None of the 300 dancing folks pay any attention to the flashing lights and blaring siren as a fire engine races through the intersection of Jackson and Eighth streets, just on the other side of the roadblock that closes Jackson Street between Eighth and Ninth streets. They are too busy gazing at the podium in the middle of the street where seven females lead the moves of the crowd.
They dance to celebrate Obon, a Buddhist festival in honor of their loved ones who died. This year, more people than usual visited the Oakland Obon festival on the first weekend of August. The visitors count people of all ages, including Millennials, a generation less religious than its ancestors, but a generation increasingly drawn to Buddhism.
While the number of Americans who define themselves as unaffiliated rise, and the share of Christians decline, the Buddhist population remain the same size. And the number of Millennials grow ever more in the Buddhist populace; the number of Buddhists born between 1988 and 1999 increased by 11 percentage points from 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research Center.
The closed street is roofed with red and white lanterns. Each lantern has attached a tag with a name on it. “The name of a loved one who is no longer,” Reverend Harry Gyokyo Bridge says. He smiles, “Obon is a festival of joy. Not sorrow.”
In the middle of the street, a band plays music characterized by heavy drums. In the parking lot, volunteers sell teriyaki chicken, sushi and burgers. During the late afternoon, clusters of people arrive to have a bite before the hour-long dance begins as twilight falls.
Bridge explains that Obon is one of the church’s most popular events, probably because it has more action than Sunday Service. And even if the festival and the dance has a religious meaning, it does not show and everyone can participate, including non-Buddhists.
Bridge believes that the tangible elements is why the festival attracts Millennials, who normally doesn’t come to church often, “They are not so actively involved when they graduate,” Bridge says. “Although that is changing. We are getting more participation through social media.”
The reverend smiles to one of his parishioners and Facebook followers, a young woman in a yellow and orange kimono. Denise Nomura, 25, of San Lorenzo has been part of this church for as long as she can remember, but after she left middle school, she does not go to church often.
“I am not a super religious person. I am more of a spiritual person,” Nomura says. She explains that there are many ways of being Buddhist, “as long as you keep in mind to be a good person.”
Religion is not something Nomura thinks about in her everyday life, “I might do bad things here and there, that church people frown upon … And I am sure that when I get older, [I will] come right back here, and be a good Buddhist person.” She takes a sip of her beer and continues, “Honestly, if I have kids, I could see myself coming back. At least like once a month or something like that. This church has been a big part of my life. It is like a good base.”
The plan to return to church later in life and in general to place more emphasis on religion with age is a tendency that can explain some of the religious differences between younger and older Americans, according to Pew Research Center.
Sean Gold, 32, of San Lorenzo is at the festival with a friend. Neither of them has typical Buddhist clothing on. Normally, he does not go to church often, but he enjoys that he can fit in Buddhism to his everyday life and practice at home. He will sit on the floor of his living room where he lights an incense, take a deep breath and smell the herbs and flowers from it, and then he chants in a low voice. As the words flow into the room, he feels mindful and he is able to meditate.
Gold does this a couple of times a week. He was not always a Buddhist. He started to practice in his early 20s, today he describes his relationship to religion as casual. He doesn’t believe himself to be as dedicated as earlier generations of Buddhists. To him, Buddhism “is more of a philosophy than a religion … More a way of thinking,” he says.
Abrol Fairweather, 48, who teaches philosophy at San Francisco State University, can see why Millennials would turn towards Buddhism because it supports a lifestyle characterized by lack of permanency.
“Maybe Buddhism is the right prescription for a less grounded, more temporary bundled world,” Fairweather says. He explains how jobs, relationships and network of friends and even the structure of family are less permanent in the lives of Millennials than they were for earlier generations.
Fairweather also explains that Buddhism is a nontheistic religion as the religion has neither a god nor a distinct promise of forever. He explains that Buddhism is a kind of spirituality that Millennials can embrace and still be non-theist or atheist. And atheists are common within the millennial generation, one-in-four under 30 are atheists, agnostic or do not belong to any religion, according to Pew Research Center.
Gabrielle Cuevas, 26, of San José gets ready to join the Obon dance. Despite her colorful kimono, she is not Buddhist, she is an atheist. “What I like about Buddhism is that it is not really religious in a sense that you believe in a god. It is more of a religion where you are trying to be the best person you can be. It is more of a life philosophy,” Cuevas says.
The drums strike up a dance tone, and the dancers flock into the street covered with nametags of those to remember. Soon, the street is full of people of all ages, shapes and sizes. Not one looks like the other; some are dressed in special made cloaks, some in kimonos and sandals, and some in hoodies and sneakers.