Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Yoo Omairi . . .” sang a chorus of voices, as more than 100 people gathered at the Haleiwa Shingon Mission on O‘ahu’s north shore on Oct. 26 for the temple’s 19th Thanksgiving and Gratitude Seminar. The Rev. Taiken Akiyama, resident minister of the Haleiwa Shingon Mission, welcomed the participants and explained the multiple meanings of this traditional greeting exchanged among Buddhist pilgrims: “I welcome and respect you. I pray for your fulfillment and success. May your wishes and prayers come true.”
Hale‘iwa’s annual Thanksgiving and Gratitude Seminar is a remarkable example of a community education effort by a local Buddhist temple reaching out beyond its membership. This year’s program offered an eclectic mix of speakers and presentation formats that explored the power of communication in our lives.
Master storyteller and puppeteer Jeff Gere, who recently retired as a drama specialist with the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation, began the program with an interactive presentation titled, “Local Tales Teach a Haole Malihini to be Kama‘äina.” Referring to stories as the human “bloodstream” by which we live and die, Gere entranced the multigenerational audience with dramatic special-effect performances of two obake stories from local Hawaiian history. He closed with a Buddhist teaching tale from Thailand, acting out, in turn, the roles of an elephant, giraffe, hyena and lion, all caught together in a fire, along with the little parrot who teaches them that “alone we are little, but together we are great.”
Dr. George Tanabe Jr., University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa professor emeritus of religion, followed with a presentation of “Tales from the Buddhist Tradition,” discussing effective ways storytelling can be used to teach religious lessons. He drew parallels with his own experience of composing stories about childhood escapades — the more extreme the better — to share with his grandchildren. Tanabe then recounted three Buddhist tales spotlighting human foibles, such as our tendency to judge others according to our own fixed ideas, or our insistence on blind adherence to the rules we create. The promise of Buddhism, according to Tanabe, is that we can change the quality of our lives by changing the way we think, and stories such as these can play a role by altering the way we look at the world.
Rounding out the seminar was a live magic show presented by local magician Ronald Ishimaru, a retired engineer. Unlike storytelling, he suggested that magic employs images, rather than words, but it has a similar power to spur us to think, to experience a sense of awe or to ponder hard questions like, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Ishimaru kept the audience riveted with mysteriously appearing colored scarves, a vanishing yellow “bandana,” and illusions using cut-out newspapers, ropes and rings. He closed his demonstration with a several thousand-year-old Indian rope trick, tossing up a rope as if to hook it onto the sky and then asking if a child from the audience might be brave enough to climb up and out of sight.
Attendees converged on Hale‘iwa for the seminar from across O‘ahu and around the state, drawn by an interest in the topics and the opportunity for fellowship. The seminar was followed by an osettai (luncheon) that was prepared by the Haleiwa Shingon Mission members, offering participants an opportunity for further discussion and for mingling with the presenters.
Asked his assessment of the seminar, Patrick Watase from the Waimea Shingon Mission on Kaua‘i, commented, “Rev. Akiyama is doing a great job of promoting traditional values, while, hopefully, maintaining and bringing in new members for his temple. It would be nice if someone could attend to represent each of the missions around the state.” Watase expressed the gratitude of his fellow Waimea Shingon Mission attendees to the seminar organizers, the Haleiwa Shingon membership and to the three presenters for their “outstanding job.” “We plan to attend again in 2015,” he said.
Another participant, Erik Abe from Honolulu, observed, “I thought the event was creative in making the church relevant in the community. For so many people, going to church is a once-a-year thing. It is important that the church engage the entire community — not just the Japanese Americans. Shingon Buddhism has a lot to offer, and events like this show how effective it can be in bringing people together,” Abe said.
Haleiwa Shingon Mission has hosted the Thanksgiving and Gratitude Seminar for 19 years. The annual program, which is open free of charge to the public, is organized by a member committee and is supported by the Koyasan Head Temple Sanyokai and Suugikai and the statewide Hawaii Shingon-shu Kyoku. The 20th annual Thanksgiving and Gratitude Seminar will be held on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015, at the Haleiwa Shingon Mission.
Margaret Shiba is a member of Paauilo Kongoji Mission on the Big Island. She is on the staff of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.