Orange County Buddhist Church Honors Ancestors With Annual Obon Festival

Taiko drummers. All photos by Brian Feinzimer

When the Orange County Buddhist Church plays host to the Obon festival this weekend, it’s a time to reflect on the impermanence of life. The centuries-old Japanese custom remembers ancestors that came before us through bon odori, an immersive dance celebrating the teachings of the Buddha. The parking lot of the Shin Buddhist temple in Anaheim is where hundreds congregate at dusk and sway with movements meant to mimic the village livelihoods of farmers, fishermen and miners. 

“In Buddhism, death is considered to be part of life,” Reverend Jon Turner says. “It’s difficult as a reality of life and hopefully it intensifies one’s experience of one’s own life. Obon is an awareness and gratitude practice to appreciate what brought you here.” 

The festival, with food, games and music, has been central to church life since OCBC first started in 1965. Turner attended with intrigue in 1997. At the time, his wife needed to write a report for a cultural diversity class in her teaching credential program, but with both having a budding interest in Buddhism, Obon became much more than homework. “We picked up on the feeling of the temple and found it inviting,” Turner says. Two years later, they returned to OCBC for services. “We became practicing Buddhists from then on.” 

In honoring ancestors during Obon, observers often build altars in their home with offerings of food. The parallels to the Mexican celebration of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) are too striking to go unnoticed. “There’s an overlap and we use the movie Coco in our services,” Turner says. “It’s been a really great way for Buddhists to interact with this idea of honoring the dead and that death is part of life.” The OCBC has been invited to represent Buddhism at the local Day of the Dead festivals. 

Looks delicious! 

In turn, this Saturday and Sunday marks an opportunity for the greater community to learn about Obon and Buddhism. The OCBC celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015, but this weekend marks the first festival since the completion of its ambitious $9.5 million reconstruction project. The Hondo, the temple’s sanctuary, opened last October and shimmers with gold leaf majesty. It’ll be open for any interested festival goers to view and ask questions about Buddhism. 

“I lived in Orange County for over 30 years and I never had heard of the Orange County Buddhist Church,” Turner says. “Most people would be surprised to know that there’s a thriving Buddhist community at the church. A lot of Buddhism is hiding in plain sight.” 

It will be hard to miss the crowds gathered for the Obon festival as the OCBC expects 1,000 people each day. It’s a big fundraiser for the church and an even bigger opportunity for community outreach. The celebration includes food–and lots of it. Booths will serve up homemade udon, sushi, teriyaki, wontons, and teriyaki plates. 

But the main draw is bon odori, the dance to Japanese folk music that brings the masses together. 

“By dancing in public in a group, you have to leave your ego at the door and not be self-conscious,” Turner says. “The lanterns are on, the music plays; it’s an amazing thing.”

Obon Festival at Orange County Buddhist Church, 909 South Dale Avenue, Anaheim, Sat. 2 p.m. – 9 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Free. Parking and shuttle service available at Magnolia High School.

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