Obon’s Note

Why do we offer a toba?


I will speak about a letter that is written by St. Nichiren about the merit of making a handwritten copy of the Lotus Sutra.

In the letter there is a story from ancient China.

There was a person by the name of Uryu, who was the foremost calligrapher in ancient China. For some reason Uryu hated Buddhism. That is why although he was a calligrapher, he did not do calligraphy of Buddhist sutras. At the time of his death, he left these words to his son, Iryu. “In calligraphy, you will probably surpass me. However, no matter who may ask you, it is only the Lotus Sutra that you must never write.”

In those days, in China, there was a king by the name of Shiba. The king believed in Buddhism and he was particularly an earnest believer of the Lotus Sutra. That is why is ordered Iryu, the famous calligrapher, to hand copy the Lotus Sutra for him as his personal sutra. Iryu declined the king’s request because of his father’s last words. Having no other choice, the king asked another calligrapher to hand copy the sutra. Nevertheless, the king was not satisfied and he again summoned Iryu.

The king would not make an unreasonable request if the last words of Iryu’s father were not to do so. Yet he ordered Iryu to at least write the title (daimoku) of part 1 to 8 of the Lotus Sutra. Iryu had to obey the king’s command. If he refused, he would be executed. Therefore, while apologizing to his father for being undutiful, he hand copied only the Lotus Sutra’s title. After he finished, to apologize to his father, he sat for three days before his father’s grave and fasted.

On the third day of Iryu’s fasting, when he was about to lose consciousness, an angel with many attendants appeared before him. The angel said to him, “I am your father, Uryu. During my lifetime I believed that Buddhism was an enemy and because I particularly disliked the Lotus Sutra, I fell into hell and suffered. I regretted that I had left you those last words but I could not communicate this to you. However, thanks to your writing of the title of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha appeared before me, saved me and guided me to the Pure Land. Thank you. I wish to tell you of my joy. Iryu reported his experience to the king and the king too was most delighted.

Just as St. Nichiren tells us in this happening in ancient China, there is great benefit from just writing the title of the Lotus Sutra on paper. That is why on the tobas, which you have ordered, the title of the Lotus Sutra is written with large characters. If any of your ancestors is suffering somewhere, they will be saved by the light of the characters.

What I am saying may not be scientific, but within such a Bon service as today’s, which has continued for several hundreds of years, there is deep meaning that cannot be proven by science. If there were no meaning, the service would not have continued for so long.

Therefore let us believe that our action of attending this service and making these offerings is becoming the joy of our ancestors. And we must not forget that our ancestors’ joy returns to us as our own happiness.

Written by Rev. Takamasa Yamamura, based on the teaching of Rev. Teinyo Kunugi Translated by Mr. Dean Makinodan