From the Dean: The Search for the Sacred

Written by SA-Worker18 student
May 21, 2015


Memorial Day is a holiday in the United States that usually conjures images of backyard barbeques, large parades and fireworks displays, lawn chairs next to well-stocked Igloo coolers with beer and cold beverages. ?Most of us know that the holiday recognizes the memory of those who died while serving in the armed forces. ?However, few of us remember the origin of the holiday. ?

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and began at the conclusion of the Civil War. ?With 600,000 Americans lost, and the recent assassination of Abraham Lincoln, several parts of the country seem to have simultaneously realized the need for a common ritual to honor the dead among both Union and Confederate soldiers. ?President Lincoln attempted to use Thanksgiving Day for the same purpose--a pause in the nation?s life to reflect on our common blessings, rather than our losses and divisions.

At one of the first Decoration Day memorials, General James Garfield gave a speech in Arlington National Cemetery, and then the crowd of 5,000 people decorated the graves of 20,000 American soldiers on both sides of the war. ?The depth of the divisions from a brutal Civil War is not easily resolved, but a ritual can help to start a process of healing.

American culture does not like to engage death, and since over the past four or five decades religious traditions have become increasingly suspicious of the validity and morality of war as a solution to our problems, many people of faith are particularly conflicted about death that comes from war. ?

So, it is significant that this Memorial Day, five representatives of Seattle University?s School of Theology and Ministry will travel to Hawaii to attend one of the largest Memorial Day remembrance services held in the United States. ?The Floating Lantern Ceremony is a memorial to those who have lost loved ones to death; it is a remembrance, in particular, of those who lost their lives during World War II. ?But, it is also a type of secular and interreligious revival for world peace. ?Video can only catch a certain amount of the color, texture and feel of an experience like this one. ?And, as a participant standing in the sand and looking out over a sea of 50,000 faces from many countries of the world, you are very much aware that you are involved in something that is bringing very different people together around a series of issues of our common humanity ? our mortality, the power of love in our life for others, and how we negotiate the inner terrain of the two. ?(Watch a video of the event, online here.?

I attended the Floating Lantern Celebration last year with my wife Terry (pictured right), and I think the most moving moment of the event for me was seeing the serious or tearful faces of descendants of Japanese and American soldiers in World War II walking side-by-side into the surf of A La Moana beach as they remembered loved ones who 70-some years earlier were probably locked in battle trying to kill one another. ?It can make you wonder if, despite the odds and the sad testimony of human history, efforts toward peace-building actually have a chance of success in our broken and fragile world.

During the ceremony, I was most aware of my own father, who died in 2001. I only saw my father cry four times in my life: once at the death of his mother, and again at the funeral of his father. ?The other two times I saw him cry occurred after family parties in which my rather large extended family spent an evening laughing and telling stories. ?Dad had a couple of scotches both times with uncles who liked to drink, and both times my father and I were sitting outside on my parents? back porch after everyone had left and the air was still heavy with the memory of the previous few hours. ?During both of those occasions, for some reason, my father drifted to memories of his time in the South Seas as a 17-year-old enlisted man in the Navy during World War II. ?Both times he wept about his memory of the viciousness of the killing, particularly when U.S. Army Rangers took a couple of Japanese prisoners into the jungle to interrogate them. ?My father never could expunge the memory of humans getting tortured for information, and never knew what to do with the difficult wartime experiences he had south of the equator, even though he carried those images and sounds in his mind and heart for more than half a century.

Since Pearl Harbor is just up the road from A La Moana Beach, and the Floating Lantern Ceremony is held on Memorial Day, it is hard not to imagine the significance of this kind of ritual and ceremony to the collective memories of the Japanese and American people. ?This is the kind of ritual that my 17-year-old father and his comrades in 1943 could never imagine as possible. ?For this reason, and many more, the ceremony offers an opportunity for historical healing, and for those of us from the generations following the war, we are given a chance to reflect on how much things really can change. ?My father was very much present with me on that beach last May, as were the parents of many people I have known who carried the scars through their life of a war that consumed most of the world.

So, let me share one other quick relevant story of my experience in Oahu last May. ?During a break in our meetings, I took a walk along the shops lining Waikiki Beach. ?While strolling past a fairly upscale hotel with boutique shops sandwiched around a chic hotel lobby entrance, a lovely young Israeli girl grabbed my hand and literally pulled me into her shop. ?When an attractive 20-something woman with a Hawaiian tan pulls a guy my age off a sidewalk, it is a good day and a memorable experience no matter what happens next!

Once inside the building I realized I was in some kind of beauty spa. ?This young woman told me she could do something about the lines under my eyes, pushed me into a chair and started rubbing some kind of bluish gel onto my face, all the while talking to me with great excitement about her company?s miraculous product line of age-defying, hypoallergenic cosmetics that had no animal by-products or animal testing. ?

She then asked me when I had my last facial. ?

?Well,? I said. ??I?ve heard of the term.?

?You?ve never had a facial?? she said with incredulity.

?No, I?m afraid I?m not even sure what a facial is.?

?What do you do with your face at night?? she asked, seeming to search for some glimmer of hope that my skin had not been forsaken my entire adult life.

?Well,? I said. ??I take out my contacts and I go to bed.?

She was aghast and looked at me in horror, and ? I don?t know ? did I see, perhaps, a little disgust in her eyes.

My attractive Israeli friend was so disturbed by my apparent dereliction to facial health that she begged me to come back so she could provide a free three-hour facial. ?This was the first time anyone offered me Cosmetic Charity, and I wasn?t sure if the proper response was to laugh or cry. (Frankly, I have absolutely no idea what you could do to somebody?s face for a three-hour period, let alone why you would want to spend the time that way. ?But, maybe that?s just me.) ?

The convergence of the Floating Lantern Ceremony and my Encounter of a Cosmetic Kind on the streets behind Waikiki Beach brought into broad relief a dimension of American culture that is masterfully addressed by this Buddhist public ritual.

In America we don?t like to think much about aging and death, or even wrinkles. ?We avoid the topics, and the emotions they elicit. ?We have an almost cultic fascination with youth, and have created multi-million dollar industries devoted to deflecting the natural ravages of time. ?From Rogaine to Viagra to Botox to the highly creative cosmetic industry employing my Israeli friend, our culture does everything in its power to push away from our sight the unsavory diminishment of our human bodies. ?Death becomes the ultimate enemy, the boogey-man of mortality, and we expend enormous amounts of psychic energy trying to avoid. ?

Ironically, we also glamorize death in literature and cinema at the same time, making it seem even more unreal (for all but the bad people). ?The United States is perhaps the only culture in the world that could create a series of movies with the title, Die Hard. ?You can Die Hard; you can Die Hard with a Vengeance; you can Live Free or Die Hard; you can even have a Good Day to Die Hard. ?We would like to think it is hard to die if you're a good person. ?Of course, if you engage in the action activities of Bruce Willis in these movies in real life, there is nothing hard about dying. ?It is actually quite easy, and a real person would be dead before the end of the opening credits. ?But, if you are into denial with special effects, you can create the illusion of immortality.

To really understand the true power of the Floating Lantern Ceremony you need to place it in the context of this American avoidance of aging, dying and death. ?

There are two people who began to notice the death denying patterns of many western cultures, but particularly the United States. ?In 1969, the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book based on her research at the University of Chicago with terminally ill patients. ? Her book, On Death and Dying, suggested that there are stages in the dying process, and although many have contested her research and its conclusions, her work forced medical schools to begin including the process of death in the education of the next generation of physicians, so they could help their patients deal with the emotions and experiences of dying and an approaching death. ?

In the next decade, the famous cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote a famous book that won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. ?His book was called The Denial of Death. ?The book is widely credited with capturing in engaging prose, perhaps for the first time, a distinctively American cultural preoccupation: the same avoidance of the real thoughts and emotions we have in regards to our finiteness, our mortality. ? Becker, who ended his career at Simon Frazier University in Vancouver, BC and also had a controversial career with some academic peers, came from a Jewish family and was involved in liberating a Nazi concentration camp in World War II. ? He saw first hand the possibilities of viciousness in the human heart. ?From these experiences and his interdisciplinary study of the human condition, Becker came to believe that most of us develop all kinds of internal and external strategies for fending off our awareness of our mortality and our true vulnerability before a constantly changing world and each other. ?This, he believed, is the real source of human intolerance, prejudice, and evil. ?However, for him, it is through the center of this beast that we find our true genius, as well. ??To live fully,? Becker said, ?is to live with an awareness of (this rumble of death?s) terror that underlies everything.?

The Floating Lantern Ceremony takes you into the heart of the mystery of death. ?But, it allows you to come out the other side of the reflection with a sense of hope, and an uncanny and unspoken sense of camaraderie with a sea of humanity taking the same brave journey. This is a religious ceremony with a rich history and lots of meaning for Buddhists. ?However, it has become just as much a public and cultural ritual as it is a religious one. ?It speaks to people from many different religious traditions and none at all. ?It does so through the power of primordial symbols like light and dark, the cleansing and refreshing nature of water, the music of different cultures, and the natural beauty of nature. ?Mix in the uncompromising hospitality of the Shinnyo-en community, the movement of native traditions of dance, and a ceremonial structure that elicits a human emotional space that one might call in my business of theological education ? a ?sacred moment.? ?Such a moment may sound like religious mumbo-jumbo. ?But, in its pure existential form a sacred moment lifts the participant out of chronological time in order to have a brief taste of the experience of timelessness. ?This sense of timelessness makes present to this moment the experiences of other times and places with loved ones who are no longer with us, and yet, strangely, are still very much with us in this sacred moment. ? ? ?

No doubt the Shinnyo-en community has always known that they have a moving ritual for Buddhist members. ?But, I get the impression that the organizers were a little surprised on just how much the public ritual has captivated the attention and imagination of those who attend. ?

I think the overflowing response to the Floating Lantern Ceremony occurs, in part, because it speaks to the political and cultural history of both Japan and the United States. ?It also gives testimony to the real global village that is emerging from the forces of globalization and making our world smaller and flatter (to use the words of Thomas Friedman). ?Last spring, I met a young woman in the elevator of our hotel who had flown to Hawaii from France to participate in the ceremony in order to honor her mother, who had died after a long tortuous battle with cancer. ?There was also an African participant who had witnessed the murder of her husband in a bloody civil war. ?Both came to the beach in Honolulu to bathe themselves in the cleansing waters of remembrance. ?I also met others from many parts of the world, many religious traditions and none at all. ?All seemed ready to open themselves to experience more deeply the love that they had lost to death but was not extinguished. ? As a community unknown to each other, we remembered people who had touched our lives, and we stood with each other before the profound mystery of our loss, the destruction and desolation of war and the reconstruction and hope that rises from the ashes of human mortality.

But, most surprising of all, given this extended reflection on death and the pain it causes us, the Floating Lantern Ceremony is not a sad gathering. ?It is filled with the stillness of standing before the sacred with questions of the human condition. ?There is an ocean of gentleness in this shared experience on a beautiful beach at sundown that ultimately softens the sting of separation everyone feels from those we once loved.?

I think the reason the Floating Lantern Ceremony touched me so profoundly is that this public ritual resonates with the deepest human existential questions, the kinds of questions that haunt us in our quieter moments. ?These questions are just as much with us as the ghosts of lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and grandparents, spouses and children. ?Questions like: How do I make sense of my mortality and the finiteness of everyone and everything that gives my life meaning? ?What does it mean to love someone so much that a huge hole is left in my heart when this precious person dies and leaves me? ?How am I to understand the mystery of this once distinctive personality that was filled with energy and passion and love and dreams and ambitions and has now been silenced? ?Despite the pain of the loss, what gives me the strength to chance to love again, to open myself to the inevitability of loss again? ?

Is it conceivable to think that I am still connected to a loved one in some fashion, over and above the chemical excretions and electrical firing associated with the memories generated in my brain?s activity? ?Is it still reasonable, in these highly secular times, to believe that we might even impact each other?s lives from beyond the chasm between this life and whatever lies on the other side of our physical death, if indeed there is something beyond blackness? ? Is a faith in the power of love to transcend even death an act of faith or superstition; after someone I love dies, is my experience of a ?presence? a true spiritual experience or a psychological projection?

Anyone who thinks these are easily resolved questions is not paying attention to human experience or the evolution of human thought. ?

It is our American denial of encroaching death that makes the Floating Lantern Ceremony such an unexpected and unique experience, and something of a cultural phenomenon. It has become a public ritual with religious roots that invites participants to walk into the center of the mystery of death, to embrace the hope that there is something that lies beyond this life, and to open themselves to the possibility of a new kind of experience of loved ones who have passed from this world.

Like it or not, all of us stand before this mystery, even those of us formed in a death-denying American culture. ?The great thing about participating in the Floating Lantern Ceremony is that you don?t need to come to the same conclusion as the Shinnyo-en Buddhists about the relationship between life here and what might occur on the other side of this existence. ?

You can just hover over the mystery of it all, and do so with tens of thousands of others. ?Together the mystery may not seem less mysterious. ?But, it does make you realize that it central to who were are as human beings, and it reminds us that among all the things we may share in our common humanity, the inevitability of death and dying may provide the most effective bridge-builder across our differences.?

~Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD