Connecting Common Threads

Photo of illuminated lanterns floating on the ocean with the cityscape of Honolulu in the background. It is night and the sky is dark with some sunset visible.


“All people share the wish for peace and comfort, to spend our days in happiness,” explained Her Holiness Shinso Ito, addressing the endless crowd of people gathered on Ala Moana Beach in Honolulu, Hawai’i. I was among this solemn yet hopeful crowd, holding onto my young daughter as she stared up at the illuminated stage where the ceremony was taking place.

The idea of a universal wish like the one Her Holiness was describing has been a challenging idea to wrap my head around these past several years. How can a world so divided share this simple wish? That’s a central question that Shinnyo-en seeks to answer.

Shinnyo-en is an international Buddhist community founded in Japan in 1936 by Shinjo and Tomoji Ito. Her Holiness is Shinjo and Tomoji’s daughter and the global leader of Shinnyo-en. Over the years, the once small group has grown into a community of over one million practitioners worldwide. Incorporating both traditional aspects of Japanese Buddhism and newer elements, the wisdom and practices of Shinnyo-en are open to all, including those who practice other faiths.

The term “shinnyo” is central within the philosophies and teachings of Shinnyo-en. Its meaning is simple yet complex, especially to those who come from religious backgrounds rooted in dualism (good vs. evil; this way vs. that way). Shinnyo refers to the innate goodness we all possess—the seed of altruism that pervades the universe and is inherent within everyone.

The past few years have been particularly difficult for many people. From pandemic-induced isolation to a widening ideological divide, times feel dark. According to Shinnyo-en, the only way through the darkness is together—by focusing our efforts on others and finding the common threads that connect us amid divides.

One of those common threads is loss. Losing a loved one is painful, and navigating grief feels like you’re standing in the surf—one minute you’re warm and dry, the next you’re underwater, wave after wave crashing down. Grief is an experience I know well, and it’s something that every person will live through at some point.

One way that many East Asian traditions shift the focus from grief to gratitude is through lantern floating. These moving events bring people together to honor those we’ve lost and acknowledge the stories, traits, and spirits of our loved ones that live on in us.

I had the great honor of attending the Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawaiʻi event in Honolulu this spring. Shinnyo-en has hosted the lantern floating every Memorial Day on Oahu since 1999, and over the years, it’s grown to be a much-anticipated event, attracting more than 45,000 people this year.

When the pandemic erupted in the United States in 2020, Shinnyo-en called off the lantern floating event, shifting to broadcast and digital experiences to keep the spirit of the ceremony alive. This May was the first time since 2019 that people were invited back to Ala Moana to experience the ceremony in person.

Shinnyo Lantern Floatings bring together art, music, light, culture, and spoken inspiration, all in a beautiful natural environment. The unique combination of these elements transcends traditional communication by creating a truly experiential way of sharing messages central to the organization.

Kayla's family stands at the water watching the lanterns. Her husband is holding her daughter and they all have their arms around each other
Kayla and her family watching their lantern join the others at Shinnyo Lantern Floating Hawai’i. Photo by Chikako Francis.

“When reality is harsh and challenging, when we face heartbreak and loss, in such moments we must look to the stories in our lives that remind us of our connections with one another. Our sadness will be halved through sharing, but our joys will be doubled.” This wisdom shared by Her Holiness perfectly encapsulated the emotion and feel of the evening.

Carrying our lantern adorned in handwritten messages to our loved ones down to the water, I felt great closeness with not just my family, but also with the countless others who were honoring their lost ones alongside us. This was the common thread that tied us together, and we didn’t need to go through our grief alone.

I’m grateful for the time that the Minerva team has collaborated with the big-hearted and generous team at Shinnyo-en. Whether you’re Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, finding connection among diversity is a goal to which we should all aspire.

P.S. Check out Shinnyo-en’s beautiful new website and Instagram! We’ve been working hard alongside Shinnyo-en, NakagawaCo, and Cause Fokus to launch these dynamic digital platforms, and we’re pretty proud. 🙂

A rainbow appears in the sky over a crowd of people.
A rainbow appears over the crowd just before the ceremony. Photo by Chikako Francis.

About The Author

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla has a strong affection for storytelling and an aptitude for translating complex topics into sharp messaging. While her career began more than a decade ago in strategic communications, an insatiable interest in everything health inspired her to return to school to study disparities research and behavior theory. Learn more about Kayla.