Thursday, August 16, 2007
Celebrating the Urabon Festival and Toronagashi
The Urabon or Bon Festival is a Buddhist festival that is celebrated in the middle of August in Japan. Like the ancient European festival of Samhain at the end of October, it is believed that during this time the spirits of the ancestors return to this world in order to visit their families. It is said that the iron pot of hell is opened to allow the dead to return to this world.
Lanterns are placed in front of houses in order to guide the ancestors to their homes. Dances known as bon odori are performed, graves are visited and offerings of food are made both at temples and at altars in the home.
The food offerings are an integral part of the rituals and include rice, vegetables, fruits, cakes, sweets and flowers. Special foods are served to visitors as well.
The festival culminates usually with a very touching and dramatic ceremony known as Toronagashi wherein floating lanterns are placed in the waters of streams, lakes and/or the ocean in order to guide the ancestor spirits back to their world.
Unable to travel to Japan to participate or witness this festival, I was overjoyed when I was able to participate in it virtually in Second Life. Last night was the night of the Toronagashi, the final ritual of the festival.
Arriving at the virtual Japanese sim of Amatsu Mitsukai at twilight, I overheard a woman weeping as she told her companion about the recent death of a loved one. At the landing place, billboards advertised traditional food offerings and a rickshaw offered a tour of the area.
We walked instead through a mall containing a number of Japanese shops that sold clothing, weapons and other items to reach a rather imposing building with a notice welcoming visitors. Inside were beautifully apportioned rooms with paintings on the walls. One had to pass through the house to reach the gardens.
The gardens were breathtaking, featuring an elegant gazebo and a traditional arched bridge leading to the edge of the water. A small stream flowed from a mountaintop and it was there that the Toronagashi ceremony took place.
A notice next to the stream invited visitors to say a prayer for the dead before launching a paper boat into the water. As the sun set over the sea and colourful birds swooped down over the brilliantly-coloured trees and plants, I actually began to believe that I was in Japan again. As I said a prayer for my father before launching the first boat, I realised that the prayer as well as the ritual was very real. I understood very well why the woman had been weeping...
A ceremony of commemoration like this always carries an element of mourning and sorrow, but with the bittersweet remembrance of our loved ones is a benediction of peace.
I felt privileged to be able to participate in a Toronagashi ceremony, even if only in a virtual Japanese setting in Second Life. It was a magical experience I shall not forget and I wonder if it would have been any more significant to me in Japan. After all, part of the value of any experience is what we ourselves bring to it.
Incidentally, traditional geisha training is given at Amatsu Mitsukai. I met a talented artist named Pop Handrick who is studying to be a geisha. At present, she is only Shikomi. One of the many lessons taught is humility. It is interesting to see how different individuals respond to the possibilities that exist in Second Life. For some, SL is an opportunity to be masters or mistresses of their own destiny. For others, true satisfaction is found in obedience and humility. Of course, it is not as simple as that for any one. All human beings are multi-faceted and part of the attraction of Second Life is the ability to shapeshift at will.