Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Kalihi Zen

Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by Linny Morris.

At the entrance to Chozen-ji, a Zen temple deep in Kalihi valley, two stone figures greet visitors: a tall, slim Buddha of healing and Hotei, a short, round, jolly monk with a sack of fish and a gourd full of sake. “He’s not supposed to have either as a Buddhist monk,” says Mike Sayama, the abbot at Chozen-ji. “You want to aspire to be like that. You’re beyond right and wrong. You do whatever you want. Nobody knows whether you’re a sage or fool.”

These are the promises of Chozen-ji: healing and freedom. Chozen-ji means “the temple of Zen transcending Zen.” “Pretty transcendent, right?” laughs Sayama. Since he became the abbot in 2017, he’s helping to spread the teachings to a new generation, from posts of the temple on Instagram to new classes like Zen and Aloha, which join programs in ceramics, calligraphy, tea ceremony, aikido, kendo and others.

Chozen-ji was established in 1972 by Tanouye Tenshin, a music teacher at Farrington High School, and his instructor Omori Sogen. Tenshin spent summers in Japan, training under Sogen in the martial arts, and the two decided to start a dojo in Hawai‘i that would combine meditation, martial arts and fine arts. In the ’80s and ’90s, Chozen-ji attracted Hawai‘i’s political and business leaders, but over time attendance declined, which Sayama attributes to rules and rituals that intimidated new seekers. So he’s shed much of the formality, such as requiring uniforms in the dojo, and made the temple more accessible.

In this way the Chozen-ji is aligning with the times, as more people turn to Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness. Sayama sees it as a reaction to the “growing sense of the complexity of problems and the interconnectedness of everybody who lives on this Earth,” he says. “There’s all this chaos in the world and a sense of insecurity. … This place, it takes away your anxiety and refreshes you, at least while you’re here.” Sayama says that any spiritual training is beneficial, though he cautions against practices that are too intellectual. Which is why there is one unbending rule at Chozen-ji that remains: Every class begins with a forty-five-minute meditation.

“Stop thinking,” Sayama says. “Just sit.”