A festival for the spirit

The Pasadena Buddhist Church’s Obon Festival celebrates ancestors, nature, art and simply being

By Colin Burton and Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 7/21/2005

The only Buddhist temple in Pasadena, the Pasadena Buddhist Church, hosted their annual Obon Festival last weekend, More than 300 people attended both days.

The word "Obon" (pronounced oh-BONE), comes from the Sanskrit, "Ullum-bana," which means to be hung upside down. It is a metaphor for the most intense kind of suffering.

The festival is the second major celebration in the Japanese Buddhist calendar after New Year's.

"Every temple has a festival," said Jeanne Toshima, an organizer of the event. "Obon has been here in Pasadena for more than 45 years."

The festival is a celebration to commemorate one's ancesters. It is believed that the ancestor's spirits return to this world to visit their relatives. Lanterns are hung outside temples to guide the spirits, bon odori (Obon dances) are performed, and food is offered. The festival in Pasadena also had many booths set up with games for the kids and rare antiques for the adults. Beautiful rice bowls, paintings, clothes, tea sets, cups, pottery, Japanese art, books, and movies, and many more treasures were for sale at very low prices.

During the evenings several demonstrations and exhibits were held, including martial arts and an authentic tea ceremony which is only open to the public once a year. Bonsai plants, or tray planting, were on display. This art originated in China and was perfected in Japan. The plants are dwarfed by special methods such as limiting the space for roots, pruning the roots, or coiling wire around the branches to limit their growth. They represent the Japanese love of nature.

The Aikido Center of Los Angeles performed aikido and iaido. Aikido, or the way of harmonizing one's vital energy, uses self-defense on the physical level, including causing an opponent's own momentum to work against him, and allows one's psychophysical energy to flow freely in oneness with the energy of the universe on the spiritual level. Iaido is the art of drawing and using real swords. It is very different from swordsmanship seen in movies, where the goal is to defeat the opponent and look good while doing it. In iaido, the purpose is to defeat one's own ego.

There were also demonstrations of judo, a form of self-defense that also uses the opponent's strength against him; kendo, the physical art of sword-play; kyudo, the art of the bow and arrow; qi gong, a process of self-readjustment and self-rejuvenation; and taiko, the modern art of Japanese drumming performed by an ensemble.

One of the most interesting demonstrations by far was the chado, or the way of tea. The temple's tea house was received as a donation from the Urasenke School Headquarters in Kyoto in 1961. The public may only observe the rare ceremony once a year during the Obon Festival. Participants enter the tea room through a small square opening after removing their shoes. Upon entering the room at the same level as everybody else, social class is stripped away: everyone is equal. Even the emperor goes through the same ceremony.

The ceremony itself is a patient, respectful process. The host makes the tea from a light brown powder in front of the guests, usually about three or four people. Everyone eats a pasty sweet before the host presents a bowl of tea to each guest. Before a guest is allowed to sip the tea, he must first look at and appreciate the tea bowl. Everything used in the ceremony has been selected for the guest's enjoyment. Guests are expected to experience every aspect to the fullest: the tea, bowls, utensils, tea hut, flower arrangement, tea powder, etc. The ultimate goal is to simply drink tea and reflect on the way things are.

A featured Heritage Source Booksellers author signed copies of her book of watercolor paintings that she created while living in the Japanese internment camps with her family during World War II when she was 9 to 12 years old.

"We were put in the camp because we looked like the enemy," said Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz, painter and author of "Camp Days 1942-1945." "It was bigotry."

Her paintings depict troubling memories of her time in the camp.

The Pasadena Buddhist Church was established in this area more than 45 years ago. This temple is part of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism. The sangha (congregation) gathers every Sunday at 10 a.m. and all are welcome to the beautiful service, which is in both English and Japanese.

The Pasadena Buddhist Church is located at 1993 Glen Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 798-4781, or visit www.pjci.org.