Every year on Memorial Day, the Shinnyo-en Buddhist Order presides over the Lantern Floating Hawaii Ceremony on the shore of Oahu. People of all faiths, backgrounds and beliefs are invited to come together for a personal and collective time of remembrance and reflection, and to offer gratitude to those who have passed. It is a chance to be surrounded by the love, understanding, and support of others – even of strangers. One extensive community forms, all reaching out to support one another and building understanding of common values and experiences.
The special opportunity to attend the Lantern Floating Ceremony was offered to six interfaith guests this year. Dr. Munir Shaikh of Bayan Claremont, Rev. Dr. Gail J. Stearns of Chapman University, and Dr. Jasjit Singh, Maria Khani and John Michael Penn from Orange County Interfaith Network/Interfaith Youth Council all traveled from Orange County, CA, and Leif Erickson of Youth Community Service and Senior Shinnyo Fellow of the Foundation, traveled from Palo Alto, CA. Some of them were already very familiar with each other, Shinnyo-en, and the Foundation while others were relatively new to each other and the Foundation. However, once they arrived in Honolulu and met the others, they all became dear friends and newly found kindred spirits! Everyone enjoyed a lovely dinner together as they got to know each other on the first evening we met on May 27, sharing the view of a beautiful sunset and a wonderful meal in Honolulu.
Over the course of the next few days, SEF had planned a few additional programs for the guests to participate in, with hopes of enhancing their experience attending the Lantern Floating Ceremony. On Sunday morning, May 28, the guests visited the Shinnyo-en Hawaii Temple for a tour and a more in-depth orientation. There, they were able to learn more about Shinnyo-en, the Lantern Floating Ceremony, and Shinnyo-en Foundation. In the afternoon of Sunday, the guests convened again to meet the Shinnyo-en Youth Association (YA) members who were selectively invited to attend the YA leadership meetings and activities in Honolulu. For the first time over the weekend of the Lantern Floating Ceremony, our guests shared their expertise and practices of their own faith or religious traditions at an Interfaith Roundtable Discussion that the Foundation organized. This special program was held on the sunny lanai of the historic Moana Surfrider Hotel and a little over 20 YA enjoyed actively dialoguing with our interfaith guests and learning more about their faith and religious traditions and practices from them.
On Monday morning, May 29, SEF took guests on a field trip to Foster Botanical Gardens for some relaxing time to further bond with each other while viewing the exotic plants around the garden. Our tour guide was a fun and very knowledgeable docent who explained to us about all of the different plants and the history of the garden while his little dog helped lead the way!
After some free time to rest or enjoy Honolulu by themselves, our guests arrived at the VIP tent of the Lantern Floating Hawaii on Ala Moana Beach, which was generously hosted by the staff of the Na Lei Aloha Foundation and the Shinnyo-en Hawaii Temple. Our guests received their lanterns and took time to write earnest messages to their loved ones and those who had passed. After observing the impressive ceremony full of cultural dancing, singing and Shinnyo-en’s Taiko performance, the guests were very surprised by Her Holiness Shinso Ito walking on the extended stage very close to them to ring a bell to mark the beginning of releasing lanterns. As Her Holiness prayed for all who were present on the beach and in remote locations and their loved ones, our guests walked into the water to release their lanterns along with thousand others.
Many of our guests mentioned in the interviews next day, they didn’t think or feel the magnitude or the significance of the Ceremony while writing on or preparing their lanterns. However, it was when they walked into the water that they were overcome with emotion. “In the Sikh faith, we believe that individual prayer and meditation are important, but that it is also important to pray, meditate and reflect while in the company of the “sangat”, or congregation. The idea is that the power of the group can help lift you spiritually and propel your thoughts and deeds in the right direction. I found the Floating Lantern Ceremony to be the perfect example of this, and deeply spiritually moving. The power of having 50,000 individuals on the beach, feeling that serenity and solemnity while united in a common purpose, was profound. That positive energy and the good thoughts for the departed, and for those remembering them, must have had a noticeable effect on the cosmos. I don’t think I will ever forget the power of that particular “sangat”.” This is what Dr. Jasjit Singh, one of the six interfaith guests that we hosted, wrote in her reflection.
She went on to say, “The Sikh philosophy of equipoise, or “chardi kala,” by definition means that we look at pain and pleasure, chaos and calm, “dukh” and “sukh” as necessary components of life. I found that the Floating Lantern Ceremony was an expression of that same Sikh thought, that diametrically opposed facets of life are part of the whole – at the ceremony we witnessed that life and death, grief and acceptance, memory and letting go, and even the physical characteristics of fire and water that were part of the event, all contribute to the experience. It is only by accepting the polarity of life, that we can make our best contribution to the world. The Lantern Floating Ceremony helped me to crystallize this basic Sikh concept. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to experience this extraordinary event.” Just as Dr. Singh wrote, all other interfaith guests shared their profound personal experiences and interpretations of the Lantern Floating Ceremony in individual interviews. A short video which includes all of their interviews as excerpts will become available on our website later this year.
In addition to the private interviews, the guests were asked to share their Lantern Floating experiences with the Shinnyo-en and Shinnyo-en Youth Association members during the Post-Lantern Floating Reflection Luncheon the following day. The Shinnyo-en Hawaii temple and the Na Lei Aloha Foundation mentioned that this Reflection Luncheon is something that they really look forward to attending every year because they can hear from the interfaith guests firsthand how they experienced the lantern floating after many hours and months of preparation by the staff. For the SEF staff, inviting the staff of the Na Lei Aloha Foundation and the Hawaii Temple to this Reflection Luncheon is a small token of our appreciation to them after their generous hospitality to include our guests in the Ceremony year after year. John Michael Penn expressed his gratitude as follows: “As an invited guest of Shinnyo-en Foundation, I found that the generosity and hospitality was overwhelming and I will be forever thankful. Try to picture yourself knee deep in water with 7,000 people, 6,989 of whom you have never met, taking turns to launch a small float with a candle illuminating prayers of love, remembrance and gratitude for those we have lost. And after you let it go and your lantern, with its prayers, moves out to sea, you return to shore to stand with 50,000 other individuals, who are there for the same reason but were not fortunate enough to get a lantern, and you are overwhelmed by the feeling of being connected with everyone. We all suffer loss, this is our common connection, but it is in the remembering that we recall the lessons learned and are strengthened by them and this bond that connects us is accentuated by the warmth and civility that surrounds me. As I stood by the bay with the setting sun on my face, for the first time in a long while, I felt hope.”
Our wish is that each of our invited guests was able to make their own connections, and experience healing and hopes during this time. May they continue spreading the peace they felt to others who were not able to be there with us.
Please enjoy our short video telling the story about our guests’ experiences over the lantern floating. This video was produced with Bill Paris, Producer/Director of Photography, Crew Hawaii Television LLC.