Around the vernal equinox, “Ohigan in spring”, it’s the days to visit to a grave in Japan

仏教(ぶっきょう): Buddhism

Japanese article is here; https://japaneselanguagesalonbymikapanda.com/haru-ohigan-633

At first; why do we do that in these days?

Hello, this is MIKA!

As usual, we have the warm days over 20℃ after the vernal equinox around Tokyo. However, it’s already summer rather than spring!

In Japan, we have this phrease; “暑(あつ)さ寒(さむ)さも彼岸(ひがん)まで”. It means ” Hot days in summer will have been continued until the autumnal equinox, and cold days in winter will have been continued until the vernal equinox.”

By the way, “Autumnal equinox” is “秋分(しゅうぶん)” , and “Vernal equinox” is “春分(しゅんぶん)” in Japanese. Then, what is “彼岸”?

“彼岸” is “The other world after the death” in Buddhism. But it means “Autumnal equinox” or “Vernal equinox” in the phrase.

Because they are the days when this world will be the closest to the other world in Buddhist concept.

On these days, Sun rises from due east and sets to due west. Buddhists believe there is “極楽浄土(ごくらくじょうど)”, the heaven of Buddhism in the west. That’s why they think Sun connects this world and the other world on these days.

By this reason, the week around “Vernal equinox” and “Autumnal equinox” are the days for visiting to a grave in Japan.

About Japanese graves

The appearance of Japanese graves

Anyway, do you have the habit to visit graves in your country?

And, how about their appearance?

For example, in the case of Christian countries, the cross is engraved on the gravestone like the picture or it’s put on that.

In Japan, it’s the general style. Under the gravestone, there are remains after the cremation.

If there is the phrase like “先祖(せんぞ)代々(だいだい)之(の)墓” or “〇〇家(け)之墓” on the gravestone shaped as a rectangular solid, it’s Buddhism style.

“先祖代々之墓” means “The grave of our ancestors”, and “〇〇家之墓” menas “The grave of 〇〇 family”.

And, if there is the phrase like “〇〇家之奥津城(おくつき)” or “〇〇家之奥都城(おくつき)”, it’s Shintonism style. However, I’ve never seen that.

But most of Japanese are without religion, so there are many gravestones with free style recently. Also we have various ways for the funeral and burial not to be a slave to Buddhism style as well.

In addition, there is a burial ground in temples, but not in shrines. Because “Death” is uncleanness in Shinto, we can’t bury in precincts of shrines.

The manners of visiting to a grave

When you visit a grave, worship with folded hands and clean the gravestone and around it. After that, put “仏花(ぶっか)”, the flowers for the deceaseds like a chrysanthemum in the flower vase and some kinds of snacks and drinks in front of the gravestone as the offerings.

The reason why we put the flowers is for the hope the deceaseds can go to the heaven through hard ascetic practices like the flowers blooming under the hard nature.

Next, set fire to incense sticks to put there. There are some reasons to do that; because the deceaseds eat a fragrance, because an incense stick has the power to clean up not only our mind and body but also that place.

Additionally, when we always fan by our hand to put out the fire. The reason why is we think a breath of humans is dirty.

After that, put some water on the gravestone with “柄杓(ひしゃく)”, ladle in English. We do that to notice our visiting to the deceaseds, clean up the gravestone, and to appease their thirst.

Finally we worship with folded hands again and bow the head with closed eyes. We pray for the repose of their soul, say thanks and tell our recent state in our mind.

It’s all about Japanese manner for visiting to a grave.

Grave in burial ground, “Butsudan” at home

At my parent’s home, there is “仏壇(ぶつだん)”, family Buddhist altar like the picture.

“仏壇(ぶつだん)” is the alter to think of the deceaseds at home. We think there is the soul of the deceaseds’ body in the grave, and there is the soul of their mind in “仏壇(ぶつだん)”.

At the center of that, there is “本尊(ほんぞん)”, the principal image in each denomination of Buddhism. Also we put mortuary tablets, flower vases, an incense burner, a candlestick and an incense holder.

In addition, there is “仏飯器(ぶっぱんき)”; the bowl to put cooked rice, “茶湯器(ちゃとうき)”; the cup to put water or tea, “仏器膳(ぶっきぜん)”; the tray to bring that bowl and cup, and finally “高杯(たかつき)”; the plate to put offerings like some snacks.

When we pray for the deceaseds in front of the alter, light a candle at first to set a fire to the top of incense stick. After smoke rises, put it on the incense holder. Next, strike to “りん”, a metal equipment with the stick called “りん棒(ぼう)”, and worship with folded hands and bow the head with closed eyes.

The reason why we make a sound by doing that is to drive out evils and bring our mind for the repose of their souls with that beautiful sound.

And then, also we fan by our hand to put out the fire of the candle, not with our breath.

By the way, there is the alter at my mother’s parents’ home even though they are members of no religion. They put the principal image, mortuary tablets and others on the alter and their portrait around there.

They can use the alter with no religion, because there aren’t some strict rules for religions basically in Japan, originally we have the faith for our ancestors of Shintonism, and finally we call deceaseds as “仏(ほとけ)様(さま)”, it means “Saint like Buddha”.

*For more information about the faith for our ancestors of Shintonism; https://japaneselanguagesalonbymikapanda.com/what-is-shinto-vol-3-137

Why do we call them as “仏様”? Because the goal of dead persons is to be a “Saint like Buddha”.

To be a “仏様”, it menas “To Go to the heaven by attaining spiritual enlightenment”. For this goal, dead persons repeat the dead and rebirth to strive after virtue as their ascetic practices; this is the opinion on life and death of Buddhism.

It has the same reason why dead victims are called “仏(ほとけ)” in Japanese detective drama and so on.

“Botamochi” in spring, “Ohagi” in autumn

Finally I’ll introduce you the synonym of “お彼岸”; “牡丹餅(ぼたもち)” and “御萩(おはぎ)”.

“牡丹餅(ぼたもち)” and “御萩(おはぎ)”, they are Japanese sweets covering a rice cake with sweet bean paste. “牡丹餅(ぼたもち)” is the name for the vernal equinox, and “御萩(おはぎ)” is the name for the autumnal equinox; however, they are completely the same things!

【Flowers of peony, “牡丹(ぼたん)” in Japanese】

We call it “牡丹餅(ぼたもち)”, because flowers of peony bloom in spring. We call it “御萩(おはぎ)”, because flowers of Japanese bush clover bloom in autumn.

【Flowers of Japanese bush clover, “萩(はぎ)” in Japanese

Also there are the reasons to take them on their food stuffs. First, an adzuki-bean has the power of exorcism. Second, a rice cake is the symbol of bumper crop.

In the ancient era when sweets were very expensive, they were too precious to take without special cases like some celebrations and seasonal events. They were offerings for the guests at first, and now they are for the ancestors in the grave.

Before the vernal or autumnal equinox, we often see them at the store of Japanese sweets and supermarkets. Some of them are covering sweet bean paste with a rice cake and sprinkle soybean flour on that. 

When you have a chance, try to take it!

Final comment

How was it?

This time, I’ve told you the reason why we visit to a grave on the days around vernal and autumnal equinox, and the ways how to hold a memorial service.

Even though Japanese have the faith of Shinto originally and most of us are members of no religion, it turns out that we’re influenced by Buddhist concept strongly.

Perhaps you have a chance to visit to a grave or pray for “仏壇” in the future. At that time, remember the detials of this article!

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