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Remembering Buddhas in Japan

Commemoration of the birthday of Sakyamuni Buddha forms an important but relatively small part of a remarkable emphasis on wide-ranging types of memorials that continue to be observed in modern Japan. However, celebrations in remembrance of death, including for all deceased ancestors who are regarded as Buddhas (hotoke) at the time of their passing marked by ritual burial, generally hold far greater significance than birth anniversaries.

Buddha’s birthday is celebrated in Japan every year on 8 April. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873 as part of Meiji-era modernization, the date has become regularized and invariable. The occasion takes place four to six weeks in advance of most other Asian countries that have made memorials for Buddha a national holiday by following a traditional lunar calendar so that the anniversary usually occurs some time in May, according to Western dating, although during a leap year it could vary from late April to early June. The time for the holiday in some countries is linked to the full moon of the Indian month of Vaisakha, and in others it coincides with the full moon of the fourth month of the old Chinese calendar.

In Japan this commemoration is called Busshō-e or Kanbutsu-e, and the ritual held at many temples features a small statue of Buddha in the form of a child as he appeared at birth when, as legend suggests, he took seven steps forward and with his right hand held upward and left hand pointing downward declared, “I alone am honored in heaven and earth.” The statue is sprinkled with scented water or hydrangea tea in a small temporary shrine decorated with flowers. An alternative name is Hana Matsuri, or Floral Festival, in part because the time of year corresponds to the custom of enjoying the blooming of cherry blossoms by gazing at flowers (hanami) in gardens, parks, or other public spaces, including the grounds of some Buddhist temples that make this event part of their ritual cycle.

There are two additional annual holidays dedicated to remembering the Buddha, including Nehan-e on 15 February, when Sakyamui is said to have passed into the Great Final Nirvana (Maha Parinirvana in Sanskrit), and Jodo-e (also known as Rohatsu) on 8 December, which marks the anniversary of the time Buddha initially attained enlightenment after years of ascetic practices and meditation.

‘Daibutsu’ (Great Buddha) – Kamakura, Japan. By Greg Younger. CC-BY-SA-2.0, via Flickr.

New Year’s Eve on 31 December is another Buddhist holiday when, as a kind of atonement, the temple bell is rung 108 times to signify the number of human defilements as well as the blessings required to remove them.

Rituals are also held in Japan for nearly all ancestors, who are considered Buddhas regardless of affiliation or actual behavior while living. These Buddhas so designated are provided with funerary rites that include bathing to purify karma, shaving the head to symbolize adhering to precepts, wearing a robe to represent holiness, holding a wake to recall their main life events and values, and the bestowing of a posthumous ordination name to mark their departure to join the realm of Nirvana (nehan) that was first realized by Sakyamuni.

The dead are memorialized on a daily and yearly as well as longer-term basis through various ceremonies performed by family members. These include the veneration of a Buddhist altar (butsudan) installed in a room of the home, regular visits to cemeteries by loved ones, and an extensive range of festivals that are often local to a neighborhood or village.

There are three memorial days that are part of the yearly cycle of remembrances for deceased ancestors. These include Higan-e, which marks both the spring equinox on 21March and the fall equinox on 21 September with outings to graves (haka-mairi) that take place during the week before, and Obon or Urabon-e, which is often called the Ghost Festival as the spirits of the dead are thought to return to the earthly realm so as to be honored with offerings and ceremonies. Originally held on the full moon of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar as a way of highlighting the transition from the Yang or living sector of the year to the Yin or dying division, in Japan the Obon festival is usually regularized as either 15 July or 15 August.

Another form of memorial is the veneration of the medieval founders of the major Buddhist sects, whose death is commemorated annually but is especially highlighted with dedicatory rituals at the time of fifty-year anniversaries. In 2011, for example, there were huge celebrations held in Kyoto for the two main leaders of Pure Land Buddhism: Honen, who originated the school and died 800 years before; and his disciple Shinran, who broke off to establish a different school and died 750 years before. Old-timers were nostalgic for the previous festivity held in 1961.

Featured image credit: Amitābha, by D. Moreno. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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