GUESTVIEW: Buddhist peace lanterns on Hudson to mark 9/11
(Photo: Lanterns floating on the Hudson, 11 Sept 2007)
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Matthew Weiner is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York.
By Matthew Weiner
Everyone has a September 11th story, especially those living in New York, and just about every religious community has a way of commemorating it. Most religious leaders include the topic in their weekly sermons. Others hold prayer services on the day itself. Do different religions do so differently?
Some Buddhists do. On Friday, September 11th, Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, a Japanese Buddhist priest, hosts his annual Lantern Lighting Ceremony at Pier 40 on the Hudson River. He has done so every year on the day of anniversary. Hundreds of people attend- many of them Buddhists, but mostly they are just New Yorkers who have made this the way that they pass the evening of 9/11 as the sun sets.
An obon ceremony, as it is called, is traditionally done in the summer to commemorate the dead (specifically for the victims of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima). Small rice paper lanterns are built, families write the name of loved ones who have passed on the lanterns, candles are placed inside and the lanterns are set out to sea. Nakagaki has used the service, but changed it, for this annual purpose.
In the New York version, lanterns are set out in kayaks, courtesy of the New York Kayak Club, and bob along the shore of the Hudson . Their soft glow speckle the reflections the twin tower light beams, emanating from Ground Zero.
The way he came to this says something about living in New York as a Buddhist.
Buddhists are often seen in the West as being passive or contemplative in the face of serious problems. This is a general mischaracterization. Rev. Nakagaki’s story of response to the attacks on 9/11 serves as good example of the different kinds of action a Buddhist may do.
On the day of September 11th, Rev. Nakagaki was in his temple on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He got a call inviting him to lead a meditation at Columbia University, which he did, guiding students in mindfulness meditation and loving kindness meditation. Two days later, he joined the Interfaith Center of New York’s United Nations Prayer Service.
That afternoon, he participated in the Interfaith Center’s press conference, which included fifteen Muslim leaders, all of whom condemned the attacks. Nakagaki’s job was a bit different. He also condemned the attacks, and more than most insisted that non-violence was the only proper response. But he also pointed to his own Buddhist community and called on Buddhists to be tolerant of local Muslims. Muslims were already being attacked. A Sikh man mistaken for a Muslim had been killed in Texas. He reminded the audience that after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Japanese were put into internment camps. Remembering this, he said, we have to respond differently.
While Nakagaki was involved in many other responses, he noticed that no Buddhist was invited to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s nationally televised Yankee Stadium prayer service. This, in spite of the fact that Chinatown was the residential neighborhood most affected by the attacks. “I guess they forgot about us?” Nakagaki asked.
Although Nakgaki was never able to get a straight answer to his question, he kept asking, and decided to create his own service.
Most interfaith services are structured in a Christian way, and so Nakagaki decided to have his interfaith service revolve around a Buddhist ceremony for the dead. But others would be involved. The Interfaith Center of New York, a co-sponsor, convenes the interfaith prayers from many other faiths (although this year, as the service falls on Shabbat, there will not be a Jewish representative). United Sikhs serves delicious food, as they always do. Other co-sponsors include the New York Kayak Club, the Buddhist Council of New York and New York de Volunteers.
This new ritual for the city came about because Buddhists were left out, but Nakagaki doesn’t see the event as primarily Buddhist. Yes, he says, it is Buddhist. “But in this case, I am a Buddhist, but also a New Yorker.”