Attending a Buddhist Hoji (Funeral Service for the Deceased)

Hello everyone, I hope you are enjoying the start of your summer vacation!

I had a unique opportunity to experience a Buddhist Service know as Hoji, for the thirteenth year after my homestay mother’s husband’s death. After researching what a Hoji is, I discovered that they can be held every year after the death or on the third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third or thirty-third year. My homestay family consists of a mother and two boys. My homestay mother practices (in a sense) Buddhist religious activities every day. However, one day she asked me if I was religious and attended church when I was back in the United States. I answered truthfully and told her that I was not religious and have never really been to church. She smiled and then responded with, “I am not really religious but there are certain things that I feel I must do.” What she was referring to was her practice of offering water, sake, food, etc. to the Butsudan every morning and annually visiting her husband’s grave. When our religion class went on a field trip to Fushimi Inari, I purchased some okashii (Japanese Snacks) for my homestay family before leaving the shrine. When I returned home, I gave my homestay mother the okashii and she said she would put it in front of the Butsudan now and we can eat it later. I find it fascinating how Japanese people participate in activities such as this but see no religious connotation.  Now that we know some information about what my homestay mother is like, let’s discuss the Hoji.
Before receiving the invitation from my homestay mother to attend the 13th year anniversary Hoji, I had never even known something like this existed. While we did discuss Buddhist practices and beliefs in class, I don’t think we talked much about events the family does for the deceased person (besides things associated with the Butsudan). At the time, I didn’t get much information about the Hoji from my homestay mother besides to wear semi-formal black clothing and many family relatives will be attending. As the day of the Hoji approached, I was excited and anxious because I was not sure what to expect.
The day finally came and it was off to an early start. I woke up around 9 am and got dressed in the appropriate attire. I walked downstairs and found my homestay mother making preparations for various things. In my homestay house, there is a large tatami room that contains the Butsudan (I asked my homestay mother to take a photograph a few months ago but she was hesitant to allow such a thing). There were various offerings around the Butsudan such as fruits, rice, sake, etc. The tatami room had approximately 12 black square cushions and a couch at the back of the room for the family members to sit on when they arrived. Everyone began to arrive about 30 minutes before 10 am. Everyone was smiling, laughing and making conversation. We all made our way into the tatami room and sat on the cushions. My homestay mother gave me a set of prayer beads because I didn’t have any. It seemed like everyone else brought their own. 10 minutes before ten the Buddhist priest who would perform the ritual arrived. Everyone welcomed him inside and he made his way to the front of the Butsudan. There was some conversation between him and some members of the family as he moved through the room. The room chatter dissipated while the priest lit an incense and began the ceremony.
At this point I felt a noticeable difference in the atmosphere of the room. It was almost a solemn feeling as the priest was chanting. To be honest…I felt completely isolated sitting in the room with everyone. I had no relation to my homestay mother’s husband and in my mind, this was a ceremony for those who were connected in some way or other to the deceased person. Thankfully, the woman next to me helped guide me through what needed to be done. I forgot to mention the seating arrangement. I don’t know whether this was a coincidence or planned but behind my homestay family were seated the grandmothers and a grandfathers. Situated behind them were brothers/sisters and relatives. I was sitting in the back corner furthest away from the Butsudan. Countless times throughout the ceremony we held the prayer beads and prayed. After about thirty minutes, the priest passed some books to my homestay mother which made there way around the room. Once everyone had one of the small books, the priest began reading and everyone in the room began chanting as well. I also joined in with everyone else. As I kept flipping through the pages, in my mind I began to wonder if we were going to go through the whole book. Thankfully we didn’t because I think that would have taken forever. Sometimes the priest would stop and tell everyone to go to a different page before beginning the chanting again. After some more time had passed. Everyone put the books down in front of their cushion and began to pray. I also noticed that sometimes someone would begin to pray as the priest was performing the ceremony. All of the books were passed to the right and made there way to the front. The priest gave my homestay mother a container for incense and after she finished adding some, she gave the container to her sons. I observed as the incense was passed around what people were doing so I could mimic their actions to make it look like I knew what I was doing as well. Many other the people added incense and then took their prayer beads between their hands and gave a little prayer. I also replicated that as well. This was the first time during the ceremony that people talked to one another and laughed some. However, I think the laughter was partly to the mass amount of incense smoke coming from this container. The smell of the incense was overwhelming. Once I finished my prayer, I passed the container to the right and it made its way back to the Butsudan. This was almost the end of the ceremony. The priest said a few more words to the Butsudan and everyone prayed one more time. All of the sudden, it was like a gloomy rain cloud vanished and the sun began to shine again. The atmosphere of the room immediately changed and conversation between family members began. We all thanked the Priest for coming and my homestay mother talked with him for a few minutes. He made his way out of the house and everyone started talking to me in Japanese and they were all so cheerful. Everyone helped make preparations for lunch by cleaning the tatami room of all of the cushions and other items. There was a massive delivery of food to our house and everyone seemed jolly for the rest of the day. This really surprised me because I thought that the family members would talk about my homestay mother’s husband but there were really no words mentioned about him after the priest left. For the next two hours, everyone enjoyed lunch and drank sake or beer. By the time everyone had left the house, it was around 2:15 or 2:30 pm.
After this ceremony, I became curious as to what the priest was chanting about because I could not understand what was said. What I found is that everything done during the ceremony holds an important meaning. For example, the burning of the incense acts as a purifier for the participants and the smoke the rises from the incense functions as a way to deliver our thoughts and prayers to the deceased. The chanting that took place expounds the teachings of the Buddha. I truly found this experience interesting and rewarding.

I hope you all enjoyed reading about this event. If you come to Japan and have the opportunity to do something you know hardly anything about, just do it!

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