Buddhists bring purification rite to U.S.

By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2007

The annual Saito Homa Fire Ritual Service in Yorba Linda marks only the second time it has been held in this country.

Los Angeles, CA (USA) -- Nearly 3,000 people, mostly Buddhists from around the world, gathered in Yorba Linda on Saturday to take part in a fiery 1,300-year-old purification ritual that organizers say has never been open to the public.

The Shinnyo-en Order of Japan held the annual Saito Homa Fire Ritual Service at its temple in the 18000 block of Bastanchury Road instead of the usual site in Tokyo. "The rite's evolution toward becoming open has been a journey," the Rev. Mark Pinto, of Shinnyo-en USA, said of the ceremony, which adherents believe represents purification from things that dissuade one from moving forward in faith and goodness.

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/