Fire + Water

An Interview with Shinso Ito


Tricycle Managing Editor Rachel Hiles interviews her Holiness Shinso Ito, head of Shinnyo-en, following the 13th annual lantern floating ceremony held in Honolulu, Hawaii.


What do the floating lanterns symbolize? The Japanese traditional lantern floating ceremony was established to consecrate prayer to the departed, to the people who have passed away. The flame of the candle lit inside a lantern symbolizes a life, and the prayer consoles the departed and wishes them to go to a better life, a better place in the spiritual realm. The ceremony is based on the realization that our lives—the people living right now—are built on the foundation of the lives given by previous generations. We are at the front line of the chain of lives going back to infinite time in the past. Lantern floating gives us the opportunity to say “Thank you” and offer prayers of appreciation to the lives who gave life to us. The lit lantern represents our conversation with the people beyond the boundary of life and death; it is an occasion where we say “Thank you” to the infinite past. When we have that profound appreciation, that's when we get awakened to a strong resolve of living this moment fully. It’s about appreciation, but also having a resolve to live for now and for the future.

Why did you decide to bring this tradition to Honolulu? Hawaii is located in the middle of the largest ocean in the world, and the water of the Pacific touches the shores of five continents, so Honolulu is the ideal location for sending prayer messages. The spirituality represented in this ceremony is very similar to the spirituality observed by Hawaiian people, which is reflected in the aloha [love] and ohana [family]. There is a very warm and welcoming spirituality here, so from a spiritual point of view, we felt that this was a suitable place.

When my father, Master Shinjo, the founder of Shinnyo-en, and I came to Hawaii 41 years ago, the first thing we did was to pay our respects at the USS Arizona Memorial and the Punchbowl Cemetery. We offered consecrated prayer to the war victims and we imagined that one day we would do a lantern floating here in Hawaii to offer prayer—not just to the departed in Hawaii or in Japan, but to all the people in the world who have passed away. When we did the first lantern floating in Honolulu, we were a little concerned about how local Hawaiians would receive an event organized by a Japanese group. But when we held the first lantern floating event, we were welcomed really warmly by the local people. My wish going forward is that through this event, people can rediscover kindness in their hearts and their willingness to do more and better for other people. Though there are many different people who attend, participants experience a feeling of warmth and the feeling of being interconnected.

In Japan, the lantern floating ceremony is held in late summer, but in Honolulu the ceremony is conducted at the end of May.
When we brought the tradition to Hawaii, we felt it was important to respect American culture, so we chose Memorial Day—a day when American people send prayer to loved ones they have lost. And by doing so, we hope that Japanese customs will be combined with American tradition and that this will create a kind of a harmonious merge of two different cultures and traditions. We are hoping to spread that harmony from here to the world, building toward a world of harmony—this was the wish of Master Shinjo when he visited Hawaii, and I feel that it is my mission to realize his wish.

Can you tell me a little bit about the water ceremony that happens in private, before the lantern floating?
The water consolatory service always precedes the lantern floating ceremony. It is a religious service—a religious rite of extending spiritual liberation to all spirits. I stand in front of a reclining Buddha statue carved by my father, and I invite all the spirits to the realm of the Buddha's enlightenment; in the Buddha's realm they'll be consoled and invigorated. This esoteric Buddhist rite was first taught by Buddha Shakyamuni and was passed down from generation to generation through the dharma stream.

The lantern floating ceremony—which takes place afterward—is open to the public, and there are so many people who attend, all with different faith traditions. We don't expect that everyone understands the traditional Buddhist rite, so we conduct the water consolatory service in private at the temple. All spirits are liberated through that ritual, and then by the time we do the lantern floating at the beach, all the souls are in a joyous state in the spiritual realm.

Where do the spirits go after they’ve been liberated? Where do we go after this life? I have an image of a place that I'd like to go when I die, and I believe that many people have different ideas about where they want to go. And I think that is okay. The purpose of the water consolatory service and the lantern floating is to help people get where they want to go. For instance, if a Japanese person feels that he might like to become an American in his next life, I personally feel that this should be respected. The merit transfer during the water consolatory service should help people—those who are alive, but also those who are already in the spiritual realm—to go where they want to go. It is meant to help them to go where they felt that they wanted to be in the spiritual realm. Maybe as a spiritual leader I should not say that—I should probably say that Shinnyo-en's merit transfer is going to send souls to the Buddha's world only—but I personally feel that it is for anyplace that they want to go.

You chanted a mantra right before the lanterns were placed in the water, and I’ve heard that the mantra and the tune of the chant have a very special meaning for Shinnyo-en. Master Shinjo trained himself under the Shingong tradition, and prior to that he received a precious image of [the guardian deity] Achala with a lotus flower on top of his head and a flame behind him. The flower symbolizes Achala's wish to save people and the flame symbolizes his strong resolve. Achala's core mantra, the mantra that I chanted, has is usually chanted in a flat tone, with no melodic tune attached to it—that’s how Master Shinjo received it from his master.

The Achala image represents a strong resolve to save and liberate people, and the ritual conducted in front of the Achala is the fire ritual, the homa ritual. In the early days of Shinnyo-en, Master Shinjo conducted the fire ritual almost every day. Whenever he received people who came to him for help, he conducted the fire rite. When his first son was only 22 months old he became seriously sick, but still Master Shinjo continued conducting fire ritual to help solve the problems for other people who came to visit him. One night the baby’s mother, the cofounder of Shinnyo-en, Tomoji Ito, was holding her dying son in her arms and chanting this mantra. As she was chanting at the last moments of her son’s life, a tune naturally came out in her prayer. Today, we use this same melody when we chant Achala’s core mantra. The last word of this mantra is a Sanskrit letter, which is translated in Japanese writing; it was passed to Japan from India through China. This letter signifies spiritual merit of 1,000 miles, meaning an infinite amount of spiritual merit is contained in a single Sanskrit letter, and that letter is placed in the last word of this mantra. So it's a mantra of infinite amount of spiritual merit.

Were you doing mudras during the ceremony last night? I did the mudra that an officiant does before entering into a ritual. It is kind of a humble greeting to the Buddha which says that during the ritual, I will be in communion with the Buddha—my speech, my mind, and my body are one with the Buddha and the Buddha comes into me. The oneness of the body with the Buddha is represented in the mudra. The mudra says to the Buddha, Let me go into your realm with all the souls and spirits, and together with all the audience and the people here, so that was the communication from me to the Buddha before entering into Buddha's world.

After you released your lantern into the ocean last night—while 40,000 people watched—you signaled that you wanted a camera so that you could take a photograph. There were already several Shinnyo-en staff members taking photographs; why did you want to take a photograph yourself? I have a few hobbies: calligraphy, painting, and photography, too. Some of my artwork has been used to produce postcards to raise money as part of our philanthropic activities. We made a postcard with my calligraphy printed on a picture that I took on Memorial Day last year after the lantern floating ceremony. The photograph was of a beautiful full moon. The calligraphy I used signified love for the moon, the love to heal other people, and meditative contemplation. Shinnyo-en members bought the postcards and the funds raised from the sales were donated to earthquake disaster relief in northeast Japan. 

So the reason I asked for a camera was that I wanted to take photographs of the lantern floating, and I thought that next year we could make a new postcard and use it to raise funds for organizations—for instance, groups that protect the environment and wildlife.

I thought it was a very nice moment. Thousands of people had been taking photographs of you, and then you turned and took a photograph of us. Did it look like just a regular person rather than a priest?

Yes, it seemed very spontaneous.
Sometimes I feel like the way I act might not appear to be appropriate for a religious leader. However, I went through a very, very strict traditional training. And, you know, this is who I am.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.