The 73rd Annual Monterey Peninsula Obon Festival at Seaside’s Buddhist Temple of the Monterey Peninsula spilled a bounty of Japanese culture on the afternoon of July 14. If you missed it, the Salinas Obon Festival this Sunday proffers a similar mix: a tea ceremony, martial arts demos, a tour, ikebana flowers, Japanese dance, karaoke, food, games and crafts, jewelry and taiko.
Pay special attention to the tour (1:30pm) and obon service (5pm), because the 95-year-old Buddhist Temple of Salinas is unveiling its recently restored golden altar. Larry Hirahara, a member of the temple, says parts of the altar were beginning to show wear and oxidation.
“After our Obon Festival 2018, the altar was dismantled and packed for ocean freight shipment to Japan,” he says. “We contracted with the Wakabayashi Butsugu Company to complete the restoration. The company was established in 1830 and specializes in Buddhist altars of all sects.”
They restored it a few years ahead of the temple’s 100th anniversary because the number of Japanese artisans who could do it is dwindling. It was returned and installed on July 5. The altar is a resplendent thing to behold – shiny, colorful, ornate and with some mystery to the uninitiated eye. Hirahara provided literature to unravel some of that mystery.
A Buddhist temple has two areas: the outer seating (gejin) area, and the inner altar (naijin) where rituals are set. The altars follow design traditions set by Japan’s Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-Ha school of Pure Land Buddhism.
Within the altar is an image or statuette of the Amida Buddha, or a myogo scroll with Chinese characters inscribed on it (Salinas’ temple has a statuette). Those are housed in an ornate structure called a kuden, which resembles a Japanese palace, painted gold to represent purity, virtue and merit, while dragons, peacocks, elephants and lions represent Buddha’s power, truth and majesty.
Necklace-like ornaments hang from the kuden roof, representing noble deeds; lamps provide disciples to, figuratively speaking, avoid killing insects while traveling at night. Candles represent Buddha’s wisdom “which illuminates the ignorance of human beings.”
Every object signifies some aspect of Buddhist teaching, its ideas made visible and tangible. It’s a poignant symbol in the midst of Chinatown’s disrepair just outside of the temple gates, a light in a troubled neighborhood.