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Reaching out

By Pat Gee, Honolulu Star Bulletin, Jan 10, 2009

A Hawaii Buddhist minister makes the religion more friendly to the local culture and to younger people

Honolulu, Hawaii (USA) -- Long before Reyn Yorio Tsuru became minister of the Shingon Shu Hawaii temple on Sheridan Street last year, he had been trying to make Buddhism more relevant to the younger generation and more appealing to local people.

<< MIKE BURLEY
Buddhist minister Reyn Tsuru of the Shingon Shu Hawaii temple is trying to attune Buddhism to appeal to local people and the younger generation. To that end, he led his congregation to sever ties with its Japanese-based headquarters in 2004.

He saw the congregation was aging -- "The demographic age was 79!" -- and was afraid Buddhism as a religion would die off with its elderly members.

As church director the past 15 years, he took it upon himself to boost attendance at the church by explaining the meaning of ancient Buddhist rituals, and translating sermons given in Japanese to English. This was done mostly to help the younger people, but it benefited members of his parents' generation as well, who did not understand much about the traditional customs, either.

"Japanese Buddhism is not what you would call a religion that brings itself close to individuals. Its temples are principally for memorial services and funerals, where sermons are delivered in Japanese," Tsuru said.

It disturbed him that temples were run by Japanese-born priests who had little understanding of local ways, so he tried to be more "hands-on and accessible" than traditional Buddhist priests, most of whom he believes live cloistered lives. To this day he still cooks bento meals and does odd jobs for the parishioners who are in their 80s and 90s.

Tsuru, 41, donned the official "minister" hat last January (he is still church director), but his parishioners continue to call him "Reyn," not "Sensei," the respectful title that comes with the job.

Today the average age of his parishioners is 45. This year he plans to start holding a service in English, following the one in Japanese, which will slowly be phased out.

He schedules a monthly potluck discussion to answer everyone's questions. With 50 to 60 regular attendees, a much larger number than years past, he looks forward to organizing more community outreach projects, something the temple was limited in doing under the old regime.

His temple -- once the mother church of 14 other Koyasan sect Shingon temples in Hawaii -- severed ties with its Japanese-based headquarters in 2004 with the approval of the congregation, he said. It no longer wanted to follow the dictates of Japanese authorities without question, Tsuru added.

Attaining independence from a system based on an aristocracy, "a rigid ranking system totally alien to anyone born in the United States," was the "biggest and probably the best change" for his church, he said.

"Now we can progress and adapt to form a Buddhism friendly to local people and our local culture," he said, adding that his senior members "are very positive about the changes."

"They see that the temple will survive. ... They are satisfied that there are younger people prepared to take the temple into the next 100 years," Tsuru said.

"We have to make our time here count. I can't say it enough: We need to have examples of how to treat each other and how to live our lives now," he said. "Buddha's message of tolerance and compassion is a timely one."

Long before Reyn Yorio Tsuru became minister of the Shingon Shu Hawaii temple on Sheridan Street last year, he had been trying to make Buddhism more relevant to the younger generation and more appealing to local people.

He saw the congregation was aging -- "The demographic age was 79!" -- and was afraid Buddhism as a religion would die off with its elderly members.

As church director the past 15 years, he took it upon himself to boost attendance at the church by explaining the meaning of ancient Buddhist rituals, and translating sermons given in Japanese to English. This was done mostly to help the younger people, but it benefited members of his parents' generation as well, who did not understand much about the traditional customs, either.

"Japanese Buddhism is not what you would call a religion that brings itself close to individuals. Its temples are principally for memorial services and funerals, where sermons are delivered in Japanese," Tsuru said.

It disturbed him that temples were run by Japanese-born priests who had little understanding of local ways, so he tried to be more "hands-on and accessible" than traditional Buddhist priests, most of whom he believes live cloistered lives. To this day he still cooks bento meals and does odd jobs for the parishioners who are in their 80s and 90s.

Tsuru, 41, donned the official "minister" hat last January (he is still church director), but his parishioners continue to call him "Reyn," not "Sensei," the respectful title that comes with the job.

Today the average age of his parishioners is 45. This year he plans to start holding a service in English, following the one in Japanese, which will slowly be phased out.

He schedules a monthly potluck discussion to answer everyone's questions. With 50 to 60 regular attendees, a much larger number than years past, he looks forward to organizing more community outreach projects, something the temple was limited in doing under the old regime.

His temple -- once the mother church of 14 other Koyasan sect Shingon temples in Hawaii -- severed ties with its Japanese-based headquarters in 2004 with the approval of the congregation, he said. It no longer wanted to follow the dictates of Japanese authorities without question, Tsuru added.

Attaining independence from a system based on an aristocracy, "a rigid ranking system totally alien to anyone born in the United States," was the "biggest and probably the best change" for his church, he said.

"Now we can progress and adapt to form a Buddhism friendly to local people and our local culture," he said, adding that his senior members "are very positive about the changes."

"They see that the temple will survive. ... They are satisfied that there are younger people prepared to take the temple into the next 100 years," Tsuru said.

"We have to make our time here count. I can't say it enough: We need to have examples of how to treat each other and how to live our lives now," he said. "Buddha's message of tolerance and compassion is a timely one."



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