Urabon festival (a Buddhist festival) (盂蘭盆)
The term urabone (ullambana) refers to the last day of an ango practice (the three-month intensified practice of Zen Buddhism), on July 15th in the old calendar, but urabone is mostly used to indicate a memorial service offered for ancestors' souls to relieve severe sufferings on that day. This is based on a legendary episode included in "Urabon-kyo" (translated by Hogo JIKU and Zhu Fahua who lived in the Western Jin era) and "Honhobon-kyo" (translated by Shitsu in the Eastern Jin era), or on the legend where Mokuren Sonja held a memorial service for his dead mother who had to live in Gakido (the Buddhist hell of starvation).
Urabon (盂蘭盆) is a transcription of "ullambana," a Sanskrit word, which was also transcribed as "烏藍婆拏" or "烏藍婆那" in olden times. It is said that ullambana has the meaning of "ud-lamb" which means being hung upside down.
Recently, a theory claims that it originates from "urvan" meaning "souls" in the old Iranian language. This theory is highly plausible when taking into account the origin of the Sanskrit language. In ancient Iran, a religious event was held to invite ancestors' Fravaši (the spirit or lower-class god, or a spiritual existence that resides in everything and causes all natural phenomena: it is said that this Fravaši also resides in human beings and constitutes the most sacred portion, providing a relationship to connect worship of Fravaši with the worship of ancestors' souls), or in other words, ancestors' souls, and to offer them a memorial service. According to a theory, it is said that this event was brought to India, constituting the origin of urabon.
A legend about Mokuren
Today "urabone" is generally called "bone," "obon," "shoryoe," "tamamatsuri," or "kankikai," and the event is still widely held.
It is believed that this event did not originate in India but began during the process of Buddhism being brought to China. Today, the "Urabon-kyo" that has provided a base for 'urabone' is considered, together with "Fubooncho-kyo" and "Zenakuinga-kyo," to be one of the gikyo (fake scriptures) which were produced in China.
Therefore, the following process is considered to have happened:
Originally, an event existed in which people offered food to priests and other people on the day when an ango practice ended. The content of the event was gradually modified to one in which a memorial service for ancestors' souls was offered and a practice against hungry ghosts, Segaki (the Buddhist service for the benefit of suffering spirits), was conducted. It is considered that, in addition, the following legend was added which was affected by the filial ethics of Confucianism: Mokuren Sonja held a memorial service for people and priests to relieve his dead mother.
Urabon-kyo contains the following story:
When searching for his dead mother while conducting an ango practice, Mokuren Sonja, with the greatest divine power, found that she lived in Gakido (the Buddhist hell of starvation). Seeing that her throat was dry and she was hungry, he offered her water and food, but all of them caught fire before entering her mouth, and she could not eat or drink.
Feeling pity for her, he told Buddha the situation and asked what he could do. Then Buddha answered that "When you offer food to biku (Buddhist priests) on the last day of an ango practice, a portion of it will enter the mouth of your mother." As he had been told, he made offerings to all of the biku. Then the biku were delighted, and began eating, drinking and dancing. Then the delight also spread to the people who lived in Gakido, and some of the offerings entered the mouth of his mother.
Bone in China
The origins of urabone in China stretch back a long way. The work "Bussotoki" describes how Emperor Sho En of Ryo of the Southern Dynasty himself offered an urabonsai service (offering food to monks and nuns) in 538 at Keimei-ji Temple. "Bussotoki" was written in the Southern Sung period, approximately 700 years after the era of Han Wudi of Ryo. Therefore, it is impossible to consider the document original. However, in the July 15th section of "Keiso Saijiki (The Xingchu Suishiji)" the contents of which were selected by Sorin who lived in the same era as Han Wudi of Ryo, it is described that priests and secular people held "bon" ceremonies and offered memorial services, and the "Urabon-kyo" sutras are also cited. Therefore, it is confirmed that in the era of Ryo, "Urabon-kyo," a gikyo, was complete, and that urabone ceremonies were already held in Buddhist temples.
It is believed that this event has become widely held because of the custom where July 15 (in the old calendar) was called chugen-setsu (or chugen), and on this day, secular people other than priests conducted a memorial service to their ancestors, offering food and lighting lanterns. It is considered that with the combination of these two events the urabon event has become gradually more and more widely held.
The liveliness of the chugen-setsu event was also depicted in "Tokeimukaroku" which was written in the Southern Sung period and which described the prosperous state of Kaifeng, the capital of Northern Song. Various aspects are laid out in more detail, such as that printed books of "Sonsho-kyo scripture" and of "Mokuren-kyo scripture" were sold, a drama called "Mokuren rescues his mothers" was played and accepted favorably, and many of the general public went to their ancestors' graves and offered memorial services there.
Bone in Japan
In Japan, written evidence remains that, in May or June 606, it was decided to offer a toki service (offering food after a memorial service) on April 8 and on July 15 (both in the old calendar) and that in 657, a statue of Mt. Sumeru was built on the west of Asuka-dera Temple and an urabone ceremony was held there. Furthermore, there is also a description relating that on July 15 (in the old calendar) 659, "urabone" ceremonies were held at various temples in the capital, to give thanks for the virtues of fathers and mothers for the last seven generations. Later, in August or September 733, Emperor Shomu ordered the Daizenshiki (Office of the Palace Table) to offer a memorial service on urabon, and after that, the service, called urabone-kuyo or urabone-ku (both meaning a memorial service on urabon), was offered on July 14 (in the old calendar) every year as a regular Buddhist event in the imperial court.
In the Nara and Heian periods this event was held on July 15 every year as an official service, and in the Kamakura Period onwards, it was held in tandem with a segaki service.
It happened that in July 1872 the Kyoto prefectural government ordered the prohibition of the holding of urabone ceremonies, for the reason that the custom was not good from the viewpoint of public morals.
For similar customs in Japan today, also refer to "obon."