3 devastated Lahaina temples rely on faith, hope

Sep. 3—The ministers, who lived with their wives and children on-site, all fought with garden hoses to extinguish burning embers that flew onto the grounds.

Ministers of three Buddhist denominations founded in the early 1900s lost not only their temples of worship but their homes in the Aug. 8 wildfire that destroyed Lahaina almost a month ago. But the flames failed to defeat their hope and faith.

The ministers, who lived with their wives and children on-site, all fought with garden hoses to extinguish burning embers that flew onto the grounds.

One of them was 87-year-old the Rev. Gensho Hara of the Lahaina Jodo Mission, who helped spray the roofs and walls with water until his family was forced to evacuate.

The two other temples lost were the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, established in 1904, and the Lahaina Shingon Mission, 1902. The structures that burned dated back from the 1930s to the'70s.

Hara said he plans to gather some 50 members of the mission, founded in 1912, to pray in front of the landmark Amida Buddha statue that is still standing ; he hopes to eventually rebuild the temple. He said the majestic 12-foot-high statue symbolizes the hope and strength of the community that made Lahaina such a special place.

Hara has been conducting interviews in Japanese, his first language, with media from his native country, but recounted the traumatic day in halting English with the help of his daughter Yayoi Hara.

They said they could feel the heat of distant fires carried by strong winds blowing from an unusual direction—from the mountains toward the ocean—and heard gas tanks exploding as they scrambled to save mission structures. Several tenants who lived on site, all over 70 years old, pitched in to help extinguish the flames.

"We had put out about a dozen or so small fires that had started, but thinking of the safety of human lives we decided it was time to evacuate, " said Yayoi Hara. "We were the last to evacuate from our neighborhood." She and her 8-year-old daughter lived with her parents on the Puunoa Point beachfront property.

Hara said a nun showed great courage in running back to rescue a 3-foot statue of Amida Buddha from the altar.

"The countless people—strangers—so many people encouraging us, extending the support for our temple, the loving kindness ... the voice of the Buddha we hear everyday, " said an exhausted Hara, his voice breaking with emotion. "We feel the great encouragement, and also at the same time, we feel our duty, responsibility (to rebuild ). I deeply appreciate it."

Yayoi Hara said the larger landmark statue of copper and bronze is probably still standing because there was nothing to burn around it. Imported from Japan in 1968 to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii, the statue attracted worldwide visitors who have been sharing their memories through email, she said.

The Rev. Ai Hironaka, minister at the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission since 2010, has always valued the area's cultural diversity, history and community spirit.

"I would like to be a part of rebuilding Lahaina town, " he emphasized more than once. "I lost everything, the temple lost everything."

Originally from Japan, Hironaka said his congregation is less than 100 people, and so far everyone seems to be accounted for but they are now widely scattered. He wants to see the temple rebuilt to give its members a reason to return.

The Hongwanji temple was engulfed in flames at the same time the adjacent 200-year-old Waiola Church burned, captured dramatically in a Maui News photo that has circulated internationally. The Buddhist and Christian congregations had always collaborated and respected each other's religious traditions in a representation of "diversity, friendship and Lahaina aloha, " he said.

Swallowing back sobs, Hironaka said seeing the photo of his temple burning stunned him : "For me, it was just like (seeing ) your son, dead, confirmed dead."

"To me this temple is not building, it's a personal thing, personality is in there just like my son, " said Hiro ­naka, a father of four children.

Struggling to describe it in words, he said, even as it burned, the temple was "like soldier protecting small girl " from being killed—it was protecting the spiritual home of its members, the fond memories of all their ancestors over the decades, memories of all the meaningful occasions and inspired teachings held there.

He said the temple is "waiting for me to come back."

"From now on, on top of the diversity and history, compassion will be there in the new town. I'd like to be a part of the new community. I believe that the people who got hurt, I believe they can be a little more kind, more sensitive to other people's pain."

Established in 1902, the Lahaina Shingon Mission was home to the oldest Shingon temple in Hawaii.

"For us, the Lahaina temple was like our birthplace, " said Bishop Clark Watanabe of the Koyasan Shingon Mission of Hawaii. It had provided essential social welfare services to Japanese immigrants who came to labor on sugar plantations, he said. Watanabe was asked to speak on behalf of the Rev. Takayuki Meguro, a Japan native who has headed the Lahaina temple since 2004.

Watanabe said Meguro was unable to save the only picture of the temple founder, the Rev. Hogen Yujiri, but just had the time to grab the registry of deceased members. The temple's 20 or so members have been accounted for, except for two.

Meguro appears to be doing well in spite of the circumstances and began checking on his members at evacuation shelters the day following the fire, Watanabe said. He speaks hopefully of plans for future events at the temple, though no decisions to rebuild have yet been made.

"Nothing can be done until Meguro's life is stabilized, " said Watanabe.

His immediate goal is to raise funds to support Meguro and his family to get their lives back on track. Small donations are coming in through a GoFundMe account, and he hopes contributions also will come from Japanese temples and friends.

Meguro is also in charge of the Kula Shingon Mission, but Watanabe said he believes the Lahaina minister wants to keep his two children close to their friends, so his family will continue to reside in Wailuku instead of Kula for now.

The Hawaii Association of International Buddhists is organizing GoFundMe accounts for each temple, with details on its website.

The Rev. Eric Matsumoto, association president and a former Hongwanji bishop, said a central Buddhist doctrine reminds believers that everything in life is impermanent. Though it's natural for people to focus on the negative side, at the same time "the situation on Maui won't last forever ; we should not lose hope. We can move forward with optimism with everyone pulling together and not forget those who died for an even better Lahaina, perhaps."

In days following the disaster, the Dalai Lama, the renowned Tibetan Buddhist monk, sent condolences and prayers through a letter to Hawaii Gov. Josh Green.

"I have had the privilege of visiting Hawaii several times and have also visited Maui, " he wrote. "I deeply appreciate the people of Hawaii's interest in my efforts to promote basic human values and inter-religious harmony. Also, in the course of my interaction with the Hawaiian people, I have been touched by their deep devotion to their traditions and heritage.

"Therefore, I am particularly sad to learn of the damage caused to the former capital (of the Hawaiian monarchy ) in the wildfire. I pray that you and the people of Hawaii will find the spiritual strength to deal with this tragedy."

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