HONOLULU – Thousands of people floated lanterns in the ocean from a Honolulu beach Monday to remember loved ones and pay tribute to ancestors in an annual Memorial Day ritual that has its origins in Buddhist traditions from Japan.
The Japanese Buddhist sect Shinnyo-en organized the ceremony, now in its 13th year. The group's leaders estimated the event drew more than 40,000 people to Ala Moana Beach Park.
In a year marked by natural disasters, the thoughts of many who attended were with those who lost their lives in the March 11 earthquake and tsunamis in Japan, and the tornadoes that ripped through Missouri, Alabama and other parts of the U.S. mainland in recent months.
"We give our prayers out to everyone in the world that has had disasters happen to them. It's a part of all of us coming together and praying for one another. Just being one big family, no matter where you are in the world," said Lori Chong Kee, of Honolulu.
Participants wrote the names of those they are honoring and a short message on the lanterns before setting them in the water at sunset.
Chong Kee wrote a note on her lantern for her mother, who passed away seven months ago.
"We still think about her every day. We miss her a lot. The kids miss her," she said.
Part of the ceremony's appeal is the beauty of the lanterns slowly drifting off in the water as the sun sets in the horizon.
Those participating said the ritual also helps them cope with the loss of a loved one, as though physically setting the lantern in the water helps them spiritually let go of someone they're mourning. They also speak of the power that comes from sharing the experience with thousands of others around them.
"Lantern floating touches your heart. It doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what religion you come from, it doesn't matter what culture, what you believe in," said Roy Ho, the executive director of the Na Lei Aloha Foundation, a social services organization founded by Shinnyo-en that helps organize the event.
In Japan, the centuries-old tradition is generally observed in July or August to coincide with obon, the season when ancestors are honored. In Hawaii, Shinnyo-en holds a ceremony on Memorial Day, in the hopes this will help it win wider acceptance among the public.
Shinnyo-en's leader, Her Holiness Shinso Ito, said having the event on Memorial Day blends American and Japanese cultures.
"I thought there would be harmony if they combined, and it would be nice if harmony spread just a little bit more in the world," Ito said in an interview before the ceremony.
The event has gained a broad following since 1999, when 7,000 people — many of them Shinnyo-en members from Japan — gathered at Keehi Lagoon next to the airport. It's since grown sixfold, draws participants of many faiths and backgrounds, and has moved to a larger beach park in the center of town. A television station now broadcasts the ceremony live in Hawaii.
Leaders of various religious denominations in Honolulu — representing the Catholic diocese, a Jewish temple, the Episcopal diocese, and other Buddhist sects — attended. A few helped set flame to a giant torch called the Light of Harmony during the ceremony.
Shinnyo-en prepared 3,000 lanterns for Monday's event. Volunteers collected the lanterns afterward they didn't drift out to sea, and Shinnyo-en plans to respectfully recondition them so they can be used again next year.
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