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It's a Joyous Time When the Buddhist Faithful Gather for Obon Festivals to Honor the Dead

July 23, 1988|GAIL S. TAGASHIRA | Tagashira is a Times copy editor.

Yasuko Shohara has a weekend plan: Starting at 5 a.m. today, she will cook rice and assemble ingredients for sushi. By noon, after making chirashi, inari and maki sushi, she will bake pumpkin pies and chocolate cakes.

By mid-afternoon, she and other members of the Ladies Guild of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Church will converge at Corinth and La Grange avenues, where 16 food booths stand ready for the congregation's annual Obon Festival today and Sunday.

"Sushi always sells out early, so then I'll have time to prepare for obon," Shohara said. Sunday's cooking-baking-setting-up routine will be identical, except Sunday's festival begins two hours earlier, at 3 p.m., making her preparation a bit more hectic.

But she's not worried. Shohara, 57, a medical assistant and West Los Angeles resident for 20 years, is a veteran of Southern California obon (pronounced roughly "oh-BOHN") festivals. In recent months, she and other West Los Angeles church members have danced at festivals in Sun Valley, Oxnard, at the Senshin temple in Los Angeles and last weekend in Anaheim and Venice.

One of the largest celebrations of the year for Japanese Buddhists, the 1,450-year-old obon festival has evolved from a strictly religious observance to a blend of festive social occasion and a day to honor deceased relatives and ancestors. Since obon has grown, at least in America, to include games of chance, cultural displays and a variety of non-Asian food booths; religious services are often held far in advance of festival itself.

Throughout Southern California, the two-month season has been in full swing since late June as Buddhist churches in the Jodo Shinshu--or Pure Land--sect observe the holiday.

Over the years, obon festivals have become a mesh of Japanese-American culture, mixing religion with a carnival atmosphere in an informal setting. Yukata robes and happi jackets have taken the place of expensive silk kimonos. The dances lean more toward folk, less toward classical. Alongside booths serving Japanese noodles, there may be nacho, tamale and hot-dog stands. The result is an event more open to non-Asians of all denominations, de-emphasizing the event's religious aspects and its more stylized dances.

Upbeat Steps

In Orange County last weekend, for example, teen-age boys in baseball caps kicked up their heels in chorus-line fashion in an upbeat, almost jazzy dance, doffing baseball caps in unison as they sidestepped around a huge taiko drum.

"The real spirit of obon is to just go out and dance," said the Rev. Marvin Harada, minister of Orange County's Buddhist Church. Harada believes local obon festivals are unique for the level of support and cooperation among temples. To avoid conflict among larger churches in the area, the Southern District Council of Buddhist Churches determines dates six months in advance for each festival, from San Luis Obispo and Guadalupe to Vista and San Diego.

Even the songs and dances are chosen by majority rule, by a committee that includes representatives from each

temple, making it easier for groups of dancers from each church--wearing happi jackets unique to their own temples--to go from festival to festival and know what dances to expect.

"Members feel they should attend each other's obon because the festivals are basically fund-raisers for each church," Harada said.

"You see fewer and fewer kimonos and yukatas (informal cotton robes)," Shohara said, "but at West L.A., we tend to dress up."

Back in Japan, says the Rev. Kakuyei Tada of the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, during the obon season, a minister may pay brief visits to the Butsudan, or family-ancestor shrines--as many as 30 to 40 homes a day. Later, dances may be performed, particularly in the rural areas, though the festival is simpler than the American version.

Legend of Moggallana

Obon originated with the legend of Moggallana, one of the Buddha's disciples who, endowed with superhuman sight, saw his mother suffering in the depths of hell. He sought advice from the Buddha, who said that by giving offerings to 1,000 monks, he would end her pain. Moggallana complied. His mother was released from hell and ascended into nirvana, the state of bliss.

Overjoyed, Moggallana and the other disciples clapped their hands in joy, formed a large circle and began to dance. Thus was born the first obon dance, in AD 538.

From a strictly Buddhist event--often referred to as the "Gathering of Joy"--the festival in Japan has evolved into a national holiday, during which families visit grave sites and place lighted candles on tiny paper boats, floating them down rivers to guide the soul back to nirvana.

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