History of Buddhism in Hawaii

This summer, Japanese Buddhist temples across the Islands are lit with lanterns and abuzz with bon dancers. But the sad fact is these temples are otherwise in trouble. Memberships have dwindled; the most active participants are the elderly, who are trying to keep the temples open and the traditions alive. Is Hawaii about to lose something unique?


Bishop Eric Matsumoto stands in front of the altar inside the Honpa Hongwanji Mission, located just off the Pali Highway.

Photos: Elyse butler & Matt mallams

“Can everyone please close their eyes as we have a moment of silence?” asks Rev. Earl Ikeda. It’s a warm Sunday morning. Inside the Moiliili Hongwanji Mission temple, near UH Manoa, 40 members, most of them elderly, close their eyes. In a clear voice, Ikeda begins singing “Amazing Grace.” After singing the first verse, he stops.

It’s strange to hear a Christian hymn in a Japanese Buddhist temple, being led by the minister, no less. But Ikeda had a reason. “I was invited to do a funeral service recently, ” he explains. “I talked with the family and mentioned that it didn’t have to be a strict service done in the Buddhist tradition.” He explained to the family that they could choose a gatha, or song they felt would best honor their loved one. They chose “Amazing Grace.” In fact, adds Ikeda, when it came time to sing, the Buddhist minister himself led the mourners in the Christian hymn.

Speaking to us earlier in his modest office upstairs, Ikeda, sporting his usual attire of T-shirts and shorts, says, “I like that song, and the meaning really fits what Buddhism is about. In Buddhism, the idea is to live the moment. We can’t be attached to certain ways of thinking, that’s exactly what Buddhism isn’t.” It was a story he wanted to share with his membership.

Ikeda’s message about being unconventional is apropos. Japanese Buddhism—of which there are seven sects; Jodo Shinshu, the one he ministers, is the largest in the Islands—is going through a transition in Hawaii. The once thriving religion is fading, as did the plantations where its original followers propagated the teachings of Buddha. Today, when most kamaaina think of Buddhism, they probably picture colorful bon dances. Visit the temples during the summer festivals, and you might think they are flourishing. In truth, temple memberships are declining, and have been for years. Some temples have closed altogether. Buddhism in Hawaii is at a crossroads; its older members intent on keeping tradition and their children and grandchildren noticeably absent, while the religion’s leadership tries to bridge the gap. It’s been more than a century since Japanese immigrants brought Buddhism to the Islands; can it survive another 100 years? Who will rejuvenate the religion?

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