One of the hallmarks of summer in Hawaii are bon dances, a Buddhist custom that has gone mainstream in the islands, evolving into inclusive, family-friendly neighborhood festivals that celebrate Japanese culture. (There are also lantern floating ceremonies, usually at the end of obon season.) But in the days before temples come alive with dancing, singing, and drumming, there are more solemn rites to observe.
Among them are otoba, and I helped set up a few hundred of them this morning.
Well, “helped” may be a strong word, as most of the work was done by sturdy men and a few women who were often 20 years my senior. But I still got a couple of splinters while carrying scraps of wood, so that counts, right?
I grew up with one foot in Buddhist culture. My grandfather Yoshikiyo “Gijo” Ozawa was a Buddhist minister who came to Hawaii with my grandmother Hanako in 1931, serving and teaching plantation workers on Kauai.
My grandparents went on to live through World War II and U.S. internment camps, and returned to the islands to continue to serve the Soto Zen sect and the local Japanese American community. They helped build the Waipahu Soto Zen Temple Taiyoji, where my family and I spent many a Sunday morning chanting and learning about the Eightfold Path.
As a kid, the obon ceremonies inside the temple were something you had to endure in order to get to the food and fun of the bon dance outside. Distracted as I was, though, I still learned to recognize the otoba. These tall wooden sticks bore the names of families and people who had passed away, and the names were read aloud during the ceremony each year as a way to pay tribute to our ancestors.
But I never got up close and personal with otoba until 2008, when I joined the Board of Directors at the Jodo Mission of Hawaii. The temple is familiar to anyone who drives past the eastbound Punahou Street offramp on Interstate H-1, its distinctive pink structure featuring a design that’s more East Indian than Japanese (a common and fascinating architectural choice back in the day).
While the otoba at my family temple were lined up on the temple altar inside, the otoba at the Jodo Mission of Hawaii are set up outside on the lawn. They’re impossible to miss among Honolulu commuters, and regularly prompt questions and a few random visitors.
The word “otoba,” or just “toba” (like obon versus bon, the “o” is just an honorific), is the Japanese transliteration of the Sanskrit word “stupa,” one of the oldest types of monuments in Buddhism. Originally they were simply mounds of earth and stones where people and relics were buried.
Those memorial mounds evolved over the centuries to take as many as 30 different forms, the most familiar perhaps being the pagoda, a tiered tower design now seen all over the world. Interestingly, both the pagoda and the otoba tablets traditionally have five segments (note the notches in the wooden planks), representing the five elements in Buddhist culture: earth, water, fire, wind, and space.
Each year, otoba are dedicated to the dearly departed, each bearing the name of the deceased as well as the name of the otoba’s sponsor, usually a family or family member. Although the temple minister will visit and read each otoba as part of the formal obon ceremony, they are available for people to visit and leave offerings for a few days or weeks beforehand.
The combining of the deceased and sponsor names, coupled with prayer visits and offerings, is said to foster “eko,” or “merit transference,” which runs both ways between the living and the dead.
At the Jodo Mission of Hawaii, the otoba will stand until the formal obon services on July 17, 18, and 19. They’ll then be taken down, clearing the way for the bon dance on Aug. 14 and 15. For more information on the event, visit the Jodo Mission of Hawaii website at Jodo.us, or connect with the temple on Twitter at @JodoMission or on Facebook.
Bonus: Here’s a 360-degree view of the otoba setup at the Jodo Misison of Hawaii, made with Google’s Photosphere app: