Aging Watsonville Buddhists dance for the dead

Sunday evening as they celebrate the annual Obon festival. (Kevin Johnson — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
By Ryan Masters, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Dancers cross under colorful lanterns as they perform during the Obon festival at the Watsonville Buddhist Temple on Sunday. (Kevin Johnson — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
With superhuman sight, the great Buddhist disciple Moggalana saw his deceased mother suffering in hell because of her past selfish acts. When Shakamuni Buddha saw how sad this made Moggalana, he took compassion and instructed his disciples to enter a period of prayer and meditation.

After 90 straight days, Buddha instructed Moggalana to make an offering to these monks for the sake of his mother and the previous seven generations of parents. To save his mother and all other beings from the agonies of hell, Moggalana and his disciples were then commanded to hold an annual service in mid-July for all those who passed before them.

And so it is that on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, hundreds gathered for the annual Obon Festival at the Watsonville Buddhist Temple. They came to dance for joy, to honor ancestors, to celebrate a spiritual release from hell, and to eat.

“Obon is to extend our appreciation to our ancestors who have passed away,” said the temple’s minister, Rev. Shousei Hanayama. “They come to check to see if their descendants are happy so we show them we are by dancing.”

Obon has been celebrated in Watsonville for over a century, yet this year’s festival drew far fewer than in the past. The dwindling numbers represent a trend, said Watsonville resident and festival chairman Gerry Kondo.

“It’s hot today and there are other events, but the fact is our congregation is getting smaller and smaller,” he said.

Kondo, who has been involved with the temple for over 30 years, said there are fewer active Buddhists in the region than in previous generations.

“We’re an agricultural community and a lot of our kids are moving away because they don’t want to be farmers,” he said. “There used to be 300 to 400 families in our temple. I’d say we’re down in the low hundreds now.”

According to Kondo, temples in the region try to support one another’s festivals.

“People from the Monterey and Salinas temples come here and vice-versa,” he said. “That is why we schedule our Obon on different weekends.”

Despite the turnout, Sunday’s festival drew plenty for music by Kyle Abbott, Marino Kai and Watsonville Taiko.

At 4 p.m., the Obon dance began. Dressed in aqua blue, dancers circled up on a short track drawn with chalk around the red pagoda stage. Mostly elderly, they stood in the heat, poised to dance in their separate lanes.

As the music for the dance “Obon No Uta” rang tinnily from the public address speakers and the men and women of the Watsonville Buddhist Temple danced to honor the dead, a cool breeze blew through the courtyard.



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