Since 1999, an esoteric Buddhist denomination called Shinnyo-en has sponsored a “Lantern Floating” ceremony on Memorial Day to create a moment of reflection and collective compassion and remember those who have passed.
The name “Shinnyo-en” means “a borderless garden of the unchanging and real nature of things,” and its principal doctrine encourages everyone to develop the ability to act with unwavering loving kindness and compassion. That’s a pretty good thing, methinks.
The original Lantern Floating was a modest affair, held in a lagoon out near Honolulu Airport but grew in popularity and since 2002 it has been held annually at Ala Moana Beach Park, the major regional park adjacent to Waikiki.
How popular is it? About 40,000 people attend the ceremony. Folks stake out their positions on the lawn areas 24 hours in advance and guard their position zealously. Encroach on someone’s territory and the global message of peace can end with a punch to the nose. People are funny that way. But I digress.
Over 6,000 lanterns are launched at sunset.
The lanterns are like little boats. Each has a wood and rice paper container on top and the paper provides space for folks to write their individual messages to their loved ones.
The messages are poignant and personal.
Lost lives, lost loves, hopes and dreams for a better future – the messages range from small, heartfelt pleas and stories to giant themes like world peace.
The Lantern Floating ceremony is quite ritualized. It starts with the haunting sounding of the pū, the Hawaiian conch shell, blown as a call to come together. For some women (and we won’t mention names,) it serves as the last call to visit the ladies’ room.
Giant Japanese taiko drums start booming and a Hawaiian chant or “oli” tells participants to ready their hearts for what is to follow. Hula precedes the entry of the lanterns. All this activity takes place on huge stages set up a week or more in advance.
The first lanterns to arrive are big ones that have messages with big themes of peace for victims of war, water-related accidents, natural and man-made disasters, famine and disease.
These lanterns are blessed by Her Holiness Shinso Ito, the leader of Shinnyo-en and, after food offerings and prayer, the candles inside the lanterns are lit and the lanterns are gently launched to float out to sea on the departing tide.
Buddhist chants and a showering of flower petals accompany the launching, then Shinso Ito rings a small bell, signifying it is time to launch the other lanterns.
It’s a silent and very somber moment as people walk to the waters’ edge, bend down and place their personal lantern into the sea.
There is not a dry eye in the park.
Music plays, hula is performed, chants – both Buddhist and Hawaiian – ring out over the crowd as it moves in a slow and dignified push toward the launching beach.
Soon all 6,000 lanterns twinkle on the gentle inner reef area and then drift offshore.
A small team of assistants ride in boats to keep the lanterns on their path.
Later, they collect the lanterns along the reef and volunteers refurbish them for next year’s ceremony.
The Lantern Floating ceremony is a unique Hawaii affair that is not truly Japanese and not really Hawaiian. It is also an odd but effective mix of the secular and spiritual.
For example, the AJF snorts about the timing of the ceremony and points out that toro nagashi (lantern floating) exists in Japan but occurs during the obon season when the spirits of the dead are said to return to Earth, roughly in August. Many of the rituals associated with the ceremony have little cultural authenticity but are highly effective at emotional manipulation.
I have to point out that neither of us is religious and we’re only marginally spiritual, although I do adore a dark beer.
Nonetheless, while we both recognize the sophisticated marketing and presentation that makes this ceremony so successful, we also recognize that there is something deeper and more meaningful going on there. Without question, the ceremony provides people with a means to express emotions that might otherwise have no outlet.
Max, by the way is Dog-agnostic, (which may be a dyslexia issue.)
For some, Lantern Floating is a way to remember a deceased loved one; for others, a way to send hopes and wishes into the cosmos. Some claim it provides closure for difficult stages of life or enables that final good-bye.
At the very least, it is a fantastically beautiful affair with the thousands of small flames covering the ocean and the flood of sincere, deeply personal emotions is tangible across the beach park.
For the one night, global compassion and caring seems possible, a better world seems within reach.