Unlocking the Secrets of Esoteric Buddhism
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
On Feb. 25, the Rev. Clark Watanabe was installed as the 13th bishop of the statewide Köyasan Shingon Mission of Hawaii in a ceremony at Honomu Henjöji Mission on Hawai‘i island. The unlikely path that led the local boy to this milestone began nearly 40 years earlier in the book department of the old Liberty House department store at Ala Moana Center, when 13-year old Clark Watanabe happened upon a large, richly illustrated volume titled, “The Secret Message of Tantric Buddhism.” The boy was intrigued by the esoteric Buddhist art. Most of all, however, he was mesmerized by the idea of unlocking secrets known to few people. He saved up his allowance and purchased the book to study it further.
Thirteen years later, the curious young man entered seminary on Köyasan. After a year of intensive training, he was ordained a Shingon Buddhist priest. And 21 years after being ordained, Rev. Clark Watanabe was elevated to bishop in Hawai‘i.
While his journey has been an unusual one, “Rev. Clark” (as he is still familiarly known to
most of his congregants) is not the first Hawai‘i-born Buddhist priest to be named a bishop (he’s the third), nor is he the first local-born bishop to come from a non-minister family (he’s the second). At the age of 47, he may be the youngest, however. A “3.5 generation” Japanese American (sansei on his father’s side, yonsei on his mother’s), Rev. Clark grew up in Honolulu attending Christian Sunday School through sixth grade, but observing traditional New Year’s ceremonies at a local temple.
Studying for the priesthood on Köyasan was not Rev. Clark’s first exposure to “basic training” in a strict Japanese discipline. As a teenager he took up martial arts, which he practices to this day in the Takenouchi school of classical martial arts. Later, as an undergraduate at UH Mänoa, he immersed himself in the study of Japanese religion and history and was selected for a scholarship that sent him to Kyöto for a year to master the history, arts and practice of tea ceremony with the Urasenke Foundation. Along the way, he became fluent in Japanese language.
These experiences helped to prepare him for the intense regimen (“boot camp,” he calls it) of seminary, or “Senshu Gakuin” on Köyasan, for which he was sponsored four years later by Rev. Dean Okimura of Köböji Shingon Mission in Kalihi. Rev. Clark found the strict training completely absorbing and the schedule of “living, eating, sleeping, breathing Buddhism” unexpectedly freeing.
“You always knew what was expected of you,” he said. “Shingon and tea ceremony are very similar; there is always something you don’t know, something more to learn and improve upon.”
In a sign of the changing times, the statewide Köyasan Shingon Mission of Hawaii revised its by-laws several years ago to allow for the bishop to serve from his current temple of residence. As bishop, Rev. Clark will therefore remain the head resident minister at Honomu Henjöji Mission (and head minister at Paauilo Kongöji Mission), administering the affairs of the statewide sect from the Big Island. Honomu Henjöji and Paauilo Kongöji are old country temples on the Hämäkua Coast, founded in 1912 and 1926, respectively. As was the case with many Shingon congregations across the state, both temples were originally prayer groups, or “Daishikö,” led by immigrant laypeople before ordained priests were sent from Japan or trained locally. Each temple was once a vibrant center of activity for the surrounding community of Japanese plantation workers and their families, offering not only religious services and celebrations, but also language and culture classes and, in the case of Paauilo, a long-running judo program.
Having first arrived in Honomu in 1998, Rev. Clark feels an affinity for the Big Island, and says he has grown to enjoy the slower pace and quiet of neighbor island life. Interestingly, it was on two other neighbor islands — Maui and Kaua‘i — that the earliest Shingon temples were established in Hawai‘i. Members of the Big Island’s four Shingon congregations — in Honomu, Pa‘auilo, Kona and Hilo — carry on the spirit of those pioneers, working across communities to help out at each others’ events and reaffirming their solidarity by gathering for the annual island-wide Fellowship Picnic.
The new bishop’s Feb. 25 inauguration service took place in the ornate 70-year-old sanctuary of Honomu Henjöji Mission, 105 years old this year, before an audience of 110 people, including priests and congregants from Shingon temples around the state, outgoing Bishop Sohko Kuki of Hilo Hooganji Mission, and dignitaries from Köyasan Shingon headquarters and other temples in Japan. Bishops Gensho Hara, Eric Matsu-
moto and Kenjun Kawawata represented the Hawaii Buddhist Council and the Jodo Mission of Hawaii, Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii and Higashi Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, respectively.
As the Shingon order of service was recited before the main altar, Rev. Takayuki Meguro of Lahaina Shingon Mission and Kula Shofukuji Shingon Mission performed the Goma fire ritual at a side altar in front of the newly transferred deity statues, which mark the headquarters of the current Shingon bishop. Expertly constructing and setting fire to a pyre of wooden sticks, Rev. Meguro offered prayers to bless the new bishop and ward off calamity before flames leaping 10 feet into the air. This consecrated fire ritual is derived directly from ancient Indian tradition and, in Buddhism, is unique to the Shingon sect.
At the end of a ceremony replete with ritual and the reading of ceremonial messages and proclamations, the new bishop stood to deliver words of appreciation. He spoke simply from the heart, thanking attendees for their devotion and entreating everyone to do all they can to support their local Shingon temples throughout the state. “These temples are treasures, and they both merit and need your help in order to remain shining,” he said.
Following the traditional photo-taking in front of the temple, attendees came together for fellowship, enjoying a multicourse celebration luncheon that had been lovingly prepared by the Honomu Henjöji membership, with support from the Paauilo Kongöji and Hilo Hooganji Missions.
A few days after his installation ceremony, Bishop Watanabe sat down to reflect on the challenges and opportunities he sees ahead over his four-year term (with the possibility of a second four-year term) of office. One of the most pressing challenges facing him is how to administer the statewide congregations in the face of financial constraints. A key issue facing the Hawai‘i District is ensuring the financial and social security of its priests. Presently, most Shingon priests are supported by contributions and offerings from those who attend services or who seek priestly blessings. With temple memberships dwindling in size, many Shingon priests need to take second jobs in order to continue their religious duties.
If the Shingon sect is to survive in Hawai‘i, it is imperative that it figure out where its base will be, asserts Bishop Watanabe. He sees Japanese Buddhist temples in Hawai‘i as traditionally not very welcoming to outsiders beyond the local Japanese community and said it hasn’t always been clear “where the religion ends and the culture begins.”
“Do we really welcome everyone?” he asks. Encouraging a strategic discussion about the recruitment of members is high on Watanabe’s list of priorities. One of the hallmarks of Shingon Buddhism is that because of its strong emphasis on esoteric ritual, Shingon priests are often sought out by nonmembers — including members of other denominations, and even Christians — to offer prayers and blessings seeking practical benefit, such as rain for farmers, cures for illness, protection from dangers, even help locating lost animals.
“We’ve got to try something different, while still remaining respectful of tradition,” the Bishop said. “The prospects for Buddhism in the U.S. are good, but we need to change our thinking,” said Watanabe. He sees Hawai‘i Buddhism slowly changing, and to those impatient with the pace of change, the Bishop reminds us that whereas Buddhism has been active in Japan for over 1,000 years, its introduction to Hawai‘i happened only a little more than 100 years ago.
The new bishop is already prepared with one innovation that he hopes local Shingon temples will agree to experiment with: He has compiled an English-language service book that could make the Shingon ritual — heavy on the recitation of Sanskrit sutras and we-don’t-know-what-it-means-but-we’ve-always-done-it-this way —more accessible to laypeople. Another of his ideas is to expand the weekend seminars which he piloted for small groups of members in Honomu in 2015 and 2016. The seminars featured two days of presentations and practice designed to delve into and explain the esoteric underpinnings of Shingon Buddhism, including the Heart Sutra, the Goma fire ritual, meditation, etc. Co-leading these seminars was another priest who followed an unusual path: Rev. George Kosho Finch, a Detroit-born African American lawyer and ordained Shingon priest who was previously attached to Honolulu’s Köböji Mission and who recently founded a new Shingon temple, Hosshinji, in Portland, Ore.
For the past 115 years, Shingon has occupied a unique niche in the local Buddhist landscape. Its immediate future is now in the hands of an energetic young leader with a clear eye on both the challenges and opportunities ahead. Bishop Clark Watanabe has been puzzling over mysteries ever since he was a teenager, and there is good reason to be confident that he can find a way forward.
Margaret Shiba is the director of institutional advancement for the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo. She and her Hawai‘i island-born husband Kenji lived in New York for over three decades before pulling up stakes and relocating to the Big Island, where they now reside in Ähualoa on the Hämäkua Coast. They are active members of the Paauilo Kongöji Mission.