Lady of the Lanterns

Tomoji had a strong personality and was a devoted and academically accomplished Buddhist, and Her Holiness is certain her father would not have successfully established Shinnyo-en without the active participation of his wife.

But their early years knew the tragedy of losing two children. The eldest son Chibun was sickly and died before his second birthday. The second son Yuichi had health issues from birth and died at 15.


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MidWeek travels to Japan to interview Her Holiness Shinso Ito, who on Memorial Day at Ala Moana Beach Park will officiate her 15th annual Lantern Floating Ceremony

“I was very close to Yuichi, partly because he constantly needed support just to do everyday things – using the bathroom, dressing,” she recalls. “Although he was physically weak, he so much wanted to help his father and be like him. And my father also had a lot of expectations for him, so it was painful to lose him. Although he was physically weak, he was such a spiritually pure boy, that is what I remember. He was not easily defeated. He always thought that though there were many things he could not do because of his handicap, there were many other things he could do.

“There was a bond between us. What I learned from him, despite his physical weakness, he was always able to say thank you and express gratitude.”

Her sisters, meanwhile, “gradually came to their own decisions that they preferred to pursue other interests, so they stopped their Buddhist training, they did not complete the path my father had set out for them. And my father also agreed with their decisions.”

Her father, born Fumiaki Ito, later to become Master Shinjo Ito, was an aeronautic engineer by trade. His scientific mind was drawn to Buddhist study. (Not so coincidentally, the Dalai Lama describes himself as a scientist.) In 1936 he organized a fellowship of Buddhist practitioners in his home that would become Shin-nyo-en. The same year he began formalized training at Daigo-ji. He would complete his studies there in 1943, attaining master status and recognition as an aharya, giving him authority to begin his own Buddhist lineage.

While Shinnyo-en services utilize several Buddha images, in particular the Reclining Buddha is revered. Shinjo Ito chose it and the Nirvana Sutra, which focuses on Buddha Shakyamuni’s final teachings before death – that all humans are born with a Buddha nature and nirvana is a state of mind we cultivate in the here and now – as the foundation of Shinnyo-en. Golden re-creations of his original clay sculpture of the Reclining Buddha grace Shinnyo-en temples around the world.

As an engineer he loved technology and even built one of the first audio recording devices in Japan – which he used in tandem with silent movies to promote his teaching of Buddhism. Today, Shinnyo-en is very techie, and services Her Holiness leads are sent to temples around the world. Monday’s Lantern Floating at Ala Moana will be live-streamed. “My father would be very happy today with modern technology,” she says. Her father also was an accomplished painter and photographer.

(For her part, Her Holiness is an renowned artist, combining traditional calligraphy with modern splashes. After our interview, in an adjacent room she shared her art, starting in elementary school to the present, all of it quite good.)

After graduating from college, she worked with her father, “but my parents thought it would be a good idea if I worked outside this spiritual order,” she says.

“It was after I quit that job – at a medical clinic, mostly for foreign diplomats, I was a secretary and also assistant to one of the doctors – that I officially started my Buddhist training.

“It was in my mid- to late-20s, and knowing my personality very well, my father did not tell me, ‘You have to be like this, I want you to be like that.’ But he came to me and said, ‘You are very good with people, so I am happy if you can be my successor.’ Even after he said that to me, I was not confident that I could be the kind of spiritual leader he was, but he wanted me to do that.

“My father, my spiritual master, did not make any difference among his female and male disciples, and there were some male disciples he was training along with me. And among those disciples eventually he chose me to be his successor. So it wasn’t an issue to him whether I was a woman or a man. That’s how things were with him.”

She would succeed her father, reverently referred to simply as The Founder, upon his death in 1989, assuming the name Shinso Ito.

Shinjo Ito did not realize his trip to Hawaii in 1970, three years after his wife’s death, planted the seeds of what would grow to become our Lantern Floating tradition.

But it did, because of a prayer and a faithful daughter.

She was at his side when he visited the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and later Punchbowl cemetery.

“I vividly remember how he was praying on the Arizona Memorial, and he dedicated a wreath of flowers to the lives lost during that attack,” she says.

“But that was not the only wish he had in his heart. He also wanted to continue to pray for all the lives lost in natural calamities and all sorts of conflicts. His wish was that, as a spiritual community, Shinnyo-en continues to pray together for all the lives that have been lost. So this is what I am doing, step by step, to make this wish of his a reality. That day at the Arizona Memorial, that moment is captured in a photograph, and every time I see it I remember how sincere his prayer was that day.

“That prayer he had, and I also shared, was something invisible. But I wanted to give an expression to it, so I was looking for a suitable place. I wanted to do it at the beach, I wanted to do this in Hawaii and spread this prayer throughout the world, in the place where our founder had that prayer of becoming a peaceful world by consoling all the lost lives. Luckily we are able to have that ceremony at Ala Moana Beach Park. For that I am really grateful.

“For Japanese people, we regard our ancestors as very important. We feel they are part of our lives. And we have a sense of gratitude for the ancestors. By having that ceremony, I want to remind people that we are not here alone. And if we can be grateful for the past, that feeling of gratefulness can be passed on to the future. I think it is a very beautiful thing that we can have a sense of gratitude for the past and pass it along to the future.