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Ho'oponopono

How Hawaiian tradition sorts out family disputes.

Burgess family photo by Paul Dunn

Part of the Puanani Burgess clan.

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine.

Ho‘oponopono is a traditional Hawaiian way to make peace in families when there’s the kind of conflict that starts with something small and just gets bigger and bigger.

Ho‘o is to make. Pono is a word that has three layers. The first layer is to behave righteously, with good spirit and good intention. If you do that, the second layer is that you create justice. If you operate with those two layers, you create the innermost layer: hope. So what you do by Ho‘oponopono is you restore all of those layers, and you restore balance within the ohana—the family.

When I was a kid, I went to a Ho‘oponopono session. My cousin stole a dollar from my aunt’s purse and used it to buy candy, and everybody got into a huge flurry about it. My Aunt gave him what we call “dirty lickins”—basically a beating. And then her part of the family starts calling the kid names, and that leads to, “Naturally—he comes from that family over there, you know. They no good, too.”

So it was just getting bigger and bigger. Finally somebody said, “I think we need to do Ho‘oponopono and resolve this.”

They asked the pastor of the church that most of us went to, to be the Kahu—to be the shepherd through this process. He talked to all the parties of interest to find out what happened from everybody’s perspective. He asked everyone, “Are you ready to do Ho‘oponopono? We’re not going to do it until people are ready to be engaged.”

So the Kahu decides who needs to be there, and people have to agree to come and stay, no matter how long it takes to finish.

Ho‘oponopono always includes prayers and exultations. People stay together and rest, and eat, and come back again, and pray, and fast. So it’s a whole big deal.

Puanani Burgess family
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They call it unpeeling the onion, layer by layer. It starts at the surface: This is what happened. Then the Kahu will unpeel the layer and begin to explore the different perspectives until we get down to the innermost.

It turns out my cousin was walking home with friends, and they had money for candy. He didn’t, and they wouldn’t share. He lost face, and he felt shamed. So when he saw my aunt’s bag there, he took the dollar, and he bought candy for himself as a way of restoring his pride.

He was sorry, and he understood that what he did was wrong, so he mihi’d—he confessed to it. Then my auntie, who gave him “dirty lickins,” also confessed and asked for forgiveness for hitting him so hard. And then other people who said bad things about him started to let go.

Basically, it’s a process of forgiveness. You ask forgiveness for the things that you did to make that situation bad.

You feel very relieved when it’s over, and once you say the closing prayer, it is done. You’re not supposed to talk about that stuff anymore; you’re not supposed to hold grudges. It’s done, and it’s sort of like taking communion: You eat to show that there are no hard feelings anymore. If I can eat with you, then we’re back into a relationship again.


Puanani Burgess wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Puanani is a mediator, poet, community organizer, Zen priest, and YES! board member.

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