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Friday, December 22, 2000

By Rod Thompson, Star-Bulletin
The Rev. Kevin Kuniyuki at Papaaloa Hongwanji Mission.

A Buddhist minister’s
‘talk story’ style helps
members relate

Services in English and a
down-to-earth approach are
part of his 'convincingly
unconventional' appeal

By Rod Ohira

PAPAALOA, Hawaii -- Maimed Vietnam War veteran Ken Fujimoto has come from nearby Honohina to attend the weekly Wednesday morning church service conducted by a man who helped free him from the bondage of hate.

"He rescued my life," Fujimoto said of the Rev. Kevin Kuniyuki, a gregarious 45-year-old Shin Buddhist minister who introduced English-speaking services at Hamakua Coast Hongwanji temples in Papaikou, Honomu, Honohina and Papaaloa four years ago.

While serving as a helicopter crew chief in 1964, Fujimoto encountered enemy fire and was shot through the left thigh.

The injury eventually caused his knee to collapse, making it difficult for him to walk without a cane.

By Rod Thompson, Star-Bulletin
The Rev. Kevin Kuniyuki, right, eats brunch with
Ken Fujimoto, president of the nearby Honohina

"My good friend got killed, and another pilot lost his leg," Fujimoto said of the war memory that led to severe bouts with depression for more than 32 years.

"It was always in the back of my mind," he added. "I just couldn't let it go. I hated the Vietnamese people."

Then, in 1996, Fujimoto met Kuniyuki.

"He made me see the Vietnamese were people, just like us," said Fujimoto, 55, who retired after selling his auto-parts business eight years ago.

"Sometimes, it takes just a few words to take the load off someone's shoulders. I'm thankful, and that's why I try to help Rev. Kuniyuki a lot."

Dealing with an English-speaking minister made it easier for him, said Fujimoto, president of Honohina Hongwanji.

"For me, his speaking English is important because I can understand what he's saying," Fujimoto added. "I chant now and know what I'm chanting and it makes me feel good. If you don't understand, there's no reason to be there."

Spiritual and social

A solemn-sounding gong from inside the 97-year-old Papaaloa Hongwanji wooden building breaks the solitude of this sleepy seaside sugar town at 8:30 on an overcast, drizzly December morning.

Fujimoto and 20 other people have been praying for about 30 minutes.

Kuniyuki, a short and stocky man, is standing in front of his audience and away from the podium as he begins a short sermon about the spirit of giving and not receiving during the Christmas season.

"Let's fill it with love rather than stress," he said, cautioning them not to overspend on gifts just to impress others.

The group then recites a Shin chant in English.

Following a short discussion about upcoming church activities, the group goes downstairs for a social gathering and something to eat.

"This is the new generation," 86-year-old Masami Sam Hara said of the service.

"Fifteen years ago, all the services were in Japanese. To me, English is easier to understand."

The eight Shin Buddhist temples from Hilo to North Kohala all feature English-speaking services.

The Rev. Eric Matsumoto is the minister for the four temples between Laupahoehoe and Kohala.

Kuniyuki's "talk story" approach, however, is difficult for some traditionalists to accept.

"Eric's (preaching) personality is more disciplined than mine," Kuniyuki said. "That's why he can satisfy the traditionalists.

"My style is talking story -- gather people around and talk to them."

Vibrant and different

Richard Fujii, 68, a retired auto mechanic and president of Papaaloa Hongwanji, describes Kuniyuki as a "convincingly unconventional" Buddhist minister.

Papaaloa Hongwanji's membership includes 63 families of which 40 are active members, Fujii said.

"He's vibrant and different but there's a select few -- I'd say about 10 percent -- who have a hard time accepting him," Fujii added.

"It's a matter of style. He's not changing the message. It's how it's delivered. The part that's hardest for them is to see a guy at the altar sometimes laughing. They expect the minister to be serious, so this is like night and day for them."

Fujii is one of Kuniyuki's most vocal supporters.

"He's daring, willing to try anything as long as it's within the boundary," Fujii said. "Rev. Kuniyuki makes it fun to listen."

Fujii views Kuniyuki's August "Gathering 2000" seminar at Waikoloa, which attracted 213 people island-wide, as an example of the minister's appeal, which he hopes will increase membership at the Papaaloa church.

"In 15 years, if we don't get an input of new members, this temple is done," Fujii said.

Kuniyuki, a Pearl City native, attended Waipahu High and graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in economics.

He moved to the Big Island in 1991 and was employed as a computer consultant specializing in training before becoming a full-time minister.

"I valued the religion, but it was disappearing -- the congregation was getting smaller," Kuniyuki said of what moved him to be a minister.

"I wanted to get back fundamental teaching. In our religion, the central thing is the teaching and how it works in everyday life. Rituals and tradition serve as reminders, but to me, they had superseded the actual teaching."

With the support of his Protestant wife, the former Dayle Hisano of Kaimuki, Kuniyuki went to Japan in 1994 for two years of intense training to be a minister.

His wife, an accountant for University of Hawaii-Hilo Food Services, remained on the Big Island to maintain their home.

"At the time, Hongwanji in Japan was trying to make our religion more accessible so there was a need for ministers like Eric and me," Kuniyuki said.

The religious text was also being translated into English, and Kuniyuki was able to provide some assistance with his computer knowledge.

Rituals and awareness

The time in Japan gave Kuniyuki perspective on the approach he needed to take.

"In Japan, teachings are within the rituals," he said. "It's more easily accepted because of their lifestyles.

"But in the United States, you're dealing with second and third generations who think by going through the rituals, they're Buddhists."

Adopting a "talk story" style based on what the religion's founder, Shinran Shonin, practiced, Kuniyuki returned to the Big Island in 1996 and was assigned the four temples he currently serves.

The temples, located along a 26-mile stretch north of Hilo, are 93 years old or older.

Honomu and Honohina are the oldest at 102 and 101 years, respectively, and the total membership of the four temples is 300 families.

There are no religious conflicts between Kuniyuki and his wife, and their situation is the same as his Buddhist father, Klayton, and Protestant mother, Mildred, of Pearl City.

"Goodness comes naturally from within and it doesn't matter what Church X or Church Y is espousing," Kuniyuki said.

"Being religious doesn't necessarily mean going to church. To me, it's understanding religion itself -- the philosophy and way of life -- and striving to live by those principals. Otherwise, it's just a label."

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