The Aloha Spirit -- what it is, who possesses it, and why it is important

** This essay was published on May 15, 2008 in Hawaii Reporter online newspaper at

(c) Copyright 2000 - 2008 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved


The following essay is a ho'okupu -- offering -- to my adopted homeland. In 1982 I first came as a tourist and felt like I was coming home. Additional trips confirmed that feeling. In 1992 I moved to Hawaii permanently because I could not bear to leave again. As I reached out to embrace Hawaii, Hawaii reached back to embrace me. Hanai is something mutual -- both sides give and both sides receive. Over the years I have come to understand more clearly and deeply what at first was only an intense but vague feeling. Perhaps others can be helped to clarify their own spiritual journey as I describe mine.


Everyone knows that "aloha" can mean hello, goodbye, or love; depending on the situation.

Some who speak Hawaiian know that "aloha" derives from "alo" and "ha" and refers to the face-to-face sharing of breath in the "honi" (nose-to-nose greeting common in ancient times).

Metaphorically "aloha" has a much deeper meaning. It refers to the mutual experiencing (alo) of each other's spirit or soul (ha). An ultimate example was the customary practice when life was ending for a family patriarch or the kahuna of a school of knowledge. He would summon his successor to come near, and would pass his wisdom to his successor with his dying breath, the "ha."

In the Hawaiian creation legend, Haloa is the name of the first child of the gods who was stillborn and from whose burial grew mankind's elder brother, the taro plant. The same name, Haloa, was also given to the next child of the gods -- the primordial ancestor from whom all kanaka (persons) are descended. Haloa is also the name of the tradewinds -- the constant breeze created by the "long breath" (haloa) of the exhaling ancestor who continuously bestows his cleansing spirit and wisdom upon all things here. Hawaii is indeed a magical, sacred place.

The Aloha Spirit was not always extended to commoners in ancient times. Human sacrifice had been practiced for many centuries until the old religion was abolished in 1819. There was a rigid caste system. Chiefs were regarded as direct descendants of the gods and ranked in a hierarchy according to their sacred bloodlines. Commoners could be put to death for failing to bow down, for eating chiefly foods, or for stepping on a chief's shadow. Although the old religion officially ended in 1819, the social caste system remained in place with huge differences in rights and privileges between chiefs and commoners.

In that context was produced one of the most beautiful and powerful written expressions of the Aloha Spirit. It is found in the first sentence of the first systematic law of the Kingdom of Hawaii. King Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III (advised by missionary William Richards) voluntarily gave up his absolute power and officially recognized that chiefs, commoners, and people of all races share fundamental rights. Here was a King whose right to dictatorial authority was earned by the conquests of his father, but whose heart was infused by his love of God and by compassion for his people, enlightened by awareness of democratic principles brought to him by newcomers.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was proclaimed by Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III in 1839, and became the preamble of the first Constitution which he proclaimed in 1840. Although some call this "Hawaii's Magna Carta," the political history is very different. The English document was extracted by force from a despotic king under pressure from land barons (a "Bayonet Constitution", one might say), while the Hawaiian document was given freely as an act of benevolence.

The first sentence, known as the "kokokahi" sentence, says this in Hawaiian: "Ua hana mai ke Akua i na lahuikanaka a pau i ke koko hookahi, e noho like lakou ma ka honua nei me ke kuikahi, a me ka pomaikai." In English, it can be translated into modern usage as follows: "God hath made of one blood all races of people to dwell on this Earth in unity and blessedness." What a beautiful and eloquently expressed concept!

The Declaration of the Rights of Man then goes on to enumerate some of the fundamental rights given to all humans by God. The Constitution of 1840, with the Declaration as its preamble, sets forth the structure of a government based on laws, including a Legislature whose lower house is elected by the people. The House of Nobles and House of Representatives met and deliberated together, ali'i (chiefs) and maka'ainana (commoners) sitting and discussing side by side -- an astonishing implementation of the kokokahi concept that chiefs and commoners share fundamental God-given rights as a consequence of being human. As time went by there were an increasing number of Caucasians among both the Nobles and the Representatives -- again, an astonishing implementation of the kokokahi concept that all races are of one blood, at a time when slavery was practiced in the Southern United States and many other nations.

The Aloha Spirit has also found its way into our modern law books. The Aloha Spirit Law is found in ยง5-7.5 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes, which says in part: "Aloha means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return. Aloha is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. Aloha means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable. In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor, executive officers of each department, the chief justice, associate justices, and judges of the appellate, circuit, and district courts may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to The Aloha Spirit."

The greatest attack on the Aloha Spirit is the ongoing attempt to divide Hawaii's people by creating a racial separatist government through the Akaka bill (H.R.505 and S.310 in the 110th Congress). That effort has been poisoning race relations since July 2000. From January 17, 2004 to now thousands of racist advertisements printed in newspapers, and beamed into our living rooms on radio and television, have been paid for with money from the state treasury. These commercials are filled with propaganda claiming that people with a drop of Hawaiian native blood have special spiritual and mental powers not possessed by others; that they are entitled to special rights on account of their bloodline; and that they should sign up on a racial registry expected to become the charter membership of a forthcoming racially exclusionary government. For transcripts and analyses of several of these commercials, see .
This entire concept is poisonous. It is an absolute violation of the kokokahi sentence from 1839: "God hath made of one blood all races of people to dwell on this Earth in unity and blessedness."

A bumper sticker often seen in Hawaii says "No Hawaiians, no aloha." That slogan captures an attitude often expressed in newspaper columns, classrooms, and casual conversations -- an attitude that "aloha" is the property of a racial group -- that the only people who can fully exemplify the Aloha Spirit, or who even have a right to discuss it, are those who have a drop of the magic blood. But no. That leads toward racial supremacy and fascism. It violates what the kokokahi sentence clearly says. Its pernicious falseness becomes clear when we understand that the Aloha Spirit is a part of the Cosmic Spirit which infuses all people in all times and places. If there were somehow a terrible disease which attacks the Hawaiian genome and kills every person possessing a drop of Hawaiian native blood, the Aloha Spirit would nevertheless remain fully alive. Anyone who says "No Hawaiians, no aloha" is clearly proving that he is out of touch with his own indwelling spirit.

Sometimes we say "Aloha!" as a quick and simple greeting, or a routine way of answering the telephone, not knowing who might be calling. In the same way, people in some Asian cultures greet each other with a perfunctory bow, or a "wai" (pressing the palms of one's hands together in front of the chin while bowing slightly). But such a perfunctory greeting is an echo of a much more profound act of respect in which we acknowledge the presence of God (the Buddha-nature) inside the person we greet, and we solemnly pledge to listen to both what is spoken and what is unspoken.

"Aloha Airlines" has gone bankrupt, but the Aloha Spirit continues paying huge dividends. A ship called the "Pride of Aloha" is leaving Hawaii and changing its name; but the true Aloha Spirit sails on and is a source of great pride for all Hawaii's people. The word "aloha" can evoke deep meanings and profound reverence, even though it is often overused and trivialized for commercial application. Perhaps it's like sex, which can be used for mere recreational pleasure, pornography, or even prostitution; but which can also be a vehicle for experiencing a sacred beauty and intimacy too profound for words.

Aloha ke Akua. The Aloha Spirit is another name for God. It is the immanence of a transcendent Cosmic Spirit, infinitely powerful, present at the core of every person, place, and thing. It unifies us, makes us fundamentally equal as beings of infinite value, and calls upon us to treat each other and our environment with reverence, respect, and compassion. The Aloha Spirit is the alpha and omega of creation. It is the origin from which all life force is derived, and the destiny toward which evolution strives. It is the "Pure Land" of Buddhist theology, manifesting itself through the Dharma of scientific fact and intellectual conceptualization.

At the risk of saying too many words, and being overly "intellectualized", let me offer some religious/philosophical metaphors. Everyone has his own way of interpreting things through his particular life experiences. Since I have an academic background, these are some of the metaphors I find useful. But every one of them is incomplete and, of necessity, inaccurate. There is simply no way to describe the indescribable. And yet ... let me give some approximations. Anyone who wants to stop reading now will not miss anything essential. Thank you for bearing with me thus far.


Each religion has its own metaphors for the spiritual concepts comprising a universal core of wisdom. My parents forced me to attend a Christian (Lutheran) church, including two years of Saturday morning classes leading to a "confirmation" ceremony. Thereafter I studied theology and philosophy on my own and then in college. I was especially inspired by Plato, Plotinus, Augustine; and the mysticism of the modern Catholic theologians Jacques Maritain and Teilhard de Chardin; and the novels of Hermann Hesse. Although I have long ago "outgrown" the Christianity of my youth, its metaphors still inspire me and help me explain things.

The doctrine of the Trinity says there is one God manifested in three persons, which St. Patrick illustrated as being like the clover which has three leaves. God the Father is the Creator, all-powerful and all-knowing, transcendent beyond human knowability. God the Son is Jesus Christ, born in human form but without original sin, who came into our world to teach, and who suffered and died as a human sacrifice to expunge our sins. Then there's the Holy Spirit, often portrayed as a white dove with an olive branch in its beak. The Holy Spirit does not usually get much attention, but should. The Holy Spirit is God in all His Power and Glory, bestowing the Grace of understanding and wisdom upon all who open their hearts.

The Aloha Spirit is the local Hawaii name for the Holy Spirit of the Christian Trinity.


The Greek philosopher Plato distinguished between two worlds. The world of the Forms is above and beyond this world of appearances. The Forms are the Absolute Truths, the same for all people in all times and places. The Form of the Good reigns supreme, like the Godhead of the Christian trinity. It is manifested in the three Forms of Goodness (moral), Truth (intellectual), and Beauty (aesthetic); which of course reverberate with each other.

We are born into this material world of appearances, which is like a cave where we are chained (by ignorance) to the floor and able to look only at the shadows dancing on the wall. We mistakenly believe the shadows are real. But a few lucky individuals have weak chains. They are able to break their chains, stand up, and walk toward the light. Eventually they can go outside the cave. They are attracted by the Form of Beauty, which leads them to turn their whole selves around (con-version) to discover the Form of Truth and gaze directly upon the sun (the supreme Form of the Good) and achieve en-lighten-ment. They realize that the sun is the source of light, and is casting the shadows on the wall of the cave. The Form of Goodness is inherent in Truth and Beauty, thereby causing the liberated souls to feel compassion for their fellow humans still chained to the floor of the cave. Thus they return to the cave, where some of their colleagues reject their teachings but others break free and struggle upward toward enlightenment.

Everything in this world of appearances is a shadow, or pale imitation, of the World of the Forms. We are born with a knowledge of the Forms buried in our soul; and the events of daily life can evoke memories of them. For example nobody has ever seen a triangle, because a true triangle is made of line segments which have zero thickness and are perfectly straight. The objects which we call triangular call forth a reminder of the absolute concept of "triangle." The Socratic method of teaching by asking questions can be successful because the questions evoke memories of things we know from before birth, but have forgotten. The title of a poem by William Wordsworth clearly conveys this idea: "Ode to Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood." Plato's dialog "Phaedrus" explains that human love is merely a pale reflection of the absolute form of Love. The rare moments when we feel love most deeply occur when our manipulation of bodies and thoughts transport us "out of body," allowing us to momentarily experience absolute Love which is always present but seldom apprehended.

The Aloha Spirit is the local Hawaii name for Plato's Form of Goodness. It is the source of compassion, morality, and the desire to give freely without expectation of return.


Words and deeds take place in the world of appearances; but Truth belongs to the world of the Forms. Therefore it is impossible to prove what is True by anything we say or do. It is even impossible to completely or accurately express or tell anything that is True. This fact is called the "principle of ineffability." The best we can do is to use metaphors or signs which point the way. Even mathematical or scientific "proof" is merely a bunch of clues laid out heuristically in a sequence that points the way toward a concept which lies beyond them.

If you try to tell a dog where to find a bone, the dog will only look quizzical. If you point, the dog will watch your finger but probably won't look where you're pointing. If you jab your finger repeatedly in the right direction and shout, the dog will merely start barking and might playfully bite your finger. Or, to use a different metaphor, "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink."

The principle of ineffability says we can know things but we can never tell what we know no matter how hard we try. The best we can do is lay out a trail of bread crumbs or point the way; and then we must rely upon the person seeing those clues to follow them and to assemble their meaning for himself. Although Truth can never be told, the universe is constantly teaching it to us. See Kenneth R. Conklin, "Knowledge, Proof, and Ineffability in Teaching," EDUCATIONAL THEORY, XXIV, 1 (Winter, 1974), pp. 61-67; available at .
See also Kenneth R. Conklin, "Wholes and Parts in Teaching," THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL JOURNAL, LXXIV, 3 (December, 1973), pp. 165-171; available at .

The Aloha Spirit can never be defined or accurately described. There are ways we can express it and help others learn about it, but in the end it's up to each individual to discover it. There is hope for all of us -- Haloa is constantly whispering in our ear -- God's Grace is freely available to all who open their hearts to receive it.


The philosopher Immanuel Kant used the word "noumena" as an approximate equivalent to Plato's world of the Forms, and "phenomena" as the equivalent of Plato's world of appearances. He said that the noumena are unreachable through the phenomena (God is transcendent) but the phenomena are expressions of the noumena (God is immanent) and can be used as clues to foster discovery. The two best vehicles for using phenomena to point toward noumena are moral choice and artistic expression.

Thus the Existentialist philosophers explore the choices we make, even in the face of ignorance, despair, and inevitable death; and they celebrate the crises that force us to choose.

Zen teaching techniques help the mind leap the chasm between phenomena and noumena. Think hard: what is the sound of one hand clapping? If you think hard enough, the time will come when you are no longer able to think; and then -- VOILA! and you hear it. If you have a coat, I will give you one; but if you have no coat I will take it away from you. The most valuable part of a wheel is the hole at its center. See Kenneth R. Conklin, "Nothing" at .

Aloha means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable. Although the Aloha Spirit cannot be seen in its pure form or defined, we can display it and lead others to grasp it by the choices we make and by our creative products.


"Ua hana mai ke Akua i na lahuikanaka a pau i ke koko hookahi, e noho like lakou ma ka honua nei me ke kuikahi, a me ka pomaikai." In modern English: "God hath made of one blood all races of people to dwell on this Earth in unity and blessedness." A popular translation in earlier times used the phrase "all nations of men to dwell upon the face of the Earth ..." instead of "all races of people to dwell on the Earth..." But today we say "people" instead of only "men." And we recognize that the specific word for "nation" or "government" is "aupuni" whereas "lahui" and especially "lahuikanaka" has a broader meaning of "race" or "tribe."

Historically it's unclear whether the kokokahi sentence was first written by missionary William Richards and then adopted by the King, or whether the King produced it on his own. It's also unclear whether the sentence was first written in English and then translated into Hawaiian, or written in Hawaiian and then translated into English. Much of the wording comes from the Bible, Acts 17:26: "And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth ..." In any case, the King gets full credit for proclaiming kokokahi as official policy, thereby voluntarily giving up absolute power through an act manifesting the Aloha Spirit.

There is a neighborhood named "Kokokahi" along Kaneohe Bay Drive, running from the mountain to the sea, and a YWCA named "Kokokahi" on the oceanfront there. This neighborhood was named and developed by Dr. Theodore Richards, a descendant of American missionary William Richards, who had advised King Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III on the kokokahi sentence. When the large parcel of land was broken into individual house lots for sale, Dr. Richards imposed a racial quota system and screened the buyers to ensure that people of all races would be living side by side, hopefully in unity and blessedness. And so it remains today. The street name "Likeke" in that neighborhood is the Hawaiianized version of "Richards"; likewise the Likeke dining hall at Kawaiaha'o Church. And of course there's Richards Street with runs alongside 'Iolani Palace.

As the proverb says: "I ka 'olelo no ke ola" -- in language there is life. Words have power. And so the kokokahi sentence, resulting from the collaboration between King Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III and Rev. William Richards, has inspired generations of Hawaiians, both those with native blood and those without, and has helped us understand something about this powerful living being known as the Aloha Spirit.


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(c) Copyright 2008 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved