Wisdom Publications was delighted to attend the first Shinnyo Lantern Floating for Peace in New York City's Central Park on September 22, 2013. Shinnyo-en, a Japanese Buddhist organization, has developed a reputation for their ability to bring together diverse groups of people, religious and nonreligious, to participate in inspirational communal events. It is remarkable that the organization, which is an offshoot of the esoteric Shingon School of Japanese Buddhism, manages to use tantric rites as a nucleus around which to build community engagement, social activism, interfaith dialog, and charitable activity.
The lantern floating event has become one of Shinnyo-en's greatest successes. The annual lantern floating held in Honolulu, Hawaii, attracts tens of thousands of participants each year, and marked its fifteenth anniversary this year. Her Holiness Shinso Ito, head of Shinnyo-en, developed the lantern floating event to be a more accessible adaptation of traditional esoteric rites of fire and water. One of the adaptive changes is that the public is invited to participate in the rite by writing memorial messages of appreciation or prayers on the lanterns—for lost loved ones, for those suffering or in danger, or as general aspirations for a peaceful future. She sees the events as “dedicated to awakening people to their innate compassionate and altruistic nature, transcending all boundaries of age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, and religious tradition, and directing the positive energy of the ceremony outward with the hope that all people can live in a world of hope and harmony.” Judging by their ability to attract greater and greater numbers of participants, the majority of whom are certainly non-Buddhist, it would seem that Reverend Ito has realized that aim.
The lantern floating event in New York employed the same strategy of aiming to draw participants to the event from as wide a swath of the community as possible. Shinnyo-en arranged for a variety of musical performers to play at the site in the park throughout the day leading up to the evening. The music attracted a large number of casual observers, many of whom settled in on the grassy meadows above the ice skating rink to enjoy the beautiful late summer afternoon. Many, curious about the flurry of activity around the reflecting pool constructed on the premises, wandered in to take a look. As a result, a huge number of lanterns were inscribed with personal messages and prayers by members of the community that had only happened upon the event by chance. From the size of the crowd that stayed on to watch the ceremony and to see their lanterns floated, it seemed that the small ritual investment of writing a message, ultimately yielded full participation in the ceremony.
The Central Park Lantern Floating for Peace was arranged to be held on the eve of the opening of the general assembly of the United Nations, with the idea of functioning as a stimulus for collective prayer or good wishes that the body rise to the challenge of making peace when war and conflict seem inevitable. Shinso Ito—herself a rare woman in the Buddhist world who holds a leadership position—has been an open advocate for women’s issues. So it is no surprise that a number of "international women peacemakers"—representatives of various U.N. committees dedicated to representing the women of the world—were invited to speak and dedicate lanterns prior to the performance of the tantric rite of purification at the heart of the event.
Finally, the moment arrived for Her Holiness and the priests of Shinnyo-en to perform the purificatory rite. They entered the stage in a solemn procession, and after very brief remarks from Her Holiness, the rite began. Although the purpose of the rite was only minimally explained, the power of the ritual, beautified by a melancholy chant from the Naya Sutra, spoke for itself. A hush fell over the gathered crowd, and one sensed a palpable shift in the collective mood. When it came time to move to the edge of the pool and release the inscribed lanterns, people spoke only in whispers, touched each other gently to indicate their presence in the line, and moved past one another with extra care. Here and there a person lingered an extra while at the edge of the pool, with their eyes closed and their hands folded. One could read in the faces of the participants the great meaning that the symbolic releasing of the lanterns onto the water carried. The magical working of the sights and sounds of the day continued on in the hugs, teary smiles, and conversations of the people as they dispersed into the night and the city.
Video of the entire event can be found at www.bealightforpeace.org.