07/09/2014 11:05 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dancing With the Dead

The Obon transcends time, connecting the living to centuries of ancestors, an unbroken line dancing across the eons around the yagura.


Immigrant farm workers from Japan and Okinawa brought the Obon festival, or Bonduri, with them to Hawaii, and each summer, traditional drums, flutes, and voices accompany dancers at every Buddhist temple across the state. No Obon appeals to the imagination more than the Lahaina Jodo Mission's, with its floating lantern ceremony.

A distraught disciple, Mokuren, implored the Buddha to help his recently departed mother find liberation from her purgatory in the Bardo realm, according to the lore of the Obon. The festival celebrates the liberation of that soul, and by extension, seeks liberation of us all as we depart the world of mortal limitation. On another level, the Bonduri festival echoes ancestral veneration rituals of ancient China, in which the ancestors are invited to return, dine, drink, and dance with the living, feel loved and appreciated across time, and return to the world of spirit. On the first day of the festival, the welcoming mukae bi fire draws departed ancestors to gather near. Ritual offerings nourish them and prayers seek to assuage any residual issues holding the souls back from ultimate cosmic bliss. Then the ancestors are thanked for their benevolence and sent off to the spirit realms, symbolized by the okuri bi lights of floating lanterns in Lahaina and a couple of other seaside temples around Hawaii.


Tombs of the Shang dynasty 4,000 years ago, long before Gautama Buddha drew breath, held essentially the same drums, bells, and flutes used today.


The psychological need addressed by the Obon festival spans the entirety of human culture and history. We have amazing brains, capable of feats of learning, memory, and cooperation expressed beyond those of any species we know, but those same capabilities make us inescapably aware of our impending deaths. Archeology tells us our pre-human ancestors mourned lost loved ones in ritualized burial at least 400,000 years ago, and festivals from Obon to Dia de los Muertos celebrate the memories of those who are gone. We had to adapt, or we would never have left the proverbial cave to face very powerful carnivores waiting as we gathered breakfast for the kids. We still have ample threats, and we still all must die.

Terror Management Theory (TMT) says our survival as a species depended on developing ways to ignore mortality. Children carry our lives onward, at least genetically, and our cultures carry the symbols and meanings of our existence into the future. The Obon festival provides a superlative example of cultural immortality across centuries, lands, and seas, extending forward from Shang to the islands of Japan, to Hawaii, and beyond, across the seas and across eons. We remember and respect our progenitors, as they revered theirs, and as ours will hopefully remember us.


Modernity stole our deep connection to ritual, and thereby, to each other. Dancing connected us to the ancestors, but also synchronized our movements with the living, uniting our communities and our minds. The rituals of Superbowl and World Series unite and synchronize fans, but in opposition to the other team. Our rituals today connect us in competition, and unite us with the cosmos not at all. The festival at Lahaina Jodo Mission is lovely and photogenic, and a marvelous diversion for tourists, but it is much, much more.


If we listen deeply, the taiko drums hold the heartbeats of all who walked the earth before us. At the core, behind and beyond the sounds and swirling dancers, echoes the stillness of infinity and our ultimate connection to a billion, billion stars spinning through the eternal empty skies together.