The crowd participating with performers on the yagura [Image: Courtesy of the Las Vegas Buddhist Sangha]

Las Vegas Buddhist Sangha Celebrates 34th Annual Obon Festival

Japan Asia

After two years of virtual celebrations, the Las Vegas Buddhist Sangha returns to an in-person Obon Festival with large cultural displays to remember and honor their ancestors.

For the Buddhist Sangha in Las Vegas, Nevada, the summer months are more than just a time to stay out of the heat. It is also a time to commemorate one’s ancestors by taking part in the yearly Obon Festival.

In Japan, the Obon Festival is one of the largest celebrations of the year and typically lasts for three days. Many Buddhists believe that their ancestor’s spirits temporarily return to the world to visit their relatives during Obon, making it a time for family reunions as they come together to honor the dead.

Celebrated on June 24th, 2023, the Las Vegas Buddha Sangha (LVBS) held the 34th annual Obon festival and made a return to in-person celebrations after two years of virtual activities. The LVBS is part of the Jodo Shin Buddhist sect of Mahayana Buddhism and affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). “Sangha” means community in Sanskrit, and the LVBS brought together many different Buddhist communities from across the Southwest region for the Obon Festival, including the Orange County Buddhist Church, Oxnard Buddhist Temple, and Salt Lake Temple, among others.

This year’s proceedings highlighted many joyful cultural displays, including Bon Odori dancing, taiko drum performances, “kupuna” hula dances, Tahitian dances, Okinawan dances, and more. These showcases reflected the new identity that the Buddhist community in America has taken on as a result of its permeation into ethnic communities in Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. Event Chairperson Wayne Tanaka, in a statement to East-West Center Young Professional Cecilia Winchell, remarked that, “Our music has been evolving with the times to include a Latino beat, a jazzier rhythm but also [includes] the traditional Japanese ‘Tanko Bushi,’ the coal miner’s dance.”

Taiko drum performance
Taiko drum performance [Image: Courtesy of the Las Vegas Buddhist Sangha]

Entry into the event was free of charge and open to all ages, leading to hundreds of families joining in from all over the Southwest region. The festivities were accompanied by many sale items including bento boxes, sushi, ikebana, and a crafts fair featuring a number of local artisans.

Obon Festival crafts fair
Items on display at the crafts fair [Image: Courtesy of the Las Vegas Buddhist Sangha]

Also in attendance were Honorary Consul General of Japan Kathleen Blakely and Bishop Marvin Harvada of the BCA to recognize the LVBS for its outstanding contributions to the local community. The history of the LVBS stretches back to 1984, and the organization continues to be an important pillar within the Las Vegas community, providing a place where cultural traditions can be remembered and celebrated.

As cultural traditions move through space and time, they evolve and take on new forms in addition to the old. The Obon Festival itself is rooted in remembrance, but it has also become a way of showcasing the cross-cultural bonds that have been formed in America and are nurtured in the Las Vegas community. “[Through] the years, our children have become biracial, multi-ethnic, children of the world. Shouldn’t they understand all cultures, religions, and people?” asks Chairperson Tanaka. For this reason, there is nothing quite like celebrating Obon in Las Vegas.

Cecilia Winchell is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a recent graduate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas with a major in Philosophy and a minor in Public Policy.