Haven of Peace: on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu

It’s December in Hawaii, the busiest time of the year. Tourists abound. Now mid morning, the weather is warm and sunny on the island’s south shore. My girlfriend Sue and I are leaving behind the crowded streets and beaches of Waikiki to visit the Byodo-In Temple on the west side of O’ahu. It’s a place well worth a visit if you ever visit Hawaii, especially if you love peaceful, tranquil places.

You can escape the crowds of Waikiki at the tranquil Byodo-In Temple just on the other side of O’ahu.

Rather than drive the costal highway, we decide to save time cutting straight through the middle of the island. This route takes us through the mountains via a series of tunnels. As we emerge from the last tunnel, our red VW Beetle’s windshield is suddenly pelted by rain. It’s hard to believe just four minutes ago we were looking up at blue sky! The mountains that divide the island are to blame. They push up warm ocean air on the western side causing precipitation.

Around noon, we turn off the main highway, following a narrow, winding road up towards the park’s gate. The road is lined by palm trees and passes through a lush cemetery with rolling grass-covered hills. The graves are widely spaced; almost all are adorned with fresh flowers. As we approach the gate, we pass by a sign that reads, “Haven of Peace.”

Despite the fact we followed four or five other cars into the park, we find a parking spot right away. Although we’re both excited to see the temple, our stomachs are growling so we decide to eat the lunch we brought before exploring the temple.

Our hunger satiated, we grab our cameras and head towards the ticket booth where a man tells us it is $3 per adult. It’s a fair price. We’re both surprised how inexpensive it is to get in.

The rain has stopped now, leaving the air smelling sweet and fresh. The misty clouds overhead cast a soft, even light that wraps everything, leaving no hard shadows.

As we turn to our left, we see an arching footbridge leading to the Byodo-In Temple. The temple is predominately striking red in colour; white panels and yellow ornamental trim work accent the impressive Japanese architecture. Set against the green of the Ko’olau Mountains, the temple stuns one into a kind of reverent silence.  There are a few tourists walking around taking pictures and talking quietly. Others are taking turns ringing a 5 ft. tall Bon-sho, or sacred bell. The resonating sound can be felt as much as heard. Some believe that ringing the bell purifies the mind and brings happiness. The bell rings again and we move closer towards the temple.

A small pond, stocked with gold and orange koi, surrounds the temple. A pair of black swans float by idly. The sound of trickling fountains and bird song fill the air. Gravel crunches under our feet as we tread the path towards the temple entrance.

“Excuse me. Would you take our picture?” we are asked. A small group of young tourists line up with their backs to the temple as my girlfriend tells them all to smile. Snap. One more. Snap. Snap. The trick is to take two more after you say one more.

“Thank you!” they say. We ask if they would reciprocate. They do, and now we are back on the trail.

The Byodo-In Temple was established in 1968. A plaque says the temple was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Hawaii’s first Japanese immigrants. It was modeled after the much larger and older Byodo-In temple in Uji, Japan.

At the entrance to the temple there is another sign asking visitors to remove their shoes before entering. The temple is an important place of worship for the local Buddhists, as well as a place of great artistic beauty.

buddha-hawaii

Sue and I take off our shoes and enter into the Hoo-do, the main Phoenix hall. Inside is a 9 ft. statue of Amida Buddha covered in gold leaf, save for a few spots that have worn away over the years. Surrounding the Buddha are carvings of numerous Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings of perfect knowledge.

Around the hall are wooden benches, where we sit to contemplate the Buddha. Surprisingly, we are the only ones who have entered the temple, so we have the place to ourselves. We sit on a small wooden bench and listen to the silence. The Buddha’s tranquility washes over us and we feel, in that brief moment, enlightenment is tantalizingly close. Then, as other visitors enter the Hoo-do, the spell is broken and we move on.

Sue says she’d like to see what they have in the small gift shop at the far side of the temple. The small shop is guarded by one of the many feral cats that live on the island. A little girl is crouched down in front of the cat, trying to get its attention, but the cat ignores the girl, interested only in licking its paws and cleaning its face.

The cat is not the only resident of the temple drawing attention. Tourists are also gathered around a peacock, trying to take its picture, hoping it might spread its extravagant tail plumage.

Inside the shop we find the usual t-shirts, books and jewelry one would expect in a gift shop. Sue purchases a small iron statue of Buddha that can easily be fitted into our suitcase for the trip home. I decide to buy a necklace. The woman selling them tells me, “My boyfriend makes all these by hand.”

Satisfied that we had soaked up as much good karma as we could, we reluctantly head back to the hustle and bustle of Waikiki.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY NOTICE MAGAZINE IN 2015

 

Personal Reflections: Buddhism

Personal liberation and self-discovery are powerful, driving forces in many people’s lives, including my own. As a boy, I was raised in a protestant family that believed strongly in the existence of God, and the truth of the Bible. My mother was particularly focused on the evils of the world, and spent much time warning my younger sister and I to beware the many tricks Satan might play on us. Devotion to God, following his commandments, and not being caught up in the worldliness of others were paramount to our immortal future. Getting into heaven was the ultimate goal. To be distracted from God were seen as detrimental – even fatal. Going to hell was a very real consequence of disobeying God’s laws.

In my late teens, I began questioning my beliefs and the stories that I had been told by my parents. Though I did not know it at the time, I had set out on a path of personal liberation and self-discovery. That path would ultimately lead me away from my faith as a Christian, but ironically it deepened my curiosity about the nature of faith and religion. Many years later that curiosity is still burning strong.

I was recently privileged with the opportunity to tour two Buddhist temples as part of an Eastern religions class I enrolled in. Although I had a long-standing interest in Buddhism – even reading a few books on the subject – my knowledge of the customs and traditions was limited.  In-class lectures provided some much needed insight on Buddhist practices, but visiting actual temples and hearing from faithful practitioners is what brought those insights to life.

It was a chilly, November morning when I visited the temples. Arriving early, I exlored the first temple of the Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association, in quiet solitude. My instructor had also arrived early; she offered me some jasmine tea, which I gladly accepted.

The Indo-Chinese Buddhist Association is a Mahayana temple. Mahayana Buddhists refer to their faith as a great vehicle. Until recently, Mahayana Buddhists thought of other branches of Buddhism as lesser vehicles.

The architecture of the temple, which was modeled upon Chinese style temples, was striking, as were the many religious objects and images. A large open area with red pillars dominated the main floor; from the ceiling hung a variety of oriental, rice paper lamps. The temple also housed a number of impressive effigies, including the Kuan Yin Bodhisattva – which is the primary deity of the temple – as well as Di Zang Bodhisattva, Amitabha Buddha and Wei Tuo Bodhisattva, to name a few. A table before the Earth God, Tu Di Gong, in the Ancestral Hall displayed offerings such as apples, oranges and rice. Beautiful bouquets of flowers were also on display.

Red donation boxes were also placed around the temple. I found a small donation box in a corner and made a donation. My classmates and I were encouraged to take a small statuette of a Buddha in return for our donation, so I selected a small bronze-coloured one.

Once the entire class was present, an elderly woman named Shun Yee, introduced herself and told us a few facts about the temple. She was a very likeable and friendly woman, quick to smile. She wore a jacket with a mandarin collar and a lovely jade bracelet. Standing before the group, she pointed out the goddess of mercy and compassion, longevity lanterns, rhythm fish, and Joss divination sticks, which are selected and then matched to a pink sheet. The sheets, written in Chinese, offer suggestions on what action a person should undertake.

After a time, some Buddhist practitioners arrived. One woman came in holding a bundle of incense sticks. She bowed, knelt, and left shortly thereafter.

Following our short tour, the class was invited to partake in a vegetarian meal in the downstairs kitchen area. We were treated to some delicious Vietnamese subs, soup and pink-coloured dumplings. A small shrine to the Kitchen God, Zao Jun, reminded us that food is a blessing, and it is something to be grateful for.

Following the meal, we proceeded to the next stop on our field trip: The True Buddha Pai Yuin temple. The Pai Yuin temple is a Vajrayana Buddhist temple. Vajrayana Buddhism is the newest form of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhists are unique in their use of tantras, which are instructions on how to achieve enlightenment.

In stark contrast with the Indo-Chinese temple, which was open, airy and somewhat minimalist, the Pai Yuin was enclosed and filled to the rafters with colourful Buddhas and guardians of all shapes and sizes. The sheer number of statues on display — ranging in size from 10ft tall to a few inches tall – captured my imagination and left me with a feeling of awe. It was a feast for the eyes and senses.

A table near the front of the temple was piled up with food offerings including chips, cookies, instant noodles, cereals and candy.

A number of nuns with shaved heads and traditional maroon robes were moving about and at one point they carried out a ritual while chanting mantras. After the small ceremony, my classmates and I were free to explore the steps of the temple and to take pictures.

The colours, smells and sounds of the Pai Yuin temple altered my mental state, inducing wonderment and curiosity. Also, I was struck by an immediate desire to return to the temple at a later date in the hopes of tapping into the peace and tranquility it alluded to.  I was not alone in this. Other students also expressed a desire to return; maybe they had glimpsed the same possibility of new knowledge. I cannot be sure.

Many questions swirled through my mind, but what I can be sure of is this: experiencing other cultures and religions first-hand makes opens windows to new exciting new perceptions. Seeing Buddhists pray and chant reminded me of my early childhood experiences in Christian churches. Although the rituals and theologies are different, there are some striking commonalities. For instance, the reverence one feels during a ceremony or prayer is the same, no matter what god is being honoured. Although I do not subscribe to superstition, I nonetheless understand the goals and objectives of religion. Finding inner peace, doing good deeds, seeking meaning in life, and respecting the powers of nature are all noble pursuits. However, despite the commonalities of religions, Buddhists also offer unique insights into the natural state of humanity. The Eightfold Path and the removal of kleshas – ignorance, greed and hatred – are wonderful examples of the wisdom of Buddhist thinking. Most importantly, Buddhism recognizes that the goal is not to gain something, but to remove something. It is possible to see through anatman, the illusion of self, and to be enlightened. In that sense Buddhism, like other religions, offers hope — hope for the possibility of peace, compassion, joy, equanimity and loving kindness. Importantly, these results are absolutely attainable without belief in the supernatural. It is results we should be focusing on, adopting the best ideas, and discarding the rest.