SHINGON SHU HAWAI‘I SAILING ITS OWN CANOE

SHINGON SHU HAWAI‘I SAILING ITS OWN CANOE

Shingon Shu Hawai‘i and the Quest for Hawaiian Buddhism

Photo Courtesy: OnlyInHawaii.org

In 2004, an historic event took place when the Shingon temple on Sheridan Street in Honolulu broke away from its denominational headquarters in Japan and became independent. It was the first time in the history of Hawai‘i that a traditional Japanese Buddhist temple had cut its Japanese ties and set out on its own course. All other Japanese Buddhist temples continue to maintain their official affiliations with their respective headquarters in Japan and derive their sense of legitimacy from their ongoing associations.

The Sheridan Street temple took on a new name, calling itself Shingon Shu Hawai‘i. The leader of this independence movement was the Rev. Reyn Tsuru, who continues to guide the congregation in its new direction. The temple has a longer history and next year will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its original founding. As an independent organization, however, it is a young 10 years old.

While the breakaway from the Japanese headquarters was in some respects quietly dramatic, the change, Tsuru explains, was not very disrupting, and the congregation shifted seamlessly to the new order.

“Even before the change,” he said, “there was very little involvement of the honzan headquarters in the actual operation of the temple. Mostly, they made ministerial appointments and selected the bishop, but we were not tied to them financially. The break was ecclesiastical. The old model of having ties to honzan in Japan is not really fitting for the United States.”

The practical advantages, as Tsuru sees it, are clear. Relieved from the old hierarchical system, Shingon Shu Hawai‘i is free to explore new forms of worship and meditation. The local temple was also liberated from the institutional politics of the larger denominational organization statewide and in Japan. While the temple is adopting new initiatives, Tsuru sees them more as expansions of the tradition rather than as departures from it.

The temple offers, for example, sessions for copying sutras (shakyö), which has a long history of many centuries. But unlike many traditional practices that are performed by Buddhists who do not fully understand their meanings and, in particular, how they relate to every day life, shakyö meetings at the temple end with tea and open conversation. The discussions provide opportunities not only for the minister to explain the meaning of shakyö, but, just as importantly, for participants to explore the personal meanings of their involvement with this ancient practice. The goma fire ritual is another ancient Shingon ritual, but Tsuru stresses the importance of participants, especially younger people, being engaged through their own understanding.

Over and over, Tsuru emphasizes the priority he places on people. The role of ministers is not to represent the religion to the people, but to represent the people to the religion. Ministers need to always ask the congregation about their needs and desires, about what they want to get from the temple. The job of the minister is to help people help themselves.

As an independent temple, Shingon Shu Hawai‘i can train and ordain its own ministers. While many of the other denominations have programs for training ministers locally, final ordinations are mostly carried out and must be certified in Japan. Tsuru himself was ordained in Hawaii by a former Shingon bishop, so his spiritual lineage goes back to Japan.

“But, really,” he says, “how does a lineage going back to Japan make you a better minister in Hawai‘i?” The crucial element is not a Japanese spiritual pedigree, but effectiveness as a minister working with local people who seek comfort and solace as they deal with every day issues.

“Our main challenge for the future,” he says, “is the establishment of clergy who represent the congregation with an ability to lead. Ministers must minister, which means they must care for the congregation.” Tsuru’s assistant, the Rev. Quinn Hashimoto, was primarily trained in Hawai‘i and was ordained by the authority of the local congregation — not a headquarters in Japan.

In caring for the congregation, Tsuru recognizes the shift that is taking place in what people expect from Buddhism. In the old days, Buddhism was a family religion, and while it still is, it is also becoming a religion for individuals. This shift is especially visible among younger people, who look to Buddhism to find meaning for their lives and not simply to perpetuate veneration of the ancestors through funerals and memorial services.

All of these elements — care for the congregation, localized clerical training and individualized spirituality — are exemplified in the case of Jeff Keller of Sacramento, Calif. Keller found out about Shingon Shu Hawai‘i through its website and social media (Facebook and Twitter). Keller is being trained as a Shingon Shu Hawai‘i minister through Skype, and has already completed the traditional kegyö training.

“Some might say this is not proper,” admits Tsuru. “But this is a new world of technology, and he is doing quite well. We are allowing him to develop his own interpretations.” Tsuru hopes that one of his contributions will be the development of a training and ordination system that is true both to Shingon Buddhism and the contemporary needs of Americans.

Keller’s case has another technological twist. An East Coast Buddhist priest named Bodhiphasa found out about Keller and has started to train Keller in meditation techniques. All through Skype. While Keller sees himself as an extension of Shingon Shu Hawai‘i, he also belongs to a Buddhist consortium in Sacramento. The use of the Internet has opened up fascinating possibilities for collaboration and the development of new forms of Buddhism created by blending different traditions.
So how does all of this translate into the bottom line of membership? Tsuru says their membership is growing. Like other temples, they are losing many senior citizen members, but younger people are taking their place. As we sat talking in the main sanctuary, a young girl appeared, paid no attention to us and walked to the front of the altar to pray.

“Many students stop by,” Tsuru says, softly. He has analyzed his membership rolls, and reports that the average age of the congregation is 50 to 54. “At one point we had dropped to 40 to 45, but we are now up a bit.” The demographics in many other temples are considerably older.

Tsuru recognizes that sustaining a membership is harder than increasing its numbers. New people will join, but if they do not find their needs met, they will leave. The independent temple is still an experiment, and its future, like all futures, is an open question. Independence, however, has given Shingon Shu Hawai‘i the freedom to try new approaches in extending ancient traditions into contemporary society.

On one level, this grand experiment can be seen as a radical departure from the usual pattern of maintaining institutional ties to Japan. But placed in a wider historical perspective, Shingon Shu Hawai‘i is repeating the old tradition of religious groups breaking away from mother organizations. Nothing is more traditional in history than breaking from tradition. When past practices result in declining memberships, then change is necessary. Everything changes, the Buddha himself said. Nothing stays the same.

When Buddhism went from India to China, Chinese Buddhists eventually became independent. When Buddhism went from China to Japan, Japanese Buddhists did not continue their institutional ties with China. So, when the congregation of Shingon Shu Hawai‘i declared their independence, they were following this ancient pattern of making Buddhism from one country relevant in another by changing it to fit new circumstances. The history of Buddhism is filled with the appearances of new Buddhisms. In time, the new becomes old, and from the old a new rebirth takes place.

In short, Indian Buddhism became Chinese, and Chinese Buddhism became Japanese. On the U.S. mainland, there are hundreds of groups making up what is rightfully called American Buddhism, many of which got their start and then became independent from Japanese denominations. Here in Hawai‘i, however, our cultural nostalgia is strong and keeps us tied to Japan. The question of localization is still in the process of being answered, and it will take more time for temples to fulfill the historical pattern by which Japanese Buddhism will become Hawaiian Buddhism.

Dr. George Tanabe is professor emeritus of religion at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and president of BDK Hawaii. He and his wife Willa co-authored the book, “Japanese Buddhist Temples in Hawai‘i: An Illustrated Guide,” which was published in 2012 by the University of Hawai‘i Press.

Shingon Shu Hawai‘i, led by the Rev. Reyn Tsuru, has operated independently of its former denominational headquarters in Japan for the past decade. In doing so, the temple has the freedom to try new approaches to extending ancient traditions into contemporary society, and engaging younger people in Buddhism in ways they can relate to and understand.

Pictured in front of the Shingon Shu Hawai‘i temple on Sheridan Street is the Rev. Reyn Tsuru (left) and the Rev. Quinn Hashimoto, with the statue of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Behind them are statues of Füjin, the Shintö god of wind (left) and Raijin, the god of thunder. (Photo by Gwen Battad Ishikawa)

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