By Paul Chaffee
A Higher Plateau for Interfaith Inclusivity
More than 40,000 converged on a beach in Hawaii to witness and participate in TōrōNagashi, the floating lantern ceremony on Memorial Day this year. Millions more witnessed it on television and the internet. Veterans, city officials and state legislators, clergy from various traditions, and thousands of children, gathered at Ala Moana Beach Park on O’ahu’s south shore at dusk Monday, May 28. They joined in a day of memorial observances culminating in 3,300 lantern-bearing paper boats floating into the sunset with prayers for lost loved ones and for peace.
A net at the mouth of the bay keeps the lamps from floating out to sea. When darkness finally falls, volunteers row across the water, picking up the boats, to be recycled the next year, and the written prayers are sent to the spiritual world ceremonially.
A New Approach to Memorial Day
Beneath the pastoral image of floating lanterns is a counter-intuitive tale about interfaith culture developing in new, unexpected ways. This very public civic event is sponsored by Shinnyo-en, a young Buddhist order growing out of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. But the event itself is “secular,” or, if you will, interfaith. Volunteers from different religious traditions prepare lantern kits and help distribute them. The interethnic, interfaith music and dance program preceding the lantern floating included indigenous performers. The lanterns, limited to 3,300, go to the first in line (families often share one), not necessarily to ‘members.’
Shinnyo-en’s floating lantern tradition, historically based on the notion that the small boats guided the spirits of the dead to the afterworld, was initially celebrated according to the Buddhist calendar. In 1999, though, Shinnyo’en’s leader, Her Holiness Shinso Ito, made the practice much more collaborative. The Order approached the Honolulu community to join them as partners in a public Memorial Day celebration featuring the lanterns. It has grown every year since then.
Shinnyo-en has a well-deserved reputation for being interfaith friendly. Membership is not required of employees of its ‘secular’ foundations. It devotes considerable time and energy on collaborative peacemaking and generating a harmonious world where everything living is honored.
The Shinnyo-en Foundation in San Francisco, for instance, established in San Francisco in 1995 as a secular, philanthropic arm of the Order, supports education programs that engage young people from all faiths in meaningful acts of service. The Foundation took a team of 12 young-adult interfaith activists from across California to Honolulu. They came from Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, and Zoroastrian backgrounds, and interacted with Buddhist young adults in Hawaii.
A Deeper Kind of Interfaith Peacemaking
A case can be made that Shinnyo-en, which means “borderless garden of truth,” is one of the most proactive interfaith religious communities in the world. It is deeply, unequivocally rooted in Buddhism. But its membership, program, outreach, and work in the world is inclusive, hospitable, and collaboratively engaged with other traditions.
It is active philanthropically, not only to advance Buddhism but to meet human needs. And, it seems, a special Shinnyo-en discipline and skill is to gather people from all backgrounds, religious and otherwise, to significant ceremonial events, like Memorial Day in Honolulu. They create public events that move and transform people in the context of the whole community – an incredibly rare spiritual achievement in today’s world. Shinnyo-en sponsors similar events and interfaith programming at various sites in Japan, in California and New York, in Europe and Africa.
In a world of billions, their million is a small number. Where some religious communities trace their histories in millennia, Shinnyo-en is a newcomer. Yet its influence for goodness in the world, for generating a sense of solidarity bigger than all our differences, extends far beyond what one might expect.
So much interfaith conversation today concerns the difficulties within and among the Abrahamic traditions. Countless Christian-Jewish-Muslim communities struggle to identify any ray of light, any hope for peace. This heartbreak is exasperated by the fact that rarely if ever do the Abrahamic players invite leaders from Asian traditions and indigenous traditions to the peace-table as they confront their difficulties. If that neglect were healed, inviting Shinnyo-en into the conversation would be an inspiring way to start a new day.