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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Visiting Hawaii’s lantern-floating ceremony with my grieving friend

Drawing in thousands of people from around the world each year, the Buddhist tradition — long practiced in Hawaii — commemorates the deceased by setting lanterns afloat on the waters of Ala Moana Beach.

HONOLULU (CN) — Over the Memorial Day weekend, I found myself in the heart of Honolulu for Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawai‘i. The event — held annually on Memorial Day at Ala Moana Beach — gathers communities from around the world to honor fallen service members and loved ones. 

This year’s festivities marked the 25th anniversary of the Shinnyo Lantern Floating, with the theme "Many Rivers, One Ocean." Free and open to the public, the event is organized by Shinnyo-en, an international Buddhist community with Japanese roots. 

I was attending with my friend Kamakakai Kaahaaina. He had come to honor his late father Solomon, who passed away in 2021.

“When my father passed, we decided to hold a celebration of life rather than a traditional funeral,” Kaahaaina said. “That’s what I really appreciate about tonight.” 

It wasn’t just the ceremony that felt special to him, but also the location. Growing up, he used to go surfing on the weekends with his father in the reefs just off of Ala Moana. “I feel like I can always feel his presence more when I visit his favorite spots,” he said.

This lantern-floating ceremony has a rich history in Hawaii, drawing in people from around the world and from across ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds for a moment of collective remembrance.

At sunset this year, around 6,000 candle-lit lanterns were set afloat on the calm waters off Ala Moana beach, bearing handwritten messages, prayers, and affirmations. Thousands gathered along the shore or participated virtually via a live telecast and internet broadcast.

“We are grateful to be continuing this event and to be with those not only from O‘ahu but Maui and around the world,” Reverend Craig Yamamoto, community relations liaison of Shinnyo-en Hawaii, told spectators at the event. He said the lantern-floating aimed to “generate hope and a sense of renewal.”

The ceremony began in traditional Hawaiian fashion, with the blowing of a (Hawaiian conch shell).

That was followed by a pule (Hawaiian prayer) and oli (Hawaiian chant) to bless the space. Afterwards, a suila (traditional Japanese conch shell) was also blown, and drummers beat taiko drums. 

The ceremony honors those lost in every walk of life. Along with lanterns honoring individual people, hosts also lit lanterns on stage with prayers for humanity, Hawaii and — for the first time this year — the Earth itself.

This year’s ceremony also saw the return of an iconic hōkūle’a, a traditional Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe.

Best known for voyages across the Pacific Ocean, hōkūle’a crews traveled using ancient Hawaiian navigation techniques like stars, waves, wind and long-distance sea birds. The first modern hōkūle’a voyage, from Oahu to Tahiti in 1976, ignited pride among Hawaiians and across Polynesia. The canoe used in that voyage, which returned home to Hawaii this past December, carried the lantern for prayers for Hawaii during the ceremony, offering a symbol of hope for the island’s future and its people. 

A traditional Japanese taiko performance during the annual Shinnyo Floating Lantern Ceremony in Honolulu in May 2024. (Shinnyo Floating Lantern Hawai'i)

Closing out the ceremony, Shinnyo-en head priestess Shinso Ito explained what the group meant by the theme “many rivers, one ocean.”

“ It expresses our message of harmony amid diversity,” Ito said. “An inherent potential for goodness flows forth from each of us to come together in the great ocean of our shared humanity.”

“It is our hope to offer prayers and healing in the face of loss and suffering experienced here and abroad this past year,” she continued. “May we fill our prayers with heartfelt promise.” With that, the public released their lanterns into Ala Moana and began to pray.

This year’s ceremony comes at a time when some Hawaiians are already grieving, either for lost friends or for the Aloha State itself. Last year’s Lahaina wildfires on Maui marked the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history in more than a century, claiming the lives of at least 101 individuals. (Some likely victims are still missing and unaccounted for.)

Hawaiians are also racing to save endemic flora and fauna species. Many are on the brink of extinction, and some — including birds like the kiwikiu, the ʻākohekohe and six remaining species of Hawaiian honeycreepers — could have just months left. These species hold deep sacredness for Native Hawaiian communities, who view the land and its creatures as ancestors and extensions of themselves. In light of these factors, this year’s ceremony centered disaster victims, as well as the spirits of Hawaii’s flora and fauna.

Standing among those who have lost and suffered, it was hard not to get emotional. I felt a deep sense of compassion, but also pride and honor for my home, my community and all those with whom I was sharing this experience.

It brought back childhood memories of attending the ceremony with my own family when I was young. I recalled lighting a lantern for my grandfather, who had just passed away. My mother gave me a pen and told me to write down everything I wanted to say to him. I wrote how much I loved and missed him. My mother urged me to also thank him for the countless ballet lessons he took me and my sister to. 

It was 2010, and I was just 10 years old. Walking down to the shore with my parents, they told my sister and me to put all our love into the little lantern. Then we sent it afloat in the ocean — and even as a rambunctious child, I felt an innate calm. It remains one of my most cherished childhood memories, leaning my head on my father and watching the thousands of candle-lit lanterns twinkle on the water as the sun went down. 

As I stood there again this past weekend, watching the last of the lanterns float along the shoreline, I was reminded of a message from Shinso Ito. In the vast ocean of life, she says, we are never alone. 

I think my friend Kaahaaina felt the same way. “It's nice to have a way to honor my father that isn’t so sad and gloomy,” he said as he watched canoes offshore carrying the prayers for Hawaii. The boats reminded him of paddling out from Makana to spread his father’s ashes on his favorite beach. “It makes me realize how strong our support system is here in Hawaii.”

Lanterns carrying written prayers and remembrances float along Ala Moana beach as a part of the Shinnyo Floating Lantern festival. (Shinnyo Floating Lantern Hawai'i)
Categories / Regional, Religion, Travel

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