Reflection on 10th Annual Floating Lanterns ~ Guest Post by Rev. T.K. Nakagaki

Rev. T. K. Nakagaki ia a Buddhist priest, ordained in the 750-year-old Jodoshinshu tradition of Japanese Buddhism.  He formerly served as resident minister of The New York Buddhist Church from 1994-2010. 

Currently, he is a doctoral student in multifaith studies at New York Theological Seminary as well as Vice President of The Interfaith Center of New York, Clergy-on-Call for Columbia University, Community Clergy Liason for the NYC Police Dept., and Religious Advisor to the Japanese-American Lions Club. He is a current member and former President of the Buddhist Council of New York.

Since 1994, Rev. Nakagaki has organized a commemoration of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and since 2002, the annual 9/11 World Trade Center Floating Lanterns Toronagashi memorial event on the Hudson River. [more info]


photos taken by Angela Jimenez

I have been organizing New York’s annual 9/11 memorial floating lantern ceremony since 2002. Over the past decade, the event has become a major event for New Yorkers of all faiths to come together in peace and tranquility to show our respect and gratitude without a political agenda to all the lives which were lost related to the 9-11 terrorist attack.

            In Japan, the tradition of floating lighted lanterns down a river during the Buddhist summer holiday of Obon memorializes those who have passed before us. Names of the dead are written on the lantern sleeves. In Japanese this tradition is called “toronagashi”.

              Although the 9/11 toronagashi is fundamentally a Buddhist ceremony based on Buddhist principles, it also has interfaith elements, music elements, and interactive participation with visitors writing peace messages on the 108 lanterns. Buddhist practices can and should be inclusive and interactive with the larger society, not just limited to the original ethnic group from where a particular tradition originates, or even necessarily limited to those who call themselves Buddhist. Buddhism is for all beings. Buddhism should also be mutually respectful of and engaged with other religious traditions.

        From it’s beginnings in 2002, the NY toronagashi has been an excercise in many people collaboratively working together towards peace. As many things in life do, it started not with a deliberate intent but instead with a chance encounter, in this case with a journalist named Erik Baard who was researching a piece he was writing for a local newspaper about religious water rituals. Erik, who is also a kayaker, was drawn to this subject after watching the towers collapse on 9/11 from a boathouse on the Hudson River. He realized as he watched ash and debris spill into the river that it would be the final resting place for many victims. When he asked me if there had ever been a toronagashi in NY, I realized it would be a relevant way to memorialize 9/11.

            Realizing the idea into action took many efforts from many people. Erik volunteered to assist in making arrangements to secure a pier to stage the event. A few years later, Randall Henriksen, head of New York Kayak Company and a Buddhist himself, joined in. The involvement of the kayakers is vital. Unlike Japan, where the lanterns are left to float down a small river and burn out on their own, in NY it is not permitted to float anything and just leave it there, especially something with an open flame! So the kayakers have the important job of pulling the lanterns, strung along in groups of ten, into a harbor area of the river, and then retrieving them after the event.

           A group of young Japanese volunteers joined in the project and helped me engineer a lantern larger than a typical one used in Japan that would be sturdy enough to withstand the Hudson’s strong current. A Muslim Pakistani family who owned a small business in Brooklyn generously donated the Styrofoam used for the bases.

           The Buddhist Council of NY, of which I was then president, supported the event along with the Interfaith Center of New York. A large interfaith memorial service held at Yankee Stadium shortly after the attacks had included representatives from many major religions, but neglected to include any Buddhists. This significant oversight had bothered me and also was a factor in motivating me to create a Buddhist 9/11 memorial event.

            Over the years the event has grown. For the 10th anniversary this year, an estimated 2,000 people attended.  More than 90 volunteers are involved in preparing the event. Several other groups have joined in to co-sponsor it, including 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. A Sikh group provided delicious free meals. Prayers were offered by representatives from Afro-Caribbean religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikh. Several musicians from Japan and the US performed. This year we also remembered the 6-month anniversary of the 3/11 tsunami/earthquake/nuclear tragedy in Japan.

             I feel that our good will and wish for peace is what makes this event successful. The message of peace, message of preciousness of life, and message of working together beyond our boundaries are essential for this event. And with that good will we can both transcend differences and also celebrate them.

             This ceremony is created by many, not just one individual. To me it recalls the Amida Sutra: “A blue lotus shines with blue color, yellow lotus shines with yellow, red lotus shines with red, and white lotus shines with white, harmonizing perfectly with wondrous fragrance.” This means each one of us shines with our own unique characteristics, keeping harmony with mutual respect. We don’t become the same color. In a way, it is like an orchestra. Each instrument is uniquely different, yet when they work together, it creates great music.


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