The Dalai Lama of Tibet graced Hawaii with his presence this weekend, where he not only shared messages of compassion and patience but also the traditional Hawaiian ha (breath) with a few who attended the welcoming ceremony.

Hawaiians often greeted each other by sharing ha, or their breath.

This exchange of breath is done when two people press together the bridge of their noses while inhaling at the same time. It’s a Hawaiian greeting that welcomes the other person into their space by sharing the breath of life, which was sacred to the culture. Ancient Hawaiians recognized that their breath was the key to good health and believed it possessed mana (spiritual power). Before an elderly person died, he/she often passed down wisdom to the chosen successor by sharing ha in this fashion.

Because we’re used to greeting people with hand shakes or hugs, this custom may seem strange at first to those unfamiliar with it. Greeting by exchanging ha is rarely practiced in Hawaii these days and is usually only seen in traditional or cultural events. So, when you visit Hawaii, you will most likely be greeted with a hug and a gentle kiss on the cheek. Nonetheless, the traditional greeting should be treated with respect, as it is a significant part of Hawaiian culture.

As a side note, many believe that this is how the word haole came about, meaning “without breath.” The first western settlers to reach Hawaii did not know the Hawaiian custom of exchanging ha. They, instead, withdrew their heads during the exchange and extended their hands in a formal Western way of greeting.

His Holiness speaking as part of the “Pillars of Peace” talks in Hawaii. Mayor Peter Carlisle listens intently (right).

It was moving to see someone as respected as the Dalai Lama dip into traditional Hawaiian customs. He willingly exchanged ha and wore the maile and orchid lei proudly. I also saw a picture of him with a traditional mahiole, or helmet worn by Hawaiian chiefs, showing that he not only embraced the spirit of aloha but solidified the cultural bond between Hawaii and his home.

Photo Credit (second): Jason Patterson

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