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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, December 10, 1999

Courtesy Lotus in Paradise
Colorful Saihomaru and Jodo Toronagashi lanterns
are sometimes used in Obon festivals.

This Buddha's for you

Enlightened souls who take in the
Lotus in Paradise series this month
will witness Buddhism in bloom

By Cynthia Oi


HONGPA Hongwanji Mission on Pali Highway looks like it should be in India. Soto Mission on Nuuanu Avenue looks like a Hindu temple. Jodo Mission next to the H-1 in Makiki has Moorish nuances.

To Alfred Bloom, the varied designs of Buddhist temples in Hawaii reflects the universality and adaptability of religion.

"The architecture is a concrete manifestation of an ideal," said Bloom, professor emeritus of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa religion department.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
A statue of Honen, founder of Pure Land tradition in Japan,
towers in front of the Jodo Mission on Makiki Street.

Bloom, a member of Honpa Hongwanji, is one of seven lecturers who will discuss Buddhism as part of a program to be presented by the Japanese Cultural Center and the Hawaii Buddhist Council.

An exhibition, "Lotus in Paradise: Buddhism & Japanese-American Identity in Hawaii," opens today at the cultural center and free tours of temples around Oahu begin later this month.

Bloom, who studied Buddhism at Harvard Divinity School and has received his ordination, said the religion in Hawaii "is talked about as being hapa-Buddhism, a mixture of Eastern and Western elements.


Bullet What: Lotus in Paradise: Buddhism & Japanese-American Identity in Hawaii; exhibit includes photographs, sutras, household alters, lanterns, Shingon bells, record books, juzu (Buddhist rosary beads)
Bullet When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays through April 12
Bullet Where: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii historical gallery
Bullet Cost: $3 adults, $2 students, $1 children
Bullet Also: Lecture series Jan. 10 through March 31; free temple tours 10 a.m. to noon select Saturdays, Dec. 18 through April 8. Call to register.
Bullet Reservations and information: 945-7633
Bullet Internet: or email

"If you look at it broadly, wherever Buddhism has gone it has merged with the culture of where it went. It adapted its practices and even architecture," he said.

Yemyo Imamura, who was Hongpa Hongwanji's bishop from 1900 until 1932 when he died, presented Buddhism as an "embracing religion."

"He didn't see it as just a religion of Japanese and for Japanese," Bloom said. "So when he decided to build a temple, he built it in the Indian style of architecture because India was the place of origin for Buddhism. It represented for him a more universal character of Buddhism, that it could reach out to all kinds of people."

The architecture of temples of other Buddhist sects also shows diversity.

"The Soto Mission is a more modern replication of what really looks like a Hindu temple," Bloom said.

The Jodo Mission came as a surprise to him. "When I first saw it I thought it was a mosque. Still, the influence is Indian," he said.

These reflect what Bloom sees as the core and the future of Buddhism.

In the past, Buddhism has been a strong part of the Japanese and the Japanese-American community, but the membership must now move beyond its ethnocentric boundaries, he said.

"The constituencies (of the temples) are old, and are oriented toward the old country," he said.

This is understandable, Bloom said, given the experience of Japanese people in Hawaii -- from the 1920s when Japanese language schools were outlawed, through World War II when being Japanese and a Buddhist painted them as un-American.

"And during the war, all the temples were closed up anyway and restricted in their activities," he said. "These events made them wary."

For older members of the Japanese-American community, the ties to Buddhism hold strong, but among the sansei and the younger people, the religion has lost its philosophical hold, Bloom said.

"Buddhists relied on the rituals and family life to nurture, so the rituals in the temples and the sense of obligation would reinforce their Buddhist awareness.

"At home, grandparents had commitment to the religion, but didn't have the education to translate to the younger ones the philosophy of the religion.

Courtesy Lotus in Paradise
Altar at Soto Mission of Hawaii

"They did transfer this sense of family and commitment and obligation and piety, and I've heard stories from the young people about what their grandparents and parents did for them. It was always there.

"So in the 'hara,' in their gut, they know they are Buddhist but they don't know why. The intellectual part was missing and was never really developed."

As a result, membership in temples have declined.

"When you lose membership, you lose money. When you lose money, you can't hire personnel, you can't mount programs," Bloom said.

"So it is only been in recent years that Imamura's ideal to present Buddhism to a larger community has emerged, stimulated by the Dalai Lama and other leaders who have wide following among Western people," he said.

Bloom sees Buddhism as an inclusive religion. The one-time student in a fundamentalist Baptist seminary has found in it an intelligence and tolerance that goes beyond Christianity.

"Christian tradition has a tremendous history, it has been a tremendous cultural and social force. I respect the tradition. Christians have been on the forefront of human rights and social progress, but they have to carry so much baggage."

An ethnic Jew, Bloom is sensitive to the "complicity of religious traditions" in the Holocaust and the implications for him.

His grandparents fled the Ukraine before the war.

"They got up and left ... and when I look at the culture that caused that, why people had to dislocate themselves, the terror that people still live through there, you wonder what's the religion. They are Eastern Orthodox or Catholic and even Protestant.

Courtesy Lotus in Paradise
Hongpa Hongwanji Mission on Pali Highway.

"And you look at Northern Ireland -- these are two Christian groups that are killing each other.

"I mean, Buddhists are not perfect, but if you compare histories, Buddhists never fought in any of those cultures on the basis of belief."

Christian groups' attitude toward same sex marriage also bothers him.

"Christianity has this schizophrenia over same gender issues. They can't recognize the essential humanity of people. Buddhists don't have that kind of problem."

Same sex relationships, from a Western perspective, is supposedly condemned by God, he said, but "who knows what God thinks?"

"In Buddhism, the reality is unknown, so no one can presume to speak for God, know what God wants. No one can claim they have the whole truth on everything," he said.

"That's why people are drawn to Buddhism," Bloom said. "Buddhism is very tolerant and accepting of diversity."

That diversity encompasses race, ethnic background, age, sex, nationality, he said. And that's where Buddhism in Hawaii is moving.

"We are more ready to move further ahead. The present leadership is all very much oriented in that direction. It is late in the day, but the future looks better."

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