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Hawaii Lantern Floating 2013 – A Reflection

Contributed by Jonathan Lee

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Each year Shinnyo-en Foundation invites a small group of guests to attend the solemn and yet joyful Hawaii Lantern Floating ceremony at Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu.  This year’s Hawaii Lantern Floating, taking place over Memorial Day weekend as is the tradition, brought together eight faith leaders in an informal setting to experience and reflect upon the annual Shinnyo-en Hawaii community event.  The guests represented faith traditions including Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  Rev. Dr. Jonathan Lee, of Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, offers his reflection of the experience:

This Memorial Day Weekend I was honored to be a guest of the Shinnyo-en Foundation at the 15th Annual Lantern Floating Hawaii.  I represented Hartford Seminary, a unique graduate school in Connecticut focused on interreligious encounter and dialogue; our Religious Diversity Leadership Workshop has been generously funded the past two years by SEF.  I traveled to Hawaii with my friend Morteza Rezazadeh, a Shi’a Muslim participating in the Seminary’s International Peacemaking Program.  We were warmly welcomed and cared for, visited the Shinnyo-en Temple in Honolulu, participated in the Lantern Floating on a beautiful Pacific evening, and engaged in interfaith dialogue with other religious leaders from a variety of traditions.

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The power and beauty of the Lantern Floating impacted me personally and professionally.  I live in a home which previously belonged to two dear friends, now deceased, the Hahns.  Without children of their own, I felt—and remain—the steward of their memory and the house has been my last concrete connection to them.  With some struggle, I put the house on the market about the same time I received the invitation to the Lantern Floating.  This turned out to be a blessing, a timely opportunity to give thanks for the Hahns and for the home and sanctuary they created and passed along to me, and to say farewell, to acknowledge them spiritually as I surrendered our earthly connection.  To see the light of my lantern drift away, and meld with the light of so many others just as dearly held, was a difficult and yet serene moment.

Professionally, I am an ordained Christian minister with particular focus on funerals for the “unaffiliated,” that is, those who have no connection with a church but who, at the death of a loved one, still seek out a religious authority figure to officiate at a final ritual.  My work has been helping families articulate beliefs about death and life and to reflect that in ceremonies honoring their loved ones.  Through that lens, I viewed the Lantern Floating with deep appreciation, for a number of reasons, of which I describe two.

People_0034First, though there were many Shinnyo-en practitioners present, I sensed many in the crowd at Ala Moana Beach that night might well have had no formal connection to a religious community, and perhaps, upon the death of a loved one, did not have ritual to acknowledge that loss and honor the dead.  In the midst of the ceremony I realized the event was like one of my unaffiliated funerals, though this time for thousands and thousands.  What a gift to so many!

Secondly, the “many rivers, one ocean” perspective (so beautifully enacted in the gradual melding of individual lights into one) embodies a view of spiritual passing with what seems universal appeal, offensive to none, and reflecting the hard and beautiful truth of surrender of the many into the one.  Indeed, I was reminded of a particular reading that some of my unaffiliated families chose to include in their services which, while it doesn’t mesh exactly with the Lantern Floating perspective, echoes it in a way that, for me personally, affirms a truth embodied in both.  This is attributed to Henry Van Dyke, a Presbyterian minister (b. 1852)

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I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…

The defining Shinnyo-en commitment to serving others is so beautifully enacted in the Lantern Floating, which reaches so many across religious and cultural differences; a moment of real unity around a universal human experience, truly a gift to behold.

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