Thoughts on Reworking a Classic Gatha

“Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” is a classic gatha* included in the Dharma School Service Book published by the Buddhist Churches of America back in the 1960s and reprinted several times after that. I’m not sure when I first heard it. I didn’t grow up in a BCA temple, I converted to Buddhism in the mid-‘90s when I was in my mid-20s, but I don’t think I participated in any Obon stuff while I was a student. It may have been during my first ministerial assignment at the Buddhist Church of Lodi; if not, then probably in 2009 during my first year assigned to the Buddhist Church of Oakland.

It’s an evocative gatha, unlike any other that I am aware of. The rhythm is different in several ways. To me it suggests a procession, or even a dirge. The idea of being on some kind of journey is suggested by the lyrics, “We will gather friends all along the way, and bring fruits and vegetables for the shrine.” Sounds like we are going to the temple for a religious festival, with the streets lined with lanterns and wind-bells swaying in the breeze. That festival is Obon, a Buddhist “holiday” with many different aspects. I can’t go into it much here, but will say that it traditionally involves the idea that the spirits of one’s ancestors return to their home at this time of year (July and/or August in Japan and Japanese-American communities). Jodo Shinshu doesn’t really concern itself with this aspect of spirits. Actually, Japanese understandings of the afterlife are a combination of several different streams, the system is kind of messy. One view is that people go to the underworld once they die, coming home to visit once a year at Obon time. Another more Buddhist view is that people get reincarnated again and again, so why would they be living as spirits in the underworld? It’s not that they are the hungry ghosts of orthodox 6-realms reincarnation theory, though that does play a role in certain versions of the Obon story. I remember getting to study this kind of thing while I was a student at Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley with Hank Glassman – confusing but fascinating stuff!

My understanding as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist is that when people die they are born in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha, and instantly become Buddhas themselves. So they are not doomed to live in some shadowy underworld and we don’t have to worry about what form they will take in their next reincarnation. Instead, we can think of them as with us all the time as part of the Wisdom & Compassion energy of the Buddha. But even though that is the case all the time, we can also take advantage of special occasions like Obon or the various annual memorial services to think of our deceased loved ones with love and appreciation. To me, this song evokes that paradox of the sadness of loss comingled with the joy of gratitude in the way it switches from minor to major about 3/4 of the way in.

The other aspect of the rhythm is that it is written in 2/4. Most gathas are probably written in 4/4 or sometimes 3/4. “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” sounds like it’s in 4/4, but when I count it, I find that it feels like a couple of measures of 6/4, which is part of the mysterious feeling of this song. The first time I feel this is actually at the very beginning! Another way to think of it is that “Day,” at the end of the phrase “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day,” gets two extra beats. It happens again right before it switches to the major tonality, like in “And bring fruits and vegetables for the shrine.” Actually, it happens at the end too, after which “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” is usually repeated. However, this is where I rearranged the song – I took out the “Obon, Obon, It’s Festival Day” at the end and just jump right in to the beginning of the next verse. I also took out the last two beats so that we come back to the next verse after a measure of 4/4 – now it seems maybe a little rushed, but at the time I thought it felt more natural. It might sound weird if you are used to singing it the way it was originally written – I would love to hear from you if it does!

The drums were recorded almost ten years ago at my friend Damon Burke’s studio, Oxbow Studios in Marlborough, Massachusetts. You may know that I spent a fair portion of my life in Massachusetts (or should I say “Mass.”?), and one of my best friends and one of the best drummers I know, Greg DeGuglielmo has lived there for a long time, so whenever I go back I am fortunate to 1) get to play with him and 2) get to record it! I knew I wanted to rework this gatha, so at one point I took advantage of the opportunity, planning to just keep the drums and redo everything else. And this year’s video Obon Service seemed like the perfect opportunity. I pulled my trusty Rickenbacker 4003S/8 bass out of its case and set out to realize my vision. It didn’t necessarily go the way I intended – I used to play it more chordally, but this time around I went with just playing a single-note line. The bass I used is an 8-string – unlike the usual 4 strings of a bass, on this one each string is accompanied by an extra string tuned an octave higher, kind of like on a 12-string guitar. I used my Budda Phatman tube distortion pedal – I didn’t think about it at the time, but it’s oddly appropriate, even if the company Budda did mess up the spelling. I tried to add some Moog synth to it also, but couldn’t get it to work; I may revisit this idea in the future.

I also doubletracked my voice. That seemed to work on the last gatha I reworked, “In Lumbini’s Garden” for Hanamatsuri this past April. I don’t have a great voice and it sounds kind of thin by itself, but singing the melody two times (well, multiple times but ultimately using two takes) thickens it up a little bit, plus you get the little idiosyncrasies when I sang it slightly differently. Those times could be looked at as mistakes, but I kind of like it! I remember as a kid in 7th grade listening voraciously to the Beatles, you can hear that they often doubletracked their voices (they later build an “automatic doubletracking machine” so they didn’t have to do it manually!), and sometimes they would leave in things that sounded like “mistakes” to me. But I grew to love those instances. I would wonder if they just didn’t have time to fix them (recording was much more “primitive” at the time), or left them in on purpose? I left mine in because I didn’t have time to perfect it!

I also made a video for the song with pictures from past Buddhist Church of Oakland Obon Festivals, and it also includes the lyrics in the hilarious “Star Wars” style.

* “Gathas” are a kind of neologism for Buddhist “hymns.” The word comes from Sanskrit, pronounced more like “gata” but English-speaking people always pronounce the “th” sound like in “this.”

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