Over the last few months, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii has been celebrating a century and a quarter of Jodo Shinshu (Shin) Buddhism in Hawaii. One of Japan’s most popular forms of Buddhism, Shin was first practiced in Hawaii in 1889, and is therefore among the oldest continuous living Buddhist traditions in America. Celebrations have already been held on the islands of Maui and Kauai, and on 23 November, took place on Hawaii itself.
The recent celebration was held at the Sangha Hall in Hilo, and included a children’s parade, four talks on “Contemplating Sutra,” lunch, entertainment, and a special 125th anniversary service. There was also an “affirmation rites” ceremony, in which a Buddhist name was given to devotees.
In 1889, when Myonyo Shonin was the Monshu (spiritual leader) of the Shin Nishi Hongwanji sect’s Honzan (main temple) in Kyoto, he sent Reverend Soryu Kagahi to Hawaii with the intention to help the Japanese migrant workers toiling in the sugar cane plantations. The Reverend set up at Kojima Hotel in Honolulu, and on 3 March, the sweet ringing of a Buddhist gong was first heard in Hawaii, along with the melodious chanting of a sutra in Japanese. In 1897, the Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto began sending official ministers to establish temples in Hawaii, and the first was built in Fort Lane, Oahu, in 1900. During World War II, however, because of the tensions between the United States and Japan, the Shin Buddhists of Hawaii were not allowed to practice in their temples. Despite the challenges, the Buddha’s teachings on compassion and wisdom helped the community survive their hardships, so that today Shin Buddhism is thriving in Hawaii, with 36 different temples open for service.
In the beginning, living conditions for the Buddhists were very difficult because of their status as migrant workers. Not only did the first priests establish the Buddha’s teachings as a way of life, but they also taught the migrant workers to read and write, arranged marriages, settled family disputes, and helped with funeral rites. In the early 1900s, Yemyo Imamura, the second bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, felt that the Buddha’s teachings of peace should be transmitted through the education system. The Shin Community in Hawaii now provides schooling for children through the Hongwanji mission school, which serves kindergarten through 8th grade, and in 2003 opened a Buddhist College preparatory high school. The aspirations of Shin Buddhists in Hawaii to benefit society continue to grow and unfold.
Melia Okura, a leader of the Junior Young Buddhists of America, a branch of Shin Buddhism, said that last Sunday had been a very good day to celebrate 125 years of “a great lifestyle.” “It has been assimilated into the different cultures it met along its travels, but still maintains its original core values,” she said. “This is all part of the preservation of Buddhism.”
No longer is Shin a foreign tradition seeking ground in a distant land, but a way of being for a number of Hawaiians, from their earliest school years until their passing. It can be said that through Shin Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha have become an integral part of Hawaii itself.