On July 10th, the Ullanbana, (so-called Ura-bon) Ceremony was held and broadcasted on ZOOM while the LA Dharma center was fully opened. At that time, the 21 posthumous names of the members that have passed away during last a year and the 140 family names for focus of ancestor veneration were read out by the minister and Dharma teachers. Although the number of participants in the Ura-bon Ceremony was not as large as before Covid-19, a light lunch was served after the ceremony, and leaders and believers who had not seen each other for a long time shared a meal and enjoyed seeing each other again.
Of course, it was not only members who met each other on this day, but also, we met our ancestors. Each of our ancestors is invisible to us because their physical bodies have already perished, but we know that when we think of our deceased family members and ancestors, they are also thinking of us. This is because, as our president often says, “we are spiritual beings just as our ancestors are spiritual beings.” When we think about the spirit world, we will realize that it is not somewhere far away, but within our hearts. When we realize that we have received such a wondrous life, we must feel a strong sense of connection with those who have passed away. That is why we are earnestly trying to offer our gratitude to our all ancestors through daily sutra recitation and memorial services. I felt that this ceremony was also an occasion for us to meet with our ancestors and to strongly feel that they were pleased with our gratitude and joyful thoughts.
Every year, a story, which is the origin of the Ura-bon Festival, is introduced at this ceremony. According to the Ullanbana Sutra, “When Maudgalyayana realized through his original transcendent power that his mother, Shodai-nyo, was suffering in the spirit world after death, he tried to save her somehow, but this only deepened her suffering. When he asked the Buddha for help, he was told that he could save her only by making offerings to the Sangha with whom he was practicing and the Sanga would reciprocate the merits to his mother for her relief. The story goes, "After making offerings with the help of the Sangha, her mother, Shodai-nyo, was relieved.
On the day of the ceremony, I presented my interpretation of the lessons from this story in front of the participants, hoping that you would be able to understand it a little more deeply from the perspective of the Lotus Sutra. Here, I would like to make it concise what I mentioned at that time: (1) it is a manifestation of the greatness of the Sangha's power. The fact that even with such transcendent power as Maudgalyayana could not save Mother alone shows the limit of one person's power. As stated in “Chapter 2, Skillful Means”, the truth can only be understood by multiple buddhas, as it is said, “Only a buddha together with a buddhas can fathom the ultimate reality of all things.” Even if we are beings who attain the Buddhahood because each of us were bestowed Buddha nature, we cannot accomplish it without relationships with others. We cannot realize the function and workings of the Dharma without interaction with others, especially through study and learning among the Sangha. This must be the true meaning of the Buddha's statement that of the three treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), the most important is the Sangha.
(2) The offerings made by Maudgalyayana to the sangha are not offerings of material goods, but rather a determination to contribute to the growth of the sangha as a member of the community, to practice the teachings of the truth together with fellow members of the sangha, and to make this world a land of ever tranquil light. A monk Maudgalyayana had even no personal possession innately.
(3) True liberation is not possible without a change in personal consciousness and awakening to the truth. The liberation of Shodai-nyo lies in her own awakening. In this story, there is no mention of her conversion, but she must have been liberated because her heart of compassion for others was revealed through the conversion of her stingy mind, which was attached only to her own child and did not give alms to others. Liberation from the path of hungry ghosts cannot be achieved without such awakening to the truth and Buddha nature.
(4) The liberation of those in the spirit world, especially our ancestors who are deeply connected to us, will be realized only when we ourselves, who live in the present, awaken to the truth. Let us take the actions of Maudgalyayana, a filial son, devoted himself to the Bodhisattva path with the Sangha in order to liberate his mother from the realm of hungry spirits. Shodai-nyo, who was watching from the spirit world, must have been deeply moved by her son's devotion to the practice of the Dharma. When seeing her son's devotion, she has realized her wrong attitude, and she must have been ashamed of herself. Thus, her acknowledgement and remorse saved herself.
It is in this way that true offerings, the practice of the teachings, should be transferred. We are bound by such a strong connection with the spirits of our ancestors. On the other hand, from the view point of Maudgalyayana, seeing her mother suffering was the trigger that enabled him to practice with more dedication and seriousness. Therefore, he is grateful to his mother for bringing him up, and he so much appreciate to her for guiding him in Bodhisattva practice with all her heart. This relationship appears to be the same as our relationship with our ancestors. Whatever life they lived, each of them lived it to the fullest in the environment they were given. They have entrusted us with what they have failed to accomplish and what they could not do before their passing. In a way, we can say that the baton of life has been passed on to us, in which there are a means we must fulfill and the solutions to our suffering, which will help us to clarify the goals of our practice. Simply, we are now living and practicing together with our ancestors. We understand that our awakening to the Buddha nature brings liberation of our ancestors by the true offering. It is such a dynamic development beyond time.
What I have described above is only an interpretation based on my limited knowledge of the Lotus Sutra. Furthermore, these things are not written in any guide of the Ullanbana Sutra. However, there are many ceremonies related to ancestral offerings in our Sangha community including the Higan-e festival in spring and fall, as well as the Ura-bon festival. Adding, each family hold the memorial services for ancestors regularly, and reading the posthumous names in daily Sutra-recitation practice in morning and evening. If through these practices of ancestor veneration, we can awaken to our own Buddha nature and become capable of revering the Buddha nature of others, then there is no other more powerful skillful means to achieve the supreme perfect awakening.
The Founder's foremost wish to expound the spirits of the Lotus Sutra， which is a scripture that is the basis of our faith innately, to the world. I feel that ancestor veneration is an indispensable means of achieving this goal. This is because, if the view point that everything is Buddha nature applies to deceased people as well, then revering the Buddha nature for them will have the great power to transform the spirits not only this world, but also the past and even the future world.
Currently, each Dharma center in U.S. has begun efforts to localize (customize) its missionary activities in cooperation with RKI of the HQs. I believe that the ancestor veneration, which should be called the traditional religious practices of the organization, are virtues that should be cherished even in countries and regions where such practices had not been observed before. In fact, here in Los Angeles, there are a few numbers of people who appreciate this tradition, I have rarely heard any negative opinions about it. Through the power of the Sangha, we hope to disseminate the spirit of gratitude for the gift of life through the services of ancestor veneration to as many people as possible.
Rev. Hiroyasu Hosoyama
Minister of Los Angeles