Attenuation of Ethnicity

Picture from the West L.A. Buddhist Temple Obon Festival 2007

I have been attending the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival for many years now, going back to the 1970s. Now Martine joins me and takes as much pleasure in the festivities as I do.

One thing that both of us noticed was that the festival was less Japanese. It was also not so well attended, and most of the dancers wore ordinary casual clothes. Only a few of the men and women wore kimonos, where in the past most of the participants were more traditionally dressed.

As a Hungarian-American who was born in a rich ethnic tradition in a Hungarian neighborhood in Cleveland, I am constantly aware that our ethnic traditions are being gradually attenuated over time. When I first came to L.A., there were a number of Hungarian restaurants. Now the count is down to zero. The same thing is happening to other ethnicities, such as the Japanese and even the Mexicans.

I suppose it is only natural that over time we are becoming more homogeneous. Even though the Obon Festival was a bit less Japanese, those of us who were present enjoyed it nonetheless. The Men’s Club udon noodle soup was delicious: This year it even had fish cakes with the barbecued pork.

In a way, one of the reasons I am no longer interested in belonging to a Hungarian group is that, in the long run, it will inevitably become a shadow of what it once was. If there are no Hungarian restaurants in town, I have some old Hungarian cookbooks and can make the dishes myself.



Dancing to Welcome the Spirits of the Dead

West L.A. Obon Festival Eleven Years Ago

I have been attending the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple’s Obon Festival for more than forty years now, and today was no exception. I chowed down on the Men’s Club udon soup—two bowls, no less!—and sat with Martine to watch the cheerful dances in which the spirits of the dead were welcomed. As usual, all he participants seemed to be having a great time. One nice thing about this festival is that all are welcome, regardless of race, color, or creed.

This time, I neglected to bring my camera, so I am sharing with you a picture I took in 2006. The same tall Japanese Obon dancer was there today, looking not much older than he did eleven years ago.

Poster for the Festival We Attended

Although I have not done it in over fifty years, some day I will attend one of the West L.A. Buddhist Temple’s services. I should, inasmuch as the Temple has played such a benign part in my life over so long a period of time.

Dancing for the Dead

Two Little Girls in Kimonos Dancing to Honor Their Ancestors

Two Little Girls in Kimonos Dancing to Honor Their Ancestors

This last weekend, as in most years, Martine and I attended the Obon Festival at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. It is a joyous affair, especially when one considers all the dancing is to honor one’s ancestors who have passed on to the other side. According to Japan-Guide.Com:

Obon is an annual Buddhist event for commemorating one’s ancestors. It is believed that each year during obon, the ancestors’ spirits return to this world in order to visit their relatives.

Traditionally, lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the ancestors’ spirits, obon dances (bon odori) are performed, graves are visited and food offerings are made at house altars and temples.

In West L.A., aside from services in the temple, which we didn’t attend, most of the festivities revolve around good eating and the traditional bon odori dances. Present were Japanese from over a dozen nearby Buddhist temples from as far away as Oakland and Visalia. Many Japanese go from one temple to the other during the multi-week Obon celebrations. As separated old friends from different areas greet one another, it adds to the gaiety of the dancing.

As I have written before, my favorite food item is the pork udon noodle soup on which I sprinkle some Shichimi Togarashi, a Japanese red chili powder with black sesame seeds and various herbs and spices.

Goes Great with Udon Soup!

Goes Great with Udon Soup!

In all, I had two bowls of the stuff, which made me feel downright good about my ancestors and happy to be there at the Obon festival. I hope to continue going until such time as I join my own ancestors.


Thanking the Dead

Bon Dancers in West L.A.

Bon Dancers in West L.A.

This is not something that Christians are likely to do, but it has ben an integral part of Japanese Mahayana Buddhist practice since the Seventh Century. It is a belief that the disembodied spirits of the dead return to Earth to visit around July and August. According to the Rev. Patti Usuki of the West L.A. Hongwanji:

Obon season is a time to express our gratitude to loved ones who have passed on before us. Without them, we would not be who we are today, due to the basic tenet of interdependence. We would not be where we are and we would not be able to do the things we do to enjoy life. Just think about the number of people involved in creating each of us. If we go back just thirty generations, we can calculate that there were over two billion parents, starting with our two parents, their four parents, and so on—and that’s just the physical part.

So on different weekends during July and August, the many members of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism travel to the different Hongwanjis in Southern California and do the traditional bon dances. Represented yesterday at the West L.A. Buddhist Temple were parishioners from  Venice, Sun Valley, San Fernando Valley, Senshin (Downtown L.A.), Pasadena, and even from as far away as Ventura, Orange, and Santa Barbara counties.

The Men’s Club Prize Pork Udon Soup

The Men’s Club Prize Pork Udon Soup

Of course, dancing is not the only draw. My favorite food on offer there is the Men’s Club’s Pork Udon Soup, seasoned with spicy Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese chili powder). Another favorite is the blueberry imagawayaki, which is like a hand-held blueberry pancake with extra blueberries. Martine, as usual, went for the teriyaki chicken.

The combination of good food, colorful kimonos, and enthusiastic dancers on a pleasant summer evening made for a good time.