27, 1986|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

GARDENA — Buddhists from throughout the South Bay will gather at the Gardena Buddhist Church this morning to carry on a 2,000-year-old tradition honoring deceased friends and relatives.

But rather than a somber service, it will be a festival.

"It's a celebration to express gratitude for our ancestors for what they have contributed to our lives," said the Rev. Ben Mayeda, associate pastor of the Gardena Buddhist Church, the only Buddhist church in the South Bay and the second largest in Los Angeles County.

Cultural Link

About 1,500 Buddhists live in the South Bay, nearly all of Japanese descent and most living in Gardena and Torrance, Mayeda said. The strong link between Buddhism and Japanese culture is expected to produce a large turnout for the celebration, including many of Japanese descent who are not Buddhists, Mayeda said.

The Obon festival, as the celebration is called, starts today with a religious service in English at 9:30 a.m., preceding one in Japanese at 1:30 p.m. A special service, called Hatsubon, for 45 families that have had a death since the last Obon will be held at 4 p.m.

Next weekend, a carnival with food and game booths will be held on the church grounds at 1517 West 166th St. from 4 to 11 p.m. on Saturday and 3 to 10 p.m. on Sunday. The carnival, which is open to the public, is the 950-member church's major fund-raiser.

Traditional bon odori dancing, with participants dressed in colorful kimonos, yukata robes and happi coats, will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. both nights.

Dance of Joy

Buddhists worldwide celebrate Obon in commemoration of the Buddhist monk Mogallana, who, according to legend, saved his mother from hell by giving offerings to Buddhist monks. Overjoyed, Mogallana danced, and many joined him in a large circle. The dance remains a central part of the Obon festival.

In Japan, Obon is a national holiday celebrated the 13th through the 16th of July or August, depending on the region of the country. Many Japanese living in the cities return to their families' homes in the country for Obon.

"It clears the smog in Tokyo for those four days," joked Mayeda, who received his religious training in Japan.

The first two days are spent cleaning the family Butsudan, or home altar, and visiting family graves. In temples, homes and graveyards, Mukaebi, or "Welcome Lights" consisting of candles, oil lamps and paper lamps, are lit to welcome the spirits of the deceased, who are believed to return to the living for those four days.

Overlaps Avoided

In the United States--where about 400,000 of the estimated 600,000 Buddhists are of Japanese ancestry, according to USC religion Prof. Robert Ellwood-- Obon is celebrated on various weekends between late June and mid-August. Area churches schedule their celebrations to avoid overlaps, where possible. Today, temples in West Los Angeles, Anaheim and Pacoima will conclude their carnivals, in which dancers from Gardena will participate.

About half of the Buddhists of Japanese descent belong to the Pure Land sect, Ellwood said. Pure Land, or Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, de-emphasize the belief in the wandering of spirits of the dead and the rituals of lanterns and the offerings of food, Mayeda said. He said paper lanterns are placed at the altar of his temple in respect of tradition.

"The people are so used to associating lanterns with Obon that we continue to bring them out," he said.

Mayeda said Jodo Shinshu Buddhists see Obon as a time to remember and appreciate ancestors, and to reflect on the meaning of life and death.

Like Christmas and Easter for Christians, Mayeda said many of the religious aspects of Obon have been lost over the years. Like the Christian holidays, Obon is the one time of the year that many non-practicing Buddhists attend temple, he added.

Like the Latino culture and Roman Catholicism, Japanese culture and Buddhism are closely intertwined, with many of the religious holidays, including Obon, having become synonymous with Japanese cultural events, Mayeda said.

100 Dancers

At a recent dance rehearsal at the temple's social hall, for example, more than 100 adults, teen-agers and children formed concentric circles and slowly swung their arms and glided forward and backward to the slow beat of a taiko drum and the melodic sounds of traditional Japanese folk songs.

Cindy Fujizawa and Shelly Tamura, two 22-year-olds from Gardena, were among those practicing. Both knew the religious significance of the holiday, but both said they were dancing more for cultural reasons.

"It's part of my culture," Fujizawa said. "Knowing about your culture adds a lot to yourself."

"I have a lot of pride when I dance," Tamura added. "You slip away from your culture when you grow up here. The traditions are the only thing left."

Two 11-year-old girls from Gardena, Karie Matsuno and Jena Sasahara, were also practicing. They did not know the religious reasons for the celebration. In fact, Matsuno is a Mormon and Sasahara is a Baptist. They said they were dancing because "it's fun."

Sasahara's mother said she allows her daughter to participate in the dance because "it's important that the children learn about their culture."

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