It is a ceremony both moving and serene. Yesterday evening at sunset, I stood with my feet in the warm waters off Oahu’s Ala Moana Beach Park, one of hundreds of people about to release a paper lantern—inscribed in my case to my mother, who died this year—the lantern illuminated by a softly glowing candle, and set a top a high-tech miniature surfboard.
Lantern floating is a Buddhist tradition, and the Memorial Day Lantern Floating Hawaii is officiated by colorfully garbed priests of the Buddhist order Shinnyo-en. But it’s also now a Hawaii tradition, embraced by people of all faiths.
The brief ceremony included Hawaiian chant, music and hula as well as Japanese Taiko drumming. Amy Hanaialii sang. Raiatea Helm did a touching duet with Keola Beamer. The head of the Shinnyo-en Order, Shinso Ito, invoked the Hawaiian concepts of ohana and aloha in her remarks.
Forty thousand people filled the area around the beach. I felt privileged to be able to float one of the 1,600 lanterns. At the signal, we released our lanterns in the slowly darkening water. They drifted slowly, gently, out to sea, each glowing square carrying handwritten prayers and remembrances. The woman standing next to me on the beach cried.
Despite the crowd, the event was remarkably well organized, the mood both reflective and, in its own way, joyous. The ceremony honors the dead. But what the Buddhist Order has done here, for free, turning all funds raised during the event over to the city—well, it was gift to the living as well.
The spirit of Hawaii somehow glowed in those lanterns.