A Place in the Pure Land
by PATRICIA LEE MASTERS
photographs by MARCO GARCIA
The early morning mist whispers above the Ko‘olau mountains as the chanting in the Byodo-In temple begins. Rev. Hosen Fukuhara, who cares for this temple, softly sings the San Se Ge, one of two Buddhist chants he offers here every morning. This chant, part of a larger sutra or sacred text, speaks to awakening in this life to the true nature of mind and reality. Only the birds are listening to the priest’s melodic hum this morning, and one experiences a gentle reminder of the Buddhist understanding of wa, the harmony of nature and humankind.
There are no pews or hymnals in this sacred space as visitors, among them many local and visiting Buddhists, silently pray for spiritual and mundane needs to be met, and ask the Buddha to guide their ancestors on their way to the Pure Land. The Pure Land is the resting place between earthly life and everlasting peace in this form of Buddhism, where the spirit is purified and the decision about the next life is made. Reverend Fukuhara, a 75-year-old Pure Land priest, offers incense and flowers to the statue of Amida Buddha, one of the transcendental beings of East Asian (Mahayana) Buddhism who resides in the temple, blessing the space with the infinite light that this Buddha is said to emanate.
The temple, a replica of a much larger one in Uji, near Kyoto, Japan, seems to float at the back of the valley, welcoming visitors as they weave their way up through the rows of headstones and burial sites covering the hills leading to the temple. This is a part of the Valley of the Temples, a cemetery and memorial park on the windward side of O‘ahu, and Byodo-In is one among many places of worship and prayer in the park.
BYODO-IN, THE TEMPLE’S NAME, MEANS “TEMPLE OF EQUALITY” AND THE STAFF OF THE TEMPLE ARE QUICK TO POINT OUT THAT IT IS A PLACE WHERE ANYONE OF ANY RELIGIOUS TRADITION, OR NO TRADITION AT ALL, IS WELCOME TO COME.
Many who come here have no idea of the temple’s origins or its meaning in the Buddhist sense, but they feel the peacefulness and serenity of the place. They often feel the urge to sit and contemplate the temple garden pool, filled with golden carp, lotus flowers and waterlilies. One could easily imagine oneself transported back to the Heian Period of the first Byodo-In temple…
The Heian Period, which thrived from 794-1185 C.E., is considered the period of the flowering of refined aesthetic that one comes to associate with Japan and all things Japanese. The rise of one family, the Fujiwaras, as the aristocratic rulers of the Heian, saw the building of summer villas, replete with lakes filled with koi. Here, poets — with bowls of sake and delicacies to savor in the warm summer evenings — would gather.
Buddhism played a very large role in the Heian Period and aristocrats were the purveyors and practitioners of this religious tradition brought from India, through China, before it settled in Japan in the 6th century C.E. The original Byodo-In was built in 998 as an estate for the ruling Fujiwaras and was transformed into a Buddhist temple in 1052.
On entering the temple, one finds a large, but delicate statue of Amida Buddha, again, the transcendental Buddha of Infinite Light of the Western Paradise — a reference to the heavenly abode where Pure Land believers are transported, after death, to purify enough to become fully enlightened beings or Buddhas. The statue of Amida in the Hawai‘i temple is a copy of the original bronze statue in Uji, cast in 1053, but this newer rendition is mixed with an alloy of tin, taking nothing away from its light and sheen, but making it more durable in the moist, tropical air.
THE HAWAI‘I BYODO-IN TEMPLE WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1968 TO COMMEMORATE THE 100TH YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE FIRST JAPANESE TO COME TO HAWAI‘I. These first, called Gannen Mono, meaning “those from the first year of Meiji,” were brought on the ship Sai Oto Go in 1868. There were 53 men, all from Yokohama, who ventured to the Hawaiian Islands to work on the newly established sugar plantations and to hopefully create a better life for themselves and their families. Buddhism helped to sustain and nourish those strangers in a very strange land, offering solace in a less than inviting environment, where the men planted sugar and dreamed of someday returning to their beloved home in the Japanese islands. Most stayed and flourished, however, creating a vibrant community of Buddhist residents in Hawai‘i.
Paul Trousdale, a developer who appreciated Japanese culture and those conscientious and hard-working early Japanese immigrants, met with several Buddhist bishops and priests in 1965, to decide together a fitting tribute to the early Japanese settlers. They chose to build a replica of the Uji temple called Byodo-In because it symbolized the rising of the mystical phoenix from the ashes, in a way representing the struggle of the Japanese plantation workers in Hawai‘i, and the hope of creating spiritual peace. This Hawaiian structure is half the size of that temple in Kyoto but is no less beautiful. EVERY CURVE IN THE TEMPLE ARCHITECTURE IS SENSUOUS, ACCENTUATED BY THE TWO STUNNING PHOENIX BIRDS THAT SIT MAJESTICALLY ON THE OPPOSITE CORNERS OF THE ROOF OF THE GREAT PHOENIX HALL.
The priests were able to obtain drawings of the original Byodo-In temple from the government in Japan, and Mr. Trousdale obtained the services of Robert Katsuyoshi, a Hawai‘i-born, Japanese-American architect, to adapt the original drawings to a building suitable for the Hawaiian climate. Many of the building materials—the roofing tiles, the bells, the temple ornaments, the two carved wooden statues — were all brought from Japan. The Great Bell, echoing the original in Uji, is cast in bronze and standing 5 feet high, resounds throughout the valley with a message of deep calm and peace.
There are events held quite often at Byodo-In, including a Peace Prayer every year on December 7th, to commemorate and remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and to pray for world peace and the end to war. There is a small Japanese woman named Mihoko Maier, an abstract artist and jazz singer, who helps to coordinate this annual gathering of priests, nuns, lay people — both Buddhist and not — to remember and vow to work for peace in themselves and in the world. Mihoko also organizes monthly jazz concerts at Byodo-In in her role as the public relations director of the Japan Religious Committee for World Peace.
“Introspection is necessary—it refreshes the mind and body, while providing peace and serenity. It acts as an oasis in the midst of life.”
– Kayla Emblom, Spa Halekulani
Other ongoing events and activities offered at Byodo-In include cast paper sculpting each Tuesday, the art of making ribbon lei on Thursday, sumi-e or ink painting each Friday, and ikebana or Japanese flower arranging and tea ceremony on the second Saturday of the month. Visitors may also enjoy Jorei, a cleansing body and mind therapy, offered by practitioners who visit the temple regularly.
The staff are friendly, well-informed and respectful. Rev. Fukuhara tells of how Nancy Kreis, the events coordinator of Byodo-In, “is the encyclopedia of the place” while he describes himself as the cleaner and caretaker. Kreis certainly knows the answer to all one’s questions, and everyone there feels well taken care of by the wizened reverend of Byodo-In. Behind the main temple, there is a columbarium where the ashes of the deceased are encased in beautiful columns of drawers, surrounded by flowers left by their descendaents and friends.
Rev. Fukuhara longingly touches the glass-fronted drawer belonging to his deceased, beloved wife and says, “She was alive and then she was gone… just like the wind,” and a slight breeze passed through the room at that very moment.