Lanterns on the oceanTricycle Managing Editor Rachel Hiles interviews her Holiness Shinso Ito, head of Shinnyo-en, following the 13th annual lantern floating ceremony held in Honolulu, Hawaii.

What do the floating lanterns symbolize? The Japanese traditional lantern floating ceremony was established to consecrate prayer to the departed, to the people who have passed away. The flame of the candle lit inside a lantern symbolizes a life, and the prayer consoles the departed and wishes them to go to a better life, a better place in the spiritual realm. The ceremony is based on the realization that our lives—the people living right now—are built on the foundation of the lives given by previous generations. We are at the front line of the chain of lives going back to infinite time in the past. Lantern floating gives us the opportunity to say “Thank you” and offer prayers of appreciation to the lives who gave life to us. The lit lantern represents our conversation with the people beyond the boundary of life and death; it is an occasion where we say “Thank you” to the infinite past. When we have that profound appreciation, that’s when we get awakened to a strong resolve of living this moment fully. It’s about appreciation, but also having a resolve to live for now and for the future.

Why did you decide to bring this tradition to Honolulu? Hawaii is located in the middle of the largest ocean in the world, and the water of the Pacific touches the shores of five continents, so Honolulu is the ideal location for sending prayer messages. The spirituality represented in this ceremony is very similar to the spirituality observed by Hawaiian people, which is reflected in the aloha [love] and ohana [family]. There is a very warm and welcoming spirituality here, so from a spiritual point of view, we felt that this was a suitable place.

When my father, Master Shinjo, the founder of Shinnyo-en, and I came to Hawaii 41 years ago, the first thing we did was to pay our respects at the USS Arizona Memorial and the Punchbowl Cemetery. We offered consecrated prayer to the war victims and we imagined that one day we would do a lantern floating here in Hawaii to offer prayer—not just to the departed in Hawaii or in Japan, but to all the people in the world who have passed away. When we did the first lantern floating in Honolulu, we were a little concerned about how local Hawaiians would receive an event organized by a Japanese group. But when we held the first lantern floating event, we were welcomed really warmly by the local people. My wish going forward is that through this event, people can rediscover kindness in their hearts and their willingness to do more and better for other people. Though there are many different people who attend, participants experience a feeling of warmth and the feeling of being interconnected.

In Japan, the lantern floating ceremony is held in late summer, but in Honolulu the ceremony is conducted at the end of May.
When we brought the tradition to Hawaii, we felt it was important to respect American culture, so we chose Memorial Day—a day when American people send prayer to loved ones they have lost. And by doing so, we hope that Japanese customs will be combined with American tradition and that this will create a kind of a harmonious merge of two different cultures and traditions. We are hoping to spread that harmony from here to the world, building toward a world of harmony—this was the wish of Master Shinjo when he visited Hawaii, and I feel that it is my mission to realize his wish.

Can you tell me a little bit about the water ceremony that happens in private, before the lantern floating?
The water consolatory service always precedes the lantern floating ceremony. It is a religious service—a religious rite of extending spiritual liberation to all spirits. I stand in front of a reclining Buddha statue carved by my father, and I invite all the spirits to the realm of the Buddha’s enlightenment; in the Buddha’s realm they’ll be consoled and invigorated. This esoteric Buddhist rite was first taught by Buddha Shakyamuni and was passed down from generation to generation through the dharma stream.

The lantern floating ceremony—which takes place afterward—is open to the public, and there are so many people who attend, all with different faith traditions. We don’t expect that everyone understands the traditional Buddhist rite, so we conduct the water consolatory service in private at the temple. All spirits are liberated through that ritual, and then by the time we do the lantern floating at the beach, all the souls are in a joyous state in the spiritual realm.

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