A light in the darkness

Woodstock Obon festival to honor the community’s departed loved ones

by Andrea Barrist Stern
August 05, 2010 04:35 PM | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Floating lanterns celebrate the departed.
Floating lanterns celebrate the departed.
The first annual Obon festival, a Buddhist floating lantern ceremony to celebrate the lives of departed family, friends, and pets, will take place in Woodstock from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, August 13. Starting at 5 p.m. at Bliss Yoga, 6 Deming Street and ending at the swimming hole at the Tannery Brook on Millstream Road nearby, where the lanterns will be set adrift amidst group chanting. The lantern festival is free and open to the public and is being conducted as an interfaith ceremony in this ecumenical Woodstock incarnation.

“This is for people of all faiths or none at all,” said Woodstock resident and author Clark Strand, founder of the Green Meditation Society, a local group that is sponsoring the event with the Sage Center for the Healing Arts in Woodstock. “A lot of people have drifted away from the churches of their youth or the towns where they grew up and don’t have a way to honor their loved ones who have died...As we make the transition from a religious culture to a spiritual culture, there is a lot that can be lost.”

Traditionally, Obon is an ancient Japanese festival for the dead — a time to remember those who have passed away by inscribing their names on rice paper lanterns and floating them on a lake or river. In the Japanese culture, it is believed that this is a time when the dead are thought to visit family and friends, according to Strand.

“It is a time when the veil that separates this world from the world of the dead is very thin,” he said. “The floating lantern symbolizes the subliminal space between this world and that world and the fact that the dead are always with the living and the living are always with the dead.”

Strand said the ceremony can offer “tremendous strength and comfort to the living” but in Buddhist culture, it is also believed to benefit those who have died through offerings of incense and sound, which are thought to “help them on their journey.”

In Japan, the Obon festival typically lasts for three days and is celebrated in mid-August, accompanied by chanting, music, dance and seasonal foods, and culminating in a lantern festival. In the U.S., Obon events usually preserve only the lantern portion of the original festival.

A former Zen Buddhist monk and senior editor of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Strand formerly led a meditation and study group called Koans of the Bible for many years in Woodstock that evolved into the Green Meditation Society, which he described as “an ecological and ecumenical approach to Buddhist meditation.

The Obon ceremony will begin from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. with participants inscribing the rice paper lanterns with the names of departed loved ones and pets, according to Strand. There are 60 reusable lanterns available for the event and Strand said the Green Mediation Society hopes for prepare an additional 60 lanterns for next year’s ceremony. Participants are invited to leave photos of the departed on the altar set up for the event and will be asked to return after dinner at 6:30 p.m. when Strand will give a short talk on the meaning of Obon and lead a Buddhist chant as the lanterns are lit. Philippe Garnier of the Sage Center for the Healing Arts will then speak about the “eternity of sound” and conduct a crystal sound meditation using crystal bowls. Cantor Robert Esformes will add an ecumenical component by giving a talk inspired loosely by Jewish tradition and offering a sacred chant for the dead.

At about 8:15 p.m., the participants will begin a silent procession carrying their lanterns to the Millstream by way of Tinker Street and Tannery Brook Road. At the swimming hole, volunteers will pass the lanterns down to the stream where they will be set adrift in the water. Strand will lead the group in a Buddhist chant based on the True Land Buddhist tradition. (In Pure Land Buddhist thought, enlightenment is considered to be difficult to achieve without the assistance of Amitabha Buddha, since people are now thought to be living in an age of decline. Instead of solitary meditative work toward enlightenment, Pure Land Buddhism teaches that devotion to Amitabha leads one to the Pure Land, where enlightenment can be more easily attained.) Esformes will also lead a chant for the dead based on the Jewish tradition.

The ceremony will conclude with an hour-long meditation for those who wish to stay, as volunteers remain on the rocks to meditate with the lanterns until it has become fully dark. At 10 p.m., the lanterns will be extinguished and saved for next year, according to Strand. Participants are advised to wear light colored clothes for safety on the roads and bring flashlights for the return trip.

Strand said he was inspired to lead a local Obon ceremony after conducting a Buddhist ceremony in May for the late Mark Rogasin, a colorful and longtime Woodstock character, who spent most of his time on the Village Green, rarely speaking but often handing out stones he had painted with the sacred Hindu Om symbol. Strand said numerous people contacted him after the Rogasin memorial to discuss the need for a local ceremony to honor the dead.

A $10 donation is requested to cover the materials for the lanterns that were made by Green Meditation Society. To reserve a lantern for the Obon ceremony, call (845) 514-0037. The Green Meditation Society meets 5:50 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday evenings at the Sage Center for the Healing Arts above Bliss Yoga on Deming Street. For more information, contact Strand at 679-9450.++

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