Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple on Lanai abandons tradition to fight decline

It’s time for the Saturday morning good service, a celebration of the time of year when devotees of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism believe the spirits of the dead return to visit living descendants.

But the Lanai Hongwanji mission is empty. The doors to the golden altar, which survived seizure during a period of World War II xenophobia, are locked.

Reverend Ai Hironaka, a visiting minister from Maui, arrives fifteen minutes late. Fresh off the ferry, he goes to the minister’s former residence to put on a black ceremonial robe.

In the main temple, three devotees sit among a dozen empty chairs and wait.

“Most of our congregation is dead,” says Billie Jean Marks, who joined the temple after moving to Lanai City in the early 2000s.

A troubling drop in membership forces the Lanai Hongwanji Mission to reinvent its purpose in a small, multicultural community. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

She takes a cell phone out of her purse and calls some of the last surviving members of the temple who haven’t shown up.

Sally Takahama, who is over ninety, answers a call and soon rushes in, bowing at the door. Two other kupuna say they can’t come on short notice.

“Who else can we call?” Mark asks.

No one can find more names. So, in an almost empty room, the ancestor worship service begins.

Rev Shinkai Murakami, Buddhist Minister, Maui
Reverend Shinkai Murakami is a Japanese Buddhist minister in Maui who often travels to Lanai to serve that community’s Buddhist contingent. The Lanai Hongwanji Mission has not had a resident minister since 1985. Ryan Siphers/CivilBeat/2022

At Lanai Hongwanji, an aging congregation wonders how to run the temple with so few attendees.

Death is one reason for decline. Another is cultural assimilation. As older members die, a younger generation bent on religious disaffiliation looks elsewhere for spiritual support.

The difficulties of living on a rural island of 3,000 inhabitants also play a role, fueling demographic change. Young people are moving away from Lanai for better opportunities as the value of the island’s limited housing stock soars beyond the means of many of the resident workforce. Seniors seek better medical care and independent living services.

Lanai Hongwanji has acquired new members who lack the Japanese ancestry and generational ties to the temple that virtually all members once shared. But if the temple is to survive, Reverend Shinkai Murakami said the congregation will have to move away from its traditional origins.

“The Hongwanji used to be the Japanese temple, but we all have to reject that idea,” said Murakami, one of four visiting reverends from Maui who take turns hosting a monthly service on Lanai. “Hongwanji should be a community temple. We have to make room for everyone else the Hongwanji will close.

As Resident Minister of Maui Wailuku Hongwanji, Murakami sought to infuse a historically Japanese congregation with new members of various ethnicities – Puerto Rican, African American, Caucasian, Filipino, Hawaiian. He also supported the rise of non-Japanese members to leadership positions on the temple’s board.

“I don’t talk too much about religion,” Murakami said. “I talk about daily life and the best way to make life happy. And I always talk about how kindness can make our lives more meaningful and happier.

Through 32 temples statewide, the denomination has 4,300 members. That’s down more than half from about 10,000 members in the 1970s, according to Bishop Eric Matsumoto, who oversees the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.

This decline has forced some temples to merge or close – a fate that could soon befall Lanai Honwanji if the congregation cannot reinvigorate itself.

“We haven’t forgotten about Lanai,” Matsumoto said. “But I think there will come a time, maybe soon, when we have to deal with what will happen to Lanai Hongwanji. If the writing is on the wall, so to speak, we should take the bull by the horns and plan, well, what are we going to do in the future? »

Mike Bocon, a former Maui on Lanai police officer who holds a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, stretches before tackling the makeshift Lanai Hongwanji Mission dojo. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Lanai Hongwanji has 15 members, nominated by those who make an annual financial donation. But the actual number of people who participate in temple activities is much smaller.

The membership list of the temple includes descendants of deceased members who conscientiously donate to honor their loved ones. But most do not show up for service or participate in temple maintenance.

The temple treasurer comes from a long line of members, for example. He helps with building maintenance and administrative tasks, but he does not attend services and does not consider himself a Buddhist or even a man of faith, according to Vice President Chris Richardson.

The temple has not had a resident minister since 1985. The former living quarters, which still house neatly made beds, have absorbed Buddhist artwork once held by deceased members and giant taiko drums for the latest bon dance festival held in 2019 due to the punch of the Covid-19 pandemic and the steady decline in membership.

“It takes human resources to have a good dance,” something that’s rare on Lanai, Matsumoto said.

This downward trend is not peculiar to Buddhism. Americans are increasingly secular, with three in 10 adults saying without religionAccording to a recent study by Pew Research Center.

Yet, as people increasingly shun organized religion, other meaningful practices such as yoga, meditation, and tai chi are gaining popularity. That their origins can be traced back to Asia is not lost on Richardson, who wants to broaden the appeal of Lanai Hongwanji, both as a community meeting place and a house of Buddhist faith.

And while he knows that exposing non-members to the temple by allowing outside practitioners to host martial arts or meditation there won’t instantly increase membership, he thinks it could with time.

“This place was built by Japanese Buddhist families,” said Richardson, who converted from Catholicism to join the temple 15 years ago. “It was maintained by Japanese Buddhist families. The members were Japanese. And my personal view is that there was a mistake where people went a little too far. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, they were excluding other people who are not Japanese. And now we can’t bring Buddhist families here like we used to.

Can a plantation-era temple survive demographic change?

For nearly a century, the Lanai Hongwanji congregation has shown resilience, adapting to political and economic shifts that have forced change in the former Hawaiian Pineapple Company town.

Japanese community volunteers erected a two-story Buddhist temple with a Japanese language school and minister’s residence in the town square in 1925, shortly after James Drummond Dole purchased the island that would become the largest pineapple plantation in the world.

Chris Richardson, who left Christianity to join the Lanai Hongwanji congregation about 15 years ago, helped normalize the use of the temple for nonmember activities, such as jiujitsu practice and Vipassana meditation retreats. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the temple closed. Reverend Tadao Kouchi, the Resident Minister, was imprisoned in Lanai City Jail.

The Reverend and his family were eventually forced to move to an internment camp in Arkansas. The plantation company confiscated the temple and gave it to a Christian community who converted it to Lanai Union Church.

In 1946 Kouchi returned to Lanai with his wife and children, and when he was unable to reclaim the temple in the heart of town for his Buddhist congregation, he helped transform an old plantation house on the outskirts. from the city in the new Lanai Hongwanji.

The temple’s first English-speaking minister arrived in the 1950s, dissolving a Japanese language barrier that had deterred some Japanese Americans who did not speak their ancestral language from attending.

To further broaden Lanai Hongwanji’s mainstream appeal, the Reverend popularized Carnival fundraisers and forged new affiliations with community youth groups and a small baseball team.

Today, some of Hawaii’s Japanese Buddhist temples have built on this concept, offering ukulele lessons, yoga classes, and even country line dancing to spark community interest.

Reverend Ai Hironaka, resident minister of Maui’s Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, visited the Lanai congregation for the first time in three years due to the pandemic. In heavily accented English, the minister recounted his experiences celebrating the summer obon season in his hometown of Hiroshima, Japan, to four congregants who showed up for the summer bond service. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Past efforts to open Lanai Hongwanji to nonmembers for activities such as youth wrestling practice have always been shot down by members who did not want to water down the temple’s traditional Japanese provenance, Richardson said.

But increasingly, longtime members seem at peace with the idea that to remain viable, the temple must cross cultural boundaries. The temple now hosts a weekly yoga class, jiujitsu practice, and occasional Vipassana meditation retreats.

“Now we’re accepting these things because we’re at a stage where there are fewer people to say ‘no,'” Richardson said.

“Obviously I don’t want people here to disgrace the place,” he added. “But I don’t think it’s a danger.”

The real danger, he says, is that there is no one there at all.