Organizers said it was the first time the rite had been open to outsiders and only the second time it had been performed in the United States.
"Prayer is powerful," Pinto said. "In opening the rite to all people, we envisioned prayer transcending boundaries and restrictions so that all people of diverse religions, ethnicities, and cultures could partake in the purity of nature."
Before the ceremony, an orchestra performed the theme song from "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and songs from "West Side Story." Dancers representing diverse nations performed on a side stage.
"The orchestra and dancers are a modern component to the service," said Nichelle Blanco, a member of the temple's clergy. "It gives the ceremony a broader appeal."
During the ritual, ceremonial assistants ignited the grass-covered hearth that stood before a statue of the Buddha. Most Venerable Keishu Shinso Ito, daughter of the order's late founder, Shinso Ito, then blessed prayers written on strips of paper before they were placed into the pit to be burned. Believers chanted the Nirvana Sutra and other mantras as the ceremony came to a close.
"By placing the papers in the hearth, we are burning away the suffering," Blanco said. "It's a way to generate harmony for all people. The flames open our eyes to truth."
The sacred fire is believed to embody the wisdom, kindness and compassion of the Buddha.
Shinnyo-en, a lay Buddhist order with about 800,000 followers worldwide, is based on the concept of Nirvana, emphasizing that people are the holders of enlightenment and, by acting with compassion, can discover their true selves.
Dating back to the Brahman rites of ancient India, the Saito Homa ritual traces it origins to En-no-gyoja, a lay Buddhist and founder of Japanese mountain asceticism, who began conducting it in the 8th century.
The ritual's current form, Pinto said, was first practiced in Japan in 1977.
"It was amazing to see everyone, of all [Buddhist] denominations and cultures, come together," said Richard Movescamp, 51, a believer from South Dakota who, like many others, had traveled to participate in the ritual. "We were all able to share the same fire."
Official website: http://www.shinnyo-en.org/shinnyoen/