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The Sky and the Sea and an Act of Faith: Lantern Floating, Hawaii, 2010

When you think Hawaii, what comes to mind? Sun, sea, surf and sand; hula dancers and fancy shirts?  The evening sun sinking into the water, those perfect sideways-leaning palm trees?

For the more serious vacationer, perhaps Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor, go-to destinations?

So it might seem incongruous that a week ago I was celebrating what is perhaps the largest and most truly interfaith event in the world – in Hawaii. Not only that, but I was celebrating with 60,000 of my closest friends. And all of it on a beach a mere flip-flop’s throw from Waikiki’s whitest surf.

Lantern Floating, an experience created by the Shinnyo-en organization for American Memorial Day, has in twelve short years developed from a little idea, into a true celebration of the spirituality of the common people.

It contains no liturgy.  No doctrinal adherence is demanded.  No collection plate circulates. Rather, what calls this flock-on-the-sand is the remembrance of their ancestors. It is an act that is completely universal. It is both religious: and it is a simple commemoration of the human family.  It speaks to the human heart.  And it is perfect that it is enacted in Hawaii, the most feminine place in the world, and a place half-way between Japan and the continental U.S.: a fusion of east and west, producing joyous, universal, living faith.

And it is one of the most moving events I have ever witnessed. The occasion begins with an evening of music, readings and reflection. Though much has a Buddhist flavor, it can be interpreted, “felt” by someone of any faith – or none. All of us know the generations that have gone before. Most of us want to remember someone, our mother, our brother, a lost love. Across the beach thousands of individuals write prayers on little boats. At dusk, those boats are sent forth, their tiny sails bobbing on the vast and measureless ocean. Between the dark sea and the overwhelming sky, a flotilla of memories heads out.  It is an extended moment that is unmistakably a message, – a metaphor – about sending souls forth, about fond farewells.  Lantern Floating uses the human condition to bring us nearer to our own spirituality, whatever that might be.

A hush falls on the crowd. On each boat, the candlelight drifts silently away from us, like a prayer.  Or a person: in my case, my own father, who died between the last Floating, and this one.

Across the beach, people, standing knee-deep at the water’s edge, openly weep.

Isn’t faith supposed to lift us out of the prosaic, to speak to us through the sheer wonder of the world? To give us more, and make us better, to help us understand the faith of others? If that is so, I nominate this event as an act of true interfaith belief.  And I will see you there, with your own boat, your tiny candle and your own prayer, next year, at Hawaii’s Lantern Floating.