Floating lanterns mark toro nagashi

WAILUA — Members of the Kapa‘a Jodo Mission took advantage of clear skies and a nice evening breeze in Wailua to close that church’s O-Bon season, Sunday.

Close to a hundred members and their families gathered for the traditional toro nagashi, or floating lanterns ceremony, at the Kaumuali‘i Park on the Wailua River.

According to Rev. Gensho Hara on the Jodo Shu Buddhism Web site, the toro nagashi is the most beautiful and colorful of the traditional Buddhist observances, and in Japan, this custom has been passed down and practiced for hundreds of years.

In the Jodo Shu sect, legend has the departed souls of loved ones coming from Buddha’s Pure Land, or Jodo, to visit their homes in this world.

To welcome the souls, each family makes a fire called mukaebi in front of their home, the fire welcoming the souls so they can arrive to their earthly homes.

During this time, services and the bon dance are held at the temple with prayers and food offered to ensure the happiness of the departed souls in the Pure Land.

Another fire, called okuribi or sending off fire, is made on the last day of O-Bon. The okuribi is made to send off the departed souls back to the Pure Land.

During the toro nagashi, Hara said, “We send floating lanterns out into the sea. The candlelight of the lanterns symbolizes the okuribi, and as the lanterns sway and float away on the waves, we recall fond memories of our beloved ones and pray wholeheartedly for their safe return.”

Hara said the kind and warm feeling is how the traditional custom is observed each year, leaving a deep impression in people’s hearts and reflection on their own life’s journey as they bid farewell to the departed souls.

Traditionally, people acquire toro that represent a person who has passed on through a donation to the church, and those are the people who make up the majority of spectators who lined the small state park to watch an adaptation of the Kapa‘a Jodo Mission’s toro nagashi.

In Wailua, a small motorized boat pulls the procession for a distance upriver before turning and heading out to sea.

Church members manning the lead boat and the flotilla of rafts containing lit toro offer incense as Rev. Shoryu Akiya chants. The aroma of incense wafts in the still evening air and blends with the tropical smells.

Toro nagashi ceremonies have further been expanded to include the honoring of deceased military personnel and held during Memorial Day on O‘ahu, while in Japan, a special toro nagashi ceremony is held to honor victims of Hiroshima.

Hara said the origin of O-Bon, a Japanese word derived from Ullambana, is based on the teachings of the Buddha.

According to the Ullambana sutra, the observance was started by Maudgalyayana’s deep love for his mother.

Maudgalyayana was one of the Buddha’s 10 great disciples, and following his enlightenment, sought to find out what happened to his departed mother.

He was surprised to find that she was in hell, thin and raw-boned.

Maudgalyayana was so saddened, he put food in a bowl and took it to his mother, but when she tried to eat the food, it turned into a bowl of flames.

He sought the help of the Buddha and other monks to give special prayer offerings to her.

July 15 is the day Maud-galyayana and the monks completed their devotion and confessional session and was the day that he asked all the monks to offer prayers for his mother. This date became known as O-Bon.

After being advised by the Buddha to preserve this special Ullambana service for future generations, the observance became an annual practice that continues to be observed throughout the world.

The dances at the O-Bon festival symbolize Maudgal-yayana’s great joy when his mother was saved.

Historically, the concept of the bon dance developed between the 10th and 15th centuries under the influence of Shinto dance with most of the dances being choreographed to reflect contemporary times.

Hara said the significance of the bon dance is honoring the departed souls while at the same time, it is an expression of our joy that we are living happily today.

There are four more bon dances hosted by members of the Kaua‘i Buddhist Council on the calendar for the remainder of the summer.

This weekend, the bon dance takes place Friday and Saturday evenings at the Waimea Higashi Hongwanji.

On July 25-26, the bon dances take place at the West Kaua‘i Hongwanji Mission, Koloa Temple.

The Kaua‘i Soto Zenshuji church in Hanapepe is the site for bon dances on Aug. 1-2 and the final bon dance takes place Aug. 8-9 at the Koloa Jodo Mission.

• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or dfujimoto@kauaipubco.com

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