Issue 11.2: April / May 2008

Shaka Buddha

story by George Tanabe
photos by Dana Edmunds


I first encountered Zen Buddhism in the early ’60s when I had to deliver a load of lumber to an old house in the hills of Pupukea on O‘ahu’s North Shore. My father had a hardware store in Waialua and I was his unpaid delivery boy, home from my first year of college.

“Diamond Sangha?” I asked my dad after he gave me the address. “What’s that?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. “The guy who came to order the lumber looked like a hippie, but he paid for it in full.”

Surrounded by scrub guava and haole koa bushes, the Pupukea house was in disrepair—peeling paint, torn screens, dry rot and termites. Soft-spoken and slightly emaciated, a young, shirtless Caucasian man helped me unload the lumber in silence. After the last two-by-four was off the truck, I asked him, “What’s the Diamond Sangha?”

There was a long pause before he finally said, “A Zen Buddhist group.”

Zen was rising in popularity back then. Life Magazine carried stories of Zen monks and Alan Watts, the energetic writer and promoter of the mysteries of Zen. D. T. Suzuki, the Zen master and philosopher, was as well-known as the Dalai Lama is today. The word Zen had entered the English language: After seeing a green flash as the sun disappeared into the ocean at a Hale‘iwa Beach Park picnic, a girl from the Midwest turned to me and exclaimed, “Wow, it’s sooo Zen!”

It didn’t matter that nobody really understood the essence of Zen. It was enough to know that it was some kind of Aha! moment, a mystical insight that could not be explained in words. That was part of its attraction—it was a feeling, an aesthetic, not an idea.

“If you really want to experience Zen,” the Diamond Sangha young man told me, “you must meditate. Would you like to try it? Just sit and don’t think.”

I took off my steel-toed work shoes and sat on the bare wooden floor, crossing my legs painfully. I immediately thought of lots of things—the stranger next to me, my next delivery, the shave ice I craved, the pain in my legs, the ticking of the timer he had set for twenty minutes.

Ding! Finally, at long last. I couldn’t have gone on for another minute. “Well?” he asked. “How was it?”

“I failed,” I admitted. “I couldn’t stop thinking.”

“I knew you didn’t have it in you,” he said, unsurprised, a bit condescending. “But maybe someday you’ll get it.”

As I drove down the winding road from Pupukea, I wondered about the discovery I had just made. The haole guy on the hilltop, new to Zen, had experienced the truth of Buddhism, but I, even though I had grown up in a Buddhist family, didn’t have the slightest idea of what he was talking about.



MY GRANDFATHER had been one of the founding members of the Waialua Hongwanji Buddhist temple. My uncle, a general contractor, had a hand in building it. Constructed in one of the camps next to the sugar mill, it was a busy place, hosting weddings, funerals, memorial services, bon dances, Boy Scout Troop 144 and the dreaded Japanese language school.

While our non-Japanese friends enjoyed their after school hours, we were forced by our Nisei parents to receive Japanese language instruction from teachers who ran the school like a boot camp. We had to line up, each person behind another, in front of the main steps. Mr. Matsuda, a short man with round glasses and a mustache, stood on the steps like a drill sergeant.

“Stand like soljahs!” he would bark in what seemed to be the only sentence he knew in English. “Mae-narai!” We shot both hands straight out, touching the back of the shoulders of the person in front. Mr. Matsuda, whom we secretly called the Main Crook, our term for the bad guy in cowboy movies, strutted in front of every line, picking on slouches to straighten up before allowing us to drop our hands and enter the classrooms.

Most of the teachers were women, Main Crook being the exception. They were pleasant ladies, trying hard to be stern, and as we grew older, moving from elementary to junior high levels, we did everything we could to keep ourselves from learning Japanese. Our goal was not to learn, and we achieved it through the hard work of acting as badly as we dared. It was exciting. Rubber-band slingshots, spitballs, an occasional but always mysterious firecracker, jumping out the windows while the teacher wrote on the blackboard—we excelled at disruption. On good days—and we had many of them—the teacher would break down and cry in frustration.

“You’ll regret it if you don’t learn Japanese,” my mother always said after denying my annual request for permission to quit Japanese language school. “Never,” I insisted. “I’m American, not Japanese.” In the ninth grade, I finally prevailed, after Francis and I, the only two boys left in the class, conspired to tell our parents that the other was being allowed to quit.


FRANCIS WENT ON TO COLLEGE, majored in engineering and joined the Air Force. I studied history and agonized over war and peace. The Vietnam War picked up its vicious pace, and I became interested in Buddhism and pacifism. At home one summer from college, around the time I met the Diamond Sangha young man in Pupukea, I decided that in order to understand Buddhism, I needed to learn Japanese. I persuaded the resident minister of Waialua Hongwanji temple to give me private lessons, and we met nights in the teachers’ office, where, I imagined, Mr. Matsuda must have given tough advice to weeping teachers.

My mother had been right. I had come to regret my earlier rebellion against learning Japanese, the language that somehow held the key to my identity. “Never forget where you come from,” she had always warned me, but she never identified my origins. Was it America, Hawai‘i, Waialua, or, by ancestry, Japan? Convinced that I would find my identity by studying Japanese and Buddhism, I spent years as a graduate student at Columbia University and Tokyo University. I returned to Hawai‘i in 1977, armed with a Ph.D. in Japanese religion, and began my teaching career at the University of Hawai‘i, still uncertain about what it meant to be American or Japanese or both or neither.

I quickly discovered that Japanese Buddhism in Hawai‘i also suffered from an identity crisis. Was it Japanese? American? Hawaiian? Even the temple architecture is baffling, as if the designers could not make up their minds if a Japanese temple in Hawai‘i should be Eastern or Western or both or neither. Take the Honpa Hongwanji main temple off Pali Highway. Whenever I take students to visit the temple, I ask them to tell me what they see if they ignore the stupa domes on the roof. The most common answer I get is, “The White House.” That is not a far-fetched response since the main section without the stupas is built in the administrative style of government buildings in British colonial India. It has Greco-Roman pillars at its front entrance and also in the altar area.

Step inside the temple and the sanctuary looks like a Protestant church—pews, hymnals, art deco lights, pulpit and an organ. Only the inner altar is purely Japanese, with its ornate gilding and medieval statue of Amida Buddha. Put it all together and the result is a pastiche unlike any Buddhist temple in Japan.

This did not happen by accident. Completed in 1918, the temple was designed by Bishop Yemyo Imamura, who did not want it to look like a typical Japanese temple. Imamura wanted to emphasize the fact that this was a Buddhist temple in Hawai‘i, not Japan. Other denominations adopted the same architectural ideology. It even has a name: the international style.

The Soto Mission on Nu‘uanu Avenue also has classical western columns, Indian stupa roof structures, Protestant pews and a traditional Japanese altar. The pink Jodo Mission on Makiki Street (visible from the freeway) is even more striking in its resemblance to an Islamic structure, specifically the Taj Mahal, the most famous building in India. Inside, beyond the pews and the rack holders for hymnals, the altar is very Japanese.

My students at the university, however, had no trouble figuring out the ethnicity of the temples. “It’s obvious,” they said, “that Japanese temples are Japanese.”

“But look at the architecture,” I countered, “and the hymns, the benedictions, the pulpits, the organs and all of the other local elements not found in temples in Japan.”

“True,” they conceded momentarily, “but what about the altar, the statues of the buddhas, the incense, the chanting and the ministers, most of whom came from Japan?”

We finally agreed that like our food, speech and marriages, it was all mixed up. The conversation made me think about a story I used to tell in my early days as a Buddhism professor at UH. In my classes, I used to say that I had discovered the origins of the shaka sign. I would first trace the history of the religion: originating with Shakyamuni Buddha in India, spreading to China where it became Chinese, then to Korea where it became Korean and then to Japan where it became Japanese.

I would flash the shaka sign and explain that in Japan, Shakyamuni was referred to as Shaka. I would go on to say in a deadpan voice that the phrase shaka bruddah is a pidgin variation of Shaka Buddha. The joke drew some laughs, but I stopped telling it when Mid-Week magazine ran a story on the origins of the shaka sign and quoted someone who said (seriously, I think) that Professor George Tanabe traced it back to a Buddhist hand gesture.


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.


FROM SHERIDAN STREET, I drive to the back end of Palolo Valley, where I have an appointment with Robert Aitken, founder of the Diamond Sangha. His group has come a long way since its beginnings in 1959 and has nearly twenty affiliate Zen centers on the Mainland and in Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Germany. It’s been years since I last saw Aitken or visited the Palolo Zen Center, which sits serenely nestled against the valley hillside. Several single-storey buildings are connected by covered verandas, a feature common to Japan and Hawai‘i. The meditation hall is spare with rows of round cushions arranged in front of a simple altar.

A caregiver answers the door at Aitken’s residence and I wait in the living room for her to bring the “Old Boss,” as he prefers to translate his Zen title of Roshi, out in a wheelchair. He is physically frail, and while he occasionally searches for a word or name, his memories are clear, his judgments sharp.

We exchange greetings as old acquaintances, and I ask him about his relationship to Japanese Zen. “Well,” he says with a matter-of-fact gesture, “we’re completely independent.” He collects his thoughts for a moment then launches into a fascinating narrative of how he trained with several Zen masters in Japan and started the Diamond Sangha in a house in Kuli‘ou‘ou. He speaks freely, telling stories of sexual harassment by Zen masters, mental breakdowns, unqualified pretenders, alcoholism. Not one given to innocuous speech, Aitken is equally emphatic about insightful teachers, excellent students and social activism.

Aitken was trained in the Sambokyodan school of Zen, whose aim is the experience of kensho, seeing into one’s true nature. Aitken’s Japanese teacher certified his Zen insight, which is the basis of his own teachings and authority to designate his own successors.

“You have that authority yourself, right?” I ask rhetorically. “You don’t need someone from Japan to approve your choice of successors? They don’t have to go to Japan to be certified? So how did you gain your independence from the Sambokyodan institution of your teachers?”

“On my way back from a conference in Thailand,” he says, “I stopped in Japan and visited the headquarters. I met Kubota, the head of the group at that time, and he asked me what I thought the relationship between Sambokyodan and Diamond Sangha should be. So I said, ‘Let’s have a friendly divorce.’ ‘I feel the same way,’ Kubota said, ‘now let’s go out to lunch.’ So that settled it. Very friendly.”

Aitken is getting tired, and I need to end the interview. “So tell me, is the Diamond Sangha Japanese, American or local?”
Aitken thinks for a moment, then says, “It’s not American.”

“Really?” I ask, remembering that he is regarded as a pioneer among Zen teachers in America.

“It’s not American,” he repeats decisively. “But it’s more American than Japanese. It’s local.”

It is my turn to think about this for awhile. It’s kind of a Zen riddle.

“Well,” he adds, “our procedures are still Japanese.”

It is too late to pursue this further, and I get up to leave. “Just one more thing, Bob. Remember the house in Pupukea?”

Aitken flashes a smile. “Oh yes, we were going to fix that up as a retirement place for one of the Japanese teachers, but he decided not to come.”

I tell him the story about delivering lumber to the old house and my first experience in meditation. I quote the young man telling me to sit without thinking.

“Oh no,” Aitken says, “that’s not right. That guy, you know, well, he was a little cuckoo.” Aitken taps his head.

“He was my first Zen teacher,” I remark. Aitken winces.

Out in the parking area, I look at the mountains surrounding the Zen center. Everything fits quietly together—the modest houses linked as one, the open lawn, the magnificent albesia trees with their tall white trunks so evident in a forest of tropical green. It’s not American, but it’s more American than Japanese. Aitken has given me a Zen answer, fluid, unfixed.

AS I DRIVE OUT of Palolo, I think about the basic teaching of Buddhism: Everything is unfixed, impermanent and constantly changing according to shifting causes and conditions. It is an illusion to think that we have some kind of fixed identity, as if people and cultures are made of the same essence as stone. We are in a constant state of flux and can choose to be whatever is appropriate: a father at one moment, a son the next, a friend, a foe, indifferent, caring. Maybe, I think to myself, Japanese Buddhism in Hawai‘i isn’t so much having an identity crisis as accepting Buddhism’s true nature: All is fluid. Maybe, I muse, that is the true teaching of Shaka Buddha—Hawai‘i’s Shaka Bruddah. HH