photos by Robert Schaffer
Among the first arrivals to the Floating Lantern Ceremony at Manhattan’s Pier 40 yesterday evening were three very polite, well-dressed ladies from the Japanese American Association. Tomoko Hanway acted as their spokesman. She had white swept-back hair, a yellow jacket over a white shirt with a pearl-studded silver brooch in place of a tie, and the friendly but officious manner of a museum docent. The three women were going to take part in a choral performance of two pieces for “everyone died on 9/11,” she said, conducted by a “brilliant very young man” named Reona Ito, and she told us to stand just here, so that we could hear it without getting in anyone’s way.
That was an issue because the stage, though it ran easily forty feet along the rail of the pier, closely faced a boathouse, leaving only a ten-foot corridor for the 700 or so observers who eventually showed up, requiring several young helpers in red NY de Volunteer shirts to act as traffic cops, clearing overflow to the sides of the stage.
At a folding table on the boardwalk nearby, guests were inscribing paper lanterns to be floated in honor of the 9/11 dead. “Sarah Mackintosh,” read one, “Happy face in the world,” decorated by a childish sun. “No More Cry,” said another, followed by Japanese script.
Floating inscribed lanterns is a classically Buddhist way to honor the dead. Similar ceremonies are held annually in Hawaii on Memorial Day, and in Seattle on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
Though the New York Buddhist Church, in association with the Interfaith Center of New York and others, has been doing the 9/11 memorial for six years, Thursday’s event had the mildly chaotic air of a small-town variety show. About a hundred of the attendees were also performers, and milled near the stage, alternately attending their colleagues’ performances and preparing for, or unwinding from, their own.
There were no fewer than 15 clergy on the program, representing an ecumenical effort for toleration and peace after the September 11 attacks. They brought other clergy with them. They greeted each other collegially, with bows and hugs and professional-grade smiles.
A man who resembled Times columnist William Kristol chatted with a man and a woman in black suits with white collars. “We’ll have the first floor available for meetings; we’re pulling out all the pews,” he told them before excusing himself to grasp the shoulder of an old minister in a deep blue clerical shirt who carried a cane and resembled John Kenneth Galbraith. (“He should have been a politician,” the first minister told his companion. “That’s his gift.”)
“You’re in Queens?” Hindu reverend Latchman Budhai asked the Korean-tradition Buddhist Myo Ji Sunim. “I am in Queens. Richmond Hill.” An orange-turbaned Sikh talked about his son’s tabla recital.
There was some early trouble with the staging. The wind knocked over a portrait of the Buddha. Performance areas were shifted. “It’s a Chinese fire drill here,” complained a stagehand, his insensitivity borne with a smile by the event’s organizer, Buddhist Church’s Rev. Kenjitsu Makagaki.
Things quieted for a taiko drum performance, the chorale (whose conductor really was young, large-eyed and bouncy), and the beginning at least of the long parade of civic officials, non-profit reps, and religious practitioners who took the mic. The old rev rumbled from the Books of Daniel and Job. A Brooklyn-accented Buddhist curtly wished us peace. Hougan Erol Juase, in a brown iridescent jacket, skinny jeans and a flowing patterned scarf, sang mournfully in Creole. Myo Ji Sunim, bald and in flowing robes, beat a wooden mallet, davened and chanted.
Behind them the water, which earlier had been filled with kayakers and pleasure boaters, largely emptied, leaving only covered cabin cruisers bobbing by the docks. As the sun set the tall beams of the Tribute in Light became visible down by the World Trade Center site.
As participants carried their lanterns to be ferried by kayak into the river, Rev. Makagaki led four monks in a sutra chant. Auditors bowed, swayed. Tiny orange glows appeared in the dark water. It was now fully night and the twin beams were sharp in the sky.
Further down by the entrance to the pier, people leaned on the rail and looked at the lanterns and at the lights. A thin woman in jeans and a pullover shirt hugged very tightly two children, a boy and a girl, to either side of her, and whispered intently.