Hawai‘i’s Japanese Buddhist Temples Are Struggling to Keep Ancient Traditions Alive

In summer, Japanese Buddhist temples across the Islands come alive with lanterns and bon dancers. But temple membership has dwindled. When the most active participants are elderly, is Hawai‘i about to lose something unique?


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Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji temple minister, Earl Ikeda.
Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji temple minister, Earl Ikeda. 

The Established Leadership

The Obon season may be the most visible activity of the Buddhist temples across the Islands, but the hongwanji headquarters have been active in the community socially, and even politically, for a number years. Before Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed civil unions into law in 2011, the headquarters committee on social concerns publicly supported the rights of same-sex couples, and even distributed pamphlets with a written resolution. Next year, Project Dana, which has 850 volunteers, will celebrate its 25th anniversary. More than $5 million has been raised to build new facilities for Pacific Buddhist Academy, a private co-ed high school focused on peace education. 


“We’re looking at improving society,” says the soft-spoken Rev. Eric Matsumoto, who for the past two years has been bishop of the headquarters, an esteemed position. “Whereas, in the past, we may have focused more on our own community.”


But that’s the goal, improving society, not recruiting new converts. “My personal understanding is that, as we carry out these programs and projects, people will begin to see the beauty and the value of the Buddhist teachings and the organization,” he says, which, he adds, may indirectly lead to new members.  “We do not do these projects and programs to increase our membership or convert people to Buddhism.”


A Buddha in the Waipahu Hongwanji. 


While Tanabe applauds the outreach efforts, he says large-scale growth won’t happen unless there’s a significant change in the way the temples operate internally. He says to attract a younger membership, temples should embrace a more current style of music.  “Where’s the Buddhist hip-hop, the Buddhist jazz, the Buddhist rock and roll?” he asks, adding that many Christian churches have embraced playing contemporary music. “Ritual Japanese is still used for chanting … You can mouth the sounds, but you have no idea what you’re saying. You’re not going to get younger people coming, at least in terms of the music, if these hymns are going to do be done in the same old somber style.”  


Another of Tanabe’s suggestions, which he says local Buddhists tell him is radical, is cutting all ties with Japan. This means that, instead of having all Japanese Buddhist ministers be ordained in Japan, Bishop Matsumoto would do the honors and they would receive all ministerial training at facilities such as the Buddhist Study Center. (The study center does provide some training, but the official ordination ceremony still takes place in Japan.) 


“It’s a lack of leadership, a lack of courage, a lack of guts to do what the founders did, which is break away from the past and start something new,” says Tanabe, referring to Hawai‘i’s unique temple architecture and pews in the temples. “The vested interests are too strong and it’s partly a consequence of institutionalization. These are big institutions and part of it is money.” 


While Matsumoto doesn’t see it as a lack of leadership, he does think that someday Hawai‘i’s Buddhist temples will ordain its own ministers, “just has [Japanese ministers] no longer go to China, and the Chinese do not go back to India,” he says. “However, before it can happen we need fully qualified teachers and mentors who are able to train people here in the West … Learning Buddhism is not an academic exercise that takes place in a sterile classroom from only books, but must be lived and experienced.”


These changes may happen, someday. In the meantime, Buddhism in Hawai‘i will still be around for the next several decades, even if all of its temples will not. Members like Tanaka might encourage their younger family members to take over their temple duties when the time comes. Chang might encourage 20-somethings to become proactive about the future of the religion. Matsumoto might effectively engage headquarter leadership to enact a bold reorganization. 


“At one point people will wake up,” says Ikeda. “I don’t know whether I’ll be here to see it, [but there will be] a resurgence of the Buddhist teachings.” He then gathers his papers to prepare for another Sunday service.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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