Ministers of the Köyasan Shingon Mission of Hawaii gather for a group photo with their new bishop. (Photos by Danny Escalona)
Ministers of the Köyasan Shingon Mission of Hawaii gather for a group photo with their new bishop. (Photos by Danny Escalona)

Unlocking the Secrets of Esoteric Buddhism

Margaret Shiba
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

On Feb. 25, the Rev. Clark Watanabe was installed as the 13th bishop of the statewide Köyasan Shingon Mission of Hawaii in a ceremony at Honomu Henjöji Mission on Hawai‘i island. The unlikely path that led the local boy to this milestone began nearly 40 years earlier in the book department of the old Liberty House department store at Ala Moana Center, when 13-year old Clark Watanabe happened upon a large, richly illustrated volume titled, “The Secret Message of Tantric Buddhism.” The boy was intrigued by the esoteric Buddhist art. Most of all, however, he was mesmerized by the idea of unlocking secrets known to few people. He saved up his allowance and purchased the book to study it further.

Thirteen years later, the curious young man entered seminary on Köyasan. After a year of intensive training, he was ordained a Shingon Buddhist priest. And 21 years after being ordained, Rev. Clark Watanabe was elevated to bishop in Hawai‘i.

While his journey has been an unusual one, “Rev. Clark” (as he is still familiarly known to
most of his congregants) is not the first Hawai‘i-born Buddhist priest to be named a bishop (he’s the third), nor is he the first local-born bishop to come from a non-minister family (he’s the second). At the age of 47, he may be the youngest, however. A “3.5 generation” Japanese American (sansei on his father’s side, yonsei on his mother’s), Rev. Clark grew up in Honolulu attending Christian Sunday School through sixth grade, but observing traditional New Year’s ceremonies at a local temple.

Studying for the priesthood on Köyasan was not Rev. Clark’s first exposure to “basic training” in a strict Japanese discipline. As a teenager he took up martial arts, which he practices to this day in the Takenouchi school of classical martial arts. Later, as an undergraduate at UH Mänoa, he immersed himself in the study of Japanese religion and history and was selected for a scholarship that sent him to Kyöto for a year to master the history, arts and practice of tea ceremony with the Urasenke Foundation. Along the way, he became fluent in Japanese language.

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Photo of Rev. Takayuki Meguro of Lahaina Shingon Mission and Kula Shofukuji Shingon Mission performed the Goma fire ritual at a side altar
Rev. Takayuki Meguro of Lahaina Shingon Mission and Kula Shofukuji Shingon Mission performed the Goma fire ritual at a side altar in front of the newly transferred deity statues, marking the headquarters of the current Shingon bishop. (Photo by Wayne Muromoto)
Photo of Rev. Clar Watanabe - doing a service in temple
Rev. Clark Watanabe: “These temples are treasures, and they both merit and need your help in order to remain shining.”

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