Thinking of peace at the Buddhist Toro Nagashi after the terrorist attack in Norway


Paper lanterns dedicated and ready for launch at a 2007 Toro Nagashi ceremony. Frances Kai-Hwa Wang | Contributor

Two weeks after the Obon Festival, a Buddhist holiday to remember and celebrate one’s ancestors, during which spirits are said to come home to visit the family for two weeks, comes the Toro Nagashi, a Buddhist ritual to send our visiting ancestors back on their way to the realm of the spirits.

It is a beautiful ceremony, held at sunset at water’s edge, with Japanese American ladies in purple robes chanting, a Buddhist priest saying prayers, younger folks performing taiko drumming and song. Individual paper lanterns are dedicated to family members, lit, then towed out to sea by a small boat. The ancestors who have been home visiting their families in the world of the living follow the bobbing lanterns down the river and out to sea, which helps them find their way back to the land of the spirits.

One could make a bad joke here that although we all like our relatives to visit, we do not like them to stay too long.

However, really, the point of the ritual is to remember and honor our loved ones who have passed. In Honolulu, the ritual is held early, on Memorial Day for additional meaning: “The ceremony remembers those who gave their lives in conflict, allows for reflection on the memories of loved ones and dedicates prayers for a peaceful and harmonious future. Just as the waters of the Pacific merge with each ocean, the wish for peace and happiness extends from Hawaii across the globe.”

The images from this Lantern Floating Hawaii in Honolulu, just a few miles down the road from Pearl Harbor, are a moving testament to what multiculturalism could be. Folks of all races and ethnicities gather together at the sea, celebrate with hula dance and taiko drumming, Hawaiian chants and Japanese Buddhist blessings, messages of peace and hope written in many different languages, flowers and light.

On Memorial DayFor peace.

This year, I attend the Toro Nagashi with the tragedy in Norway heavy on my mind.

Anders Behring Breivik thought his attack was necessary, that he was fighting against multiculturalismimmigrants and the “Islamization of Europe.”

I have been reading some of the American right wing Christian bloggers and writers that inspired him, writers who were so quick to insist that the attack must have been the work of Muslim extremists and so defensive when Breivik turned out to be Christian and their work implicated.

They are not an easy read. Such anger, hatred, ego, and violence. With so much vitriol directed at The Other, how can they be surprised when their anger spirals out of control? What is it about their worldview that only people of other colors or faiths are capable of such terrible things?

When Japan beat the U.S. women’s team during the World Cup last month, the topics #PearlHarbor and #WorldCup were trending simultaneously on Twitter, and Facebook was full of taunts and threats of another Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and tsunami too). It is so disconcerting to see all these smiling faces of happy families with babies alongside messages like, “Hiroshima Nagasaki. USA still wins.

More than 200,000 people died 66 years ago this Aug. 6 and 9. There has to be a better way.

Perhaps we can learn from the country that created the Nobel Peace Prize.

Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg is reported as saying, “The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.”

When asked whether Oslo needs greater security, Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang is reported as saying, “I don’t think security can solve problems. We need to teach greater respect.”

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, a contributor for New America Media’s Ethnoblog and a contributor for Chicago is the World. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches “Asian Pacific American History and the Law” at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at


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