SHAKA BUDDHISM. It’s not a bad phrase, really, for a Buddhism homegrown in Hawai‘i. It has a great indigenized ring to it. Eh, bruddah, got Shaka? Certainly the Islands could use some now. These days, many younger people are leaving their ancestral Buddhism for Christianity and its purely American flavors. Temple memberships have dropped, drastically in some cases, and many are concerned about how to transform Buddhism from a religion of the ancestors into a faith that speaks to real issues of personal fulfillment—love, sex, money, career, marriage, children.
There is a growing conviction that in order to make Buddhism truly palatable to our existing tastes, it must move even further from its Japanese origins and become more local. Nearly all of the Japanese denominations still are affiliated with headquarters in Japan and are subject to their authority in matters such as the ordination of ministers. Just as Indian Buddhism became Chinese, and Chinese Buddhism became Japanese, so must Japanese Buddhism free itself from Japan.
One temple is pushing hard toward a greater independence. The Sheridan Street Shingon temple, which used to be the statewide headquarters for the Shingon denomination in Hawai‘i, recently cut its institutional ties with the headquarters in Japan. This was a revolutionary step, the stuff of excommunication and heresy. I had to talk with Reyn Tsuru, the congregational president who led the move toward complete autonomy.
How strange, I thought, that the Sheridan Street temple, which was built in the most traditional Japanese style—high-tiled roof, upward curving eaves, carved wooden beams—should be the first to declare its independence from Japan. A young man meets me in the parking lot, introduces himself as Quinn and leads me to Tsuru’s office. Tsuru sits behind a desk piled with files and papers. A fourth-generation Japanese American, Tsuru is a lawyer by training and was ordained as a minister by a former Shingon bishop of Hawai‘i. “But the headquarters at Koyasan,” he remarks, “does not recognize my ordination.”
Tsuru explains that the parting of their ways began in 2002, the centennial year of Shingon Buddhism in Hawai‘i. According to Tsuru, Koyasan attempted to strengthen its control over the local Sheridan Street temple and Tsuru led the congregation in resisting their move. The issue eventually wound up in litigation that was settled amicably out of court, and Koyasan relinquished its authority over the Sheridan Street temple.
“That’s amazing,” I say. “I don’t know of any local Japanese temple that has cut its ties with Japan. What does your congregation think of the divorce?”
“They’re happy with it,” Tsuru replies. “Koyasan still thinks that we are plantation workers who will accept anything they tell us. They think we still need the cultural ties with the motherland. But Japanese Americans are no longer Japanese. We’re all mixed.”
“If you are no longer under the jurisdiction of Koyasan,” I ask, “then where is the seat of authority?”
“The congregation,” Tsuru replies without hesitation. “The congregation has the authority to ordain a person like Quinn. The old master-disciple relationship doesn’t work anymore. Quinn’s master is the congregation and the temple as a whole must serve the wider community.”
Tsuru goes on to explain that the temple is attracting a younger clientele that includes non-members. The fellowship night has become popular and meets twice a month instead of once. Everything is explained in English.
“I like to tell people that we are conducting a grand experiment,” Tsuru says, “to see if we can take Shingon Buddhism and successfully adapt it to modern Hawai‘i. Shingon in Hawai‘i must be along local lines.”
Shaka Buddhism, I say to myself, moving even farther away from Japan.