It’s a shame that the famous Kyoto Okuri-bi send off bonfires will be limited again this year. It’s an outside event and I don’t see the point of caution. Hopefully the souls of family ancestors will still be able to find their way home and back again in these dark times. A friend of mine, Rev. Sensho Komukai wrote a nice article that describes the event and the Buddhist tradition behind it. Hopefully the bonfires will burn in full glory in 2022.
August 13-16 is the traditional Obon period, when the souls of deceased family members are believed to return home from the other world. A fire is burned as a guide sign to welcome our ancestors on the evening of the 13th (mukae-bi) and to send off the spirits on the 16th (okuri-bi).
Great okuribi bonfires are seen on five mountains in Kyoto on the evening of August 16th. Each bonfire has a different character as follows: Dai (大), Myo (妙), Ho (法) a boat shape, and a shrine gate shape. At 8:00 p.m. the character of Dai is lit first. Myo and Ho are then lit ten minutes later.
Myo and Ho bonfires have been prepared for centuries by the Nichiren Shu supporters of Yusenji Temple and Myoenji Temple of the Matsugasaki district in North Kyoto. Myo has 103 burning woodpiles, and Ho has 63. Each woodpile has been traditionally allotted to a family member of the two temples.
One woman who came to Matsugasaki after marriage said with a sigh,
“It is still hot in August. When the bonfires are lit, there is no refuge area from the heat. I was all sweaty, dying of thirst. I helped the bonfire event out of a sense of obligation. Once we finished, I went down the mountain with a sense of great relief. However, when I arrived home, my grandmother-in-law had brought a family ihai tablet out into the garden and was holding her palms together in Gassho toward the bonfires on the mountain, I felt ashamed of myself. People in Matsugasaki respectfully send off their ancestors with all their heart. Their religion and culture have been handed down with high esteem. It was my mistake to think so little of the bonfire event.”
After the bonfires of Myo and Ho burn out in 30 minutes, the Bon dance starts in the precincts of Yusenji Temple. The dance originated in 1307, when a Tendai priest, Jitsugen, who was very impressed by Nichizo, converted his faith to the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Shu teaching.
All village people of Matsugasaki became devotees of Nichizo and Nichiren Shu. Priest Jitsugen felt joy chanting the Odaimoku while beating the drum. The villagers began to dance, and this “Daimoku dance” became the origin of the Bon festival dance. In modern times, people dance with simple beating of the drum and quiet chanting rather than a joyful dance. They want to think back deeply to the days they spent with their beloved families and silently express gratitude toward their ancestors on the Obon send-off day.