Honoring Ancestors in the Buddhist Culture: Japan’s Obon Festival

An annual Japanese Buddhist festival that honors the spirits of beloved family members who have died
floating lanterns on river, obon festival

Credit: markystar.wordpress.com

Every year, Buddhists in Japan celebrate the custom of the Obon (or Bon) festival as a way to honor the spirits of beloved family members who have died. This Buddhist custom has influences from Confucianism as well. So how do practicing Japanese Buddhists honor the spirits of their beloved ancestors? Families reunite and travel together to pay visits to the ancestral family sites and clean the graves of their beloved family members who have died. Families also expect their ancestors to make their own visits to the altars set up in the family homes.

Families reunite and travel together to pay visits to the ancestral family sites and clean the graves of their beloved family members who have died.

Although this three-day festival has been celebrated for more than 500 years in Japan, the starting date varies depending on what region of Japan one lives in.  This all dates back to when the official calendar for Japan switched from the lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Eastern Japan, including Tokyo, celebrates “Shichigatsu Bon,” which means Obon is celebrated on July 15th.  The most common time to celebrate Obon is on August 15th and is called “Hachigatsu Bon.” Lastly, people living in the northern part of Japan celebrate Obon as “Kyu Bon,” where the date is based on the lunar calendar and varies each year. Japan does not recognize Obon as a public holiday. It is standard, however, for people who celebrate to get approved time off from work obligations.

Therefore, the festival serves as a form of release for their grief as well as the suffering and anguish they believe the spirits of their ancestors are experiencing.

The meaning of Obon comes from the Sanskrit word of “Ullambana,” which means “hanging upside down”—supposedly symbolizing great suffering. Therefore, the festival serves as a form of release for grief as well as the suffering and anguish that many believe the spirits of their ancestors are experiencing.

Bon Odori dancers, Japanese Obon Festival

Credit: Wikipedia

Similar to how people in New Orleans celebrate those who have died with a funeral filled with jazz music and dancing, the Japanese who participate in the Obon Festival celebrate the return of their beloved ancestors with their own dance called Bon Odori. The origin of this dance stems from the story of how one of Buddha’s disciples, upon seeing his dead mother suffering after having fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, asked Buddha what could be done to remedy the situation. After making offerings to Buddhist monks, as Buddha told him to, the disciple’s mother was released and he danced out of pure joy and gratitude, hence the tradition of dancing was born. The type of dancing used to be strictly folk dancing that would celebrate the arrival of the spirits of the beloved ancestors. Nowadays, every region has a dance unique to them and the music varies in everything from specific songs about the spiritual meanings of Obon to local folk songs.

Lanterns floating on river during Obon Festival

Credit: Wikipedia

In addition to the joyous dancing and family bonding that happens during Obon, it can be quite common for big carnivals with rides and games to occur. The concluding event of the Obon festival involves the floating of illuminated paper lanterns down rivers as a representation for the spirits of the beloved ancestors’ departures from their families and back to where they reside after death, which is known as “Toro Nagashi.”

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How Can the Elderly Keep Their Independence?

This Sandwich Generation Month, we look at Personal Emergency Response Systems for aging parents
Sandwich Generation Month

Credit: dietitians-online.blogspot.com

July is Sandwich Generation Month, a time for us to celebrate the dedication and loving kindness of adults who are currently taking care of both their children and their parents. Imagine the pressures they must deal with every day — as well as the fear and anxiety they must live with when they consider the declining health of their aging parents. Perhaps Mom or Dad insists on living independently, but they want to make sure he or she is safe. What options are there? How can parents maintain their independence while making sure they’re okay?

In honor of Sandwich Generation Month, we’d like to discuss the various forms of Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS), their benefits and shortcomings, and how you might go about choosing the right system for your loved one. Although recent systems have become steadily more elaborate, the traditional design includes two simple parts: a console that plugs into the telephone and a pendant worn around the wrist or neck. Ideally, it would never be used, but in the event of any medical emergency, your loved one would simply press the button on the console or pendant to connect to an emergency medical dispatcher.

“Imagine the pressures they must deal with every day — as well as the fear and anxiety they must live with when when they consider the declining health of their aging parents.”

auto-fall-alert-personal-emergency-response-systems

Credit: Auto Fall Alert Detection by Philips Lifeline

Other more elaborate services provide more comprehensive behavior tracking devices to ensure that your loved one or you will be taken care of. Recent developments in the use of accelerometers and gyroscopes have led to automated response systems. Sensors in these devices can tell when your loved one has taken a hard fall. However, these are often significantly more expensive than typical PERS options and have been criticized for their inaccuracy — which could lead to unwanted and often embarrassing false alarms. But the technology has been improving and, according to Medical Alert Device, 80% of users have no false alarms per month, and 90% have one or fewer.

Companies like Lively offer even more comprehensive services by placing sensors throughout your loved one’s house. With a sensor on the fridge, on the front door or attached to a medicine box, your loved one can assure you of his or her safety without having to think about it. These sensors send an activity report through the mail to you or whomever your loved one designates, letting you know when he or she opens the door, goes outside, gets something to eat or takes his or her medicine. To some readers, the idea of people knowing what you’re doing at any point in the day may sound a bit creepy. But for some, it may be necessary, such as with people suffering from dementia — or others who simply get a little forgetful when it comes to taking care of themselves.

Screen shot 2014-07-29 at 7.24.10 PM

Credit: Examples of Lively sensor fob attached to keychain and sensor attached to movable everyday object.

“Ideally, they would never be used, but in the event of any medical emergency, your loved one would simply press the button on the console or pendant to connect to an emergency medical dispatcher.”

These few examples capture only a glimpse of a massive market with numberless features and gadgets. Because of all the companies and services out there, it’s important that you know what qualities to look for. Here’s a short list of some key aspects you’d want in a PERS:

1. Waterproof. Many falls happen in the shower.

2. Comfortable. If your loved one is going to be carrying a device all the time, it better not be a hassle.

3. Easy to use. A PERS is pointless if your loved one doesn’t know how to use it.

4. Notifications when it’s low on batteries. Since the PERS may one day save your loved one’s life, it must always be charged and ready to go.

Of course there are certainly several other important aspects to a good PERS, and we encourage you to talk to doctors and nurses, to providers in your area, to your friends and family — and especially to your loved one. Research is your best ally in securing your loved one’s safety.

But we should remember that an emergency system, though perhaps necessary in certain circumstances, is no replacement for the warmth and care of a person. Though we may not always be there for our loved ones, we must do our best to be present as much as possible, even if we must rely on some help from these PERS services. Of course, baby boomers know this better than anyone. Here at the end of Sandwich Generation Month, it’s still not too late to call your mother or daughter, father or son, and express your appreciation for him or her and all the caring and responsibility he or she has taken on in their adulthood.

What are your experiences with medical alert systems? We look forward to your comments below.

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Memorial Music: “Heartbeats” Cover by José González

José González's pensive tune is the perfect memorial song for a significant other
Jose Gonzalez, Heartbeats, Jose Gonzalez pic, Gothenburg, Gothenburg music, memorial song

Credit: emptykingdom.com

There’s something wonderfully enigmatic when it comes to Swedish artist José González (if only for the dot connecting between his Argentinian/Gothenburg roots). He’s got a knack for recording songs with a melancholy punch, using classical acoustics to create melodies of love and loss. And it’s exactly why his introspective cover of “Heartbeats” makes for the perfect memorial song – particularly for the loss of a spouse or significant other.

“Heartbeats” was initially an electro-pop hit by fellow Swedes “The Knife.” The lyrics begin as follows:

One night to be confused
One night to speed up truth
We had a promise made
Four hands and then away

They’re harsh words to read, but much easier to listen to. Beautiful, even. Gonzalez has taken the words of an agitated, broken heart and drawn them a bath of calming vocals and hypnotic finger-picking. We’re hearing the story of a loss, but it’s a loss softened by the introspection of time. The (abbreviated) lyrics continue:

Jose Gonzalez, Heartbeats, Heartbeats Jose Gonzalez, Heartbeats EP, Memorial music, memorial song

Credit: weheartit.com

Both under influence
We had divine scent
To know what to say
Mind is a razor blade

To call for hands of above
To lean on
Wouldn’t be good enough
For me, no

Ten days of perfect tunes
The colors red and blue
We had a promise made
We were in love

And that’s where the intelligence of Gonzalez’s cover really comes to fruition. Because where The Knife used its synth-pop style to render a line like “Mind is a razor blade” more raver than reflection, Gonzalez sings the words with so much tenderness that they come to represent a mind in solitude. After the loss of a spouse or significant other, even “hands of above” can seem an insufficient comfort. The song’s chords are responsible for balancing both acceptance and nostalgia, and must mount and fall with a practiced grace. “We were in love,” sings Gonzalez, and from the sound of his voice he still is.


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What Good Comes from Death?

Alexander Alexandrovich Blok shares his own take on the silver lining that comes with death in his poem “Don’t Fear Death”
Credit: NASA Langley Science Directorate

Credit: NASA Langley Science Directorate

If you’ve ever experienced the grief of having lost a loved one after weeks, months or even years of suffering, chances are that you are no stranger to the commonly spoken phrase “at least they are no longer suffering.” While many would agree that these words are true, the underlying idea of this message—that a friend or family member’s last moments were that of suffering—is a harsh thought to bear. While Alexander Blok’s poem “Don’t Fear Death” is a complete celebration of this mentality, the beauty in his poem extends beyond the comforting words that we are used to hearing today. It is to show us that the anxiety that we feel for our inevitable demise is universal and it can come at any time for any reason, but we cannot halt our lives for having these fears.

In Blok’s poem, the fear of death is flipped upside down as he writes, “Your death will come to you, and never/You shall be, else, a slave of life,/Just waiting for a dawn’s favor,/From nights of poverty and strife”(5-8). In the poem, his words are colored with more than just the intent of calming fear. Here death is accepted as an inevitable fate for all. We are not slaves to death, but rather, slaves to life, where the threat of ‘poverty and strife’ looms overhead.  It is important to note that this poem, which was written later in Blok’s career as the October Revolution was brewing in Russia, takes on the apocalyptic climate that many Russians were feeling at this time. The suffering that many of his countrymen felt transcends individual strife and replaced it with the pain that many felt as they struggled to get by in day-to-day living.

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

Blok’s poem extends beyond the comforting words that we are used to hearing today. It is to show us that the anxiety that we feel for our inevitable demise is universal and it can come at any time for any reason, but we cannot halt our lives for having these fears.

Compared to the suffering and fears that we all face in life, death takes on the more positive imagery of ‘dawn’s favor.’ In his final stanza, death takes the center stage as the great equalizer that can “build with you a common law,/One will of the Eternal Reign”(9-10). For his own people, taking into account the political climate of the time, death is a symbol of agency and change. Like the domino effect, the loss of one life begets the blooming of another. For many that are “slow/And everlasting deadly pain”(11-12), there is no greater hope than finding a release from conditions that cannot be changed. This grim call to action is heavily steeped in the climate from which it was born. But that leaves us with the question of whether or not the role reversal of the relationship between suffering and life and death is just as relevant today.

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates the most beautiful hearts in an ongoing celebration of love

IMG_2623_2_2Lovely Hot Summer Days

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of love in the midst of death.

The project’s origins take us to 2005: the moment Page Hodel encountered Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” The couple’s first meeting was electric, and Page felt inspired to do something unique for the woman who captured her heart. So, she began leaving handmade hearts – made from flowers, leaves, and other materials – on Madalene’s doorstep.  The hearts became a ritual, and they were there to greet Madalene as she left for work every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.” Page Hodel

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away on June 20th, 2006. But Page’s love for her hasn’t ceased, and she continues to make a heart for her every Monday in celebration of her life.

If you would like, you can also receive Page’s “Monday Hearts for Madalene” by emailing her at page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” written as the subject. Images of the hearts can also be purchased on individual cards and in her beautifully compiled book, Monday Hearts for Madelene. Please also visit her website and Facebook  page. A portion of all sales will go to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California (www.wcrc.org). See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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Before It’s “Too Late”: Seniors Share Fears Before Death

The fears and regrets of the dying expressed through an honest photo series by Steve Rosenfield
Alzeihmer's, senior citizen, fear of aging, old woman, writing on hand, memory loss

“I am not my Alzheimer’s.”
(credit: elephantjournal.com)

Steve Rosenfield is the brains behind the “What I Be” project, which is known for highlighting teens as an exploration of human identity and expression. “It’s a way to tell your story the way you want it to be told,” reads the site’s mission statement, “Oftentimes people make up stories about our lives by what they think is going on without even knowing the whole story.

hand, elderly hand, elderly man, fear of dying, regrets of the dying

“This will take forever.”
(credit: elephantjournal.com)

[You ought to] be the one to tell your story exactly how it is, not how others perceive it to be.” Sure enough, with their faces as a canvas, the goal is to have “What I Be” participants write words and sentences that best represent them. Naturally, when Rosenfield decided to highlight the thoughts and end of life fears of senior citizens, the result was one of his most moving photo series.

“It’s a way to tell your story the way you want it to be told…you should be the one to tell your story exactly how it is, not how others perceive it to be.”

What’s most remarkable about the “senior edition” of “What I Be” is its lack of preciousness rewarded by the photographer. Yes, these are senior citizens approaching very real, very frightening end of life fears – but that doesn’t reduce their strength, nor does it make them infantile. Nearing death can be equated with succumbing to a kind of fragility, but every person in this series is passionate, lively and ready to talk.

“Nearing death can be equated with succumbing to a kind of fragility, but every person in this series is passionate, lively and ready to talk.”

African American, African American man, elderly man, senior citizen, fear of death, appearance

“I’m not my appearance.”
(credit: elephantjournal.com)

“In today’s society, we are often told to look or act a certain way,” states Rosenfeld, “If we differ from these ‘standards,’ we are often judged, ridiculed, bullied and sometimes even killed over them. I started this project in hopes to open up the lines of communication, and to help everyone accept diversity with an open mind & heart and empower those who feel they suffer for something they may see as a flaw.” And one of the hardest things to bring up on the subject of lines of communication? End of life.

“Yes, these are senior citizens approaching very real, very frightening end of life fears – but that doesn’t reduce their strength, nor does it make them infantile.”

Old woman, fears before death, fears of aging, regrets before dying, memory loss, old woman

“Be more understanding.”
(credit: elephantjournal.com)

“I don’t want to get older,” “What can or can’t I do?” and “This will take forever” are just a few of the seniors’ concerns. Overall, the looks on their faces are powerful and enigmatic; there’s not a complete absence of fear in the creases of their mouths and eyelids, but there’s a sense that this is a group of people ready to confront the taboo subject of death. It’s honest; it’s unairbrushed; and most of all, it’s courageous.

View more images from Elephant Journal here.

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