An Ocean of Stories: Reflection on the 2019 Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii Ceremony

November 8, 2019

Contributed by Qalvy Grainzvolt, Shinnyo-en New York Temple

Attending the 2019 Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii, a special Memorial Day ceremony held in Hawaii over the last 20 years, I have been a witness to myriad special moments each and every time.  In the past, I have attended it as a member of the Shinnyo-en Buddhist clergy and as a logistical and ritualistic attendant of the ceremony several times. In addition, I have also simply attended it as a human being sharing the space of Ala Moana Beach in Hawaii together with the approximately 50,000 other fellow human beings who gather every year. In spite of all of these occasions, I was privy to witness a sense of community in the Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii that has been unlike any other this year. Being a native of New York City, I am used to crowds and community in highly diverse settings. However, the definition of community and how it can foster healing and unity broaden each time I visit this ceremony far from the sidewalks of New York City. It is a special lesson that I have the privilege of deepening each time I make this pilgrimage to Hawaii. At the risk of waxing lyrical in my reflection on this profoundly deep ceremony, I would say that fathoming the Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii held during the sacred window of time, which is Memorial Day, is akin to trying to understand the very nature of water and the deep ocean upon which the lantern floating ceremony is conducted.

We understand water because the atoms and ultimately molecules form bonds giving it a character and quality that cannot be known in reduction. This year, in particular, the Lantern Floating Ceremony brought me back to a line of poetry, written upon a brass plaque embedded in a concrete sidewalk near the New York City public library, thousands of miles away that I often pass on my way to our Shinnyo-en sanctuary in midtown Manhattan. It reads as follows:

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

– Muriel Rukeyser

Like many droplets of water can make a deep ocean, so too can many people coming together create community that converges on a sacred time, space and purpose. It creates an ethereal depth of presence. “It’s communal.” This is the experience that gave profound meaning to my good friend and newly retired New York City Police Department (NYPD) Chief of the Transit bureau, Joseph Fox, upon participating in the Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii Ceremony held this past Memorial Day. I could not agree more. The coming together of so many in diverse ways gives such depth.  As Her Holiness Shinso Ito, head priest of Shinnyo-en, exerts her prayers in tandem with all others gathered for remembrance and in oneness of heart for those who have gone before us, she encouraged us to share acts of “Shinnyo” and in so doing, allow kindness to ripple out into the world.

Over the course of several days, I joined a group of scholars, educators, and clergy – all of whom took part in the Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii Ceremony by joining in one heart and dedicating lanterns that they then floated out onto the Pacific Ocean together with thousands of others. These esteemed individuals were Kent Koth, Executive Director of Center for Community Engagement at Seattle University, Reverend Cerna Rand, Pastor of Prince of Peace United Methodist Church from Illinois, Saniya Ibrahim, an educator from California, Natasha Huang, a doctoral student of Claremont School of Theology in California, and Joe Fox, a life coach, leadership expert and newly retired NYPD chief of New York. The very undercurrent of the ceremony included the concept of, “Many rivers, One ocean” and that this ceremony is essentially, “a human thing.” In other words, a depth is formed by virtue of its communal dimension. This is what made the ceremony different for me this year- the close-knit community and getting to know the stories of each of these Shinnyo-en Foundation’s guests.



That sense of community, in fact, began forming days earlier as our cohort collaborated in group time as well as through time spent with the Shinnyo-en youth members in the Roundtable Discussion and reflection gatherings. These Shinnyo-en youth members traveled from Asia, Europe, Australia, and the mainland United States to be present for the ceremony. They are young leaders in their respective regions of Shinnyo-en practice. Each of our guests, Cerna, Joe, Kent, Natasha, and Saniya facilitated small groups with these youth members and this led to deeply enriching discussions and profound moments of community. Cultural differences, racial diversity and age had nothing on the heartfelt connections that I witnessed glancing around the room, interacting with one another and in listening to reflections shared.

Her Holiness Shinso touched upon a beautiful duality in the Lantern Floating Ceremony with regard to community as well. She said that the same feelings, prayers and wishes we hold for our loved ones who have passed are also at the heart of lantern floating. That is because we can activate in the here and now exactly the same sentiments and heartfelt prayers, and we can authentically offer them to those who are still with us in this world, without distinction.

I wish I could share some profound reflection and quote from each member of this group. However, I am left with primarily the power of being witness to the group coming together, learning one another’s personalities, and then illuminating a collective metaphorical light, much like the lanterns collectively illuminated the ocean by the end of the Lantern Floating Ceremony. Many expressions of Shinnyo through the power of a communal connection – this is what I felt fist hand. We inspire one another, remind each other how beautiful it is that we are all unique, and will have our own way of sharing our inner light with the world around us. The communal aspect of this ceremony reminds us also that we need to hold space for others so that we may learn from their light too, behold it, and then share in it. This is the feeling I had at the end of the ceremony, standing knee deep in the ocean and watching my friends from the Shinnyo-en Foundation group cohort float their lanterns and illuminate the world with their heartfelt presence as they held space for all those around them gathered as well. Perhaps as we might regard water and light as life sustaining elements, so to can we be reminded that our presence flows through and lights up the world when we embody acts of kindness. Whether we call these acts of Shinnyo or by another name, I will not forget the universe of atoms and stories that I was immersed in during this year’s Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaii. I trust it will forever be a part of my story and a light in my heart.

Qalvy Grainzvolt is a frequent contributor to our website. In his articles, he shares his leadership, experience and participation in the interfaith programs to support the United Nations’ mission for the diverse and peaceful world. For more articles written by Qalvy, please follow this link.

To see more photos taken over the Memorial Day Holiday weekend, please click this link.

The Shinnyo Lantern Floating Reflection video was produced by Bill Paris, Director of Photography of Crew Hawaii Television below.