Story by Curt Sanburn
Photo by Sue Hudelson
“Most people have no idea what they’re seeing when they step inside a Buddhist temple,” says scholar George Tanabe, standing in front of the glittering “inner sanctuary” of the Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin temple near downtown Honolulu. Before him is a prodigious symmetry of black lacquer and golden altar tables topped by a golden tengai, or canopy. At the apex stands a figure of Amida, the Buddha of light and life. Twin cascades of golden flowers pour from the ceiling to form lamps. “When the Buddha was enlightened,” Tanabe says explaining the symbolism, “it rained flowers from the sky.”
A retired professor of Japanese religion at the University of Hawai‘i, George and his wife Willa, herself a retired UH professor of Japanese art, began documenting Japanese Buddhist temples throughout Hawai‘i in 2009. “For years,” he says, “we’d been telling ourselves we should do a book on Hawai‘i’s local temples, our own backyard.” The couple researched, interpreted and photographed every Japanese Buddhist temple from Hilo to Hanapëpë, ninety in all.
The result is a richly detailed guidebook, Japanese Buddhist Temples in Hawai‘i, published in October by University of Hawai‘i Press. The Tanabes’ scholarship also informs an exhibit at Honolulu’s Japanese Cultural Center running December 1 through February 22. The story of Hawai‘i’s Japanese Buddhist temples “follows sugar history,” says George. “The plantations set up and Japanese workers come. They build their temples, but then sugar goes out and Japanese people move to the city. The temples remain but nobody’s there. One reason for the book is to recognize the temples we have, especially the small rural ones,” says George. “They have no congregations left; they’re dying.”
But not every temple is dying, says George, pointing to the two-story Liliha Shingonji Mission temple, circa 1911, which graces Honolulu’s venerable Liliha Street. It is the oldest Buddhist temple on O‘ahu, still serving about fifty families. The fruit-bedecked altar’s central deity is Kobo Daishi, the half-god/half-human founder of the Shingon sect.
“To most people all this is just ornateness,” George says, “but every temple— in terms of its objects—is a sermon.”