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Buddhist Academy Stirs Hope of Revival in Hawaii

The New York Times, USA
Aug. 21, 2003
Michele Kayal
www.nytimes.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Saturday August 23, 2003

HONOLULU, Aug. 21 Stephanie Buckland is so displeased with her students at the Pacific Buddhist Academy that she has sent them back outside the classroom to enter it again the right way.

“If I walked into your house and I was like,” she slumps, and bumps and shuffles into the students, “what would you think?”

It is not unusual for teachers to demand a civil entry to their classrooms. But at Hawaii’s first Buddhist high school, one of a handful of Buddhist schools in the nation, entering the classroom with a pause, a bow and a reflection is meant to focus the students on the Buddhist idea that everything, including their school, is connected, and nothing should be taken for granted.

The academy opened on Wednesday with 17 ninth graders and an unusual mission: to create individuals who have achieved inner peace and will work to spread it through the world.

“Our whole approach to peace is one that comes from engaged Buddhism,” said Pieper Toyama, head of the school. “The idea is you have to `be peace’ to nurture peace. So all the practices are about becoming peaceful inside. The effort in the ninth grade is to develop the awareness.”

The academy has opened with only ninth graders, and will grow into a four-year high school by adding a new crop of them each year until 2006.

Like many children their age, the students slouch and roll their eyes. The girls and boys stay clear of each other, and they profess typical interests: sleeping, computers, pets, surfing, baseball and Hot Wheels cars. One boy says he likes “burning things” and movies “where people die a lot.” Another wants to grow up to be “a military sniper.”

“We have a little work to do,” Mr. Toyama said.

The school opens as Buddhism is faltering in Hawaii, and while church leaders are adamant that they are trying to create good citizens, not converts, some say they are hoping the academy sows the seeds of self-preservation.

About 8 percent of Hawaii’s population, or an estimated 100,000 people, are Buddhists, according to state figures. And the more than 50 Buddhist centers in the state give it one of the highest concentrations of Buddhists in the nation, according to Harvard University’s Pluralism Project.

But at Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, one of the largest temples in the state, membership has dropped 40 percent since 1992 to 1,500 families, said Bishop Chikai Yosemori. The bishop attributed the decline to intermarriage, the cultural assimilation of Hawaii’s younger ethnic Japanese, and the dying off of older generations.

The Honpa Hongwanji mission, the state’s largest, sponsors the high school, but not all of its students are Buddhists. More than half come from Christian, public or home schools. The rest come from the mission’s Buddhist elementary school. Bishop Yosemori said he hoped the faith would hold onto the young Buddhists, and possibly inspire them to become ministers.

“It’s not our aim, but naturally we are hoping that many children can become good Buddhists in the future,” he said. “We are not trying to convert people to our religion, but through the Buddhist education system hopefully our local kids will aspire to be Buddhist ministers.”

Of the 36 temples in the Honpa Hongwanji denomination, Bishop Yosemori said, 14 are without resident ministers.

Several students said they practiced no religion at home. Many of the Buddhist children said that they went to temple mostly on special occasions, and that despite its mandatory weekly service, they did not expect the academy to change that.

Students said they went to the academy mainly because of its small classes and what appears to be a strong academic program.

“I came here for a better education,” said Kaya Agena, 14, who attended a Honolulu public school. “I want to be a lot smarter so I can get into better colleges.”

In many ways, the academy looks and feels like a regular high school. The students use standard texts, and math, science, literature, social studies and foreign language Japanese in this case are part of each seven-period day.

But organizers call the school’s program a “peace curriculum,” and it will emphasize the lives of people like Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter, Mr. Toyama said. Students will also be encouraged to think about how they can address conflict at home, in their neighborhoods and in places like Iraq, he said.

Buddhist education will be taught three times a week. Taiko drumming is also on the schedule. Shiatsu massage and the Japanese martial art of kendo are extracurricular activities. Traditional subjects will be filtered through a Buddhist lens that stresses the “oneness” of things, Mr. Toyama said, the uniqueness of each moment, and how awareness of these principles leads to compassion.

For instance, when students study the human body in science class, Ms. Buckland said, they will monitor the vital signs of their parents and grandparents along with their own, and will discuss nutrition, their ethnic backgrounds, and the food supply.

“They’ll look at diet and how Filipinos eat different diets from Chinese and how they’re all connected,” she said. “Then we’ll look at the farmers who made the food possible and all the body functions and how it’s all interconnected.”

In the Department of Education’s 1999/2000 survey of private schools in the United States, five identified themselves as Buddhist, said Stephen Broughman, a department statistician.

But the survey relies on write-ins to identify Buddhism and other smaller religions in the United States, Mr. Broughman said, so the numbers may be incomplete.

The reluctance of the academy to make conversion a goal left some religion experts skeptical about its ability to reinvigorate Buddhism in Hawaii. But others said that keeping young Buddhists in the system and offering them an intellectual framework for the religion could solidify its base.

“If they can show this young person that the religion of his grandparents is a modern, viable, meaningful way of thinking and life, they will be more apt to participate in it,” said Alfred Bloom, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii who is a former dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Mountain View, Calif.

Some parents said they saw the school as a way to return their children to religious and cultural roots that they themselves may have forgotten.

Perry Heintz, a child psychiatrist, is sending his 13-year-old son, Nicholas, to the academy mainly for its rigorous academic program, but he said he also hoped it would reconnect the boy with his Japanese heritage. Mr. Heintz, a Caucasian, and his wife are both Catholics, he said, but Mrs. Heintz is of Japanese descent and has a Buddhist grandmother.

“My son looks very Caucasian, but he very much identifies with his Japanese side,” Mr. Heintz said of Nicholas, who has studied judo and Japanese. “I think in the long run it will help him define himself, since he looks so much different from what he feels.”

Mr. Heintz said he and his wife were considering Buddhism themselves, and they plan to start by reading along with Nicholas as he studies.

“We’ll see where it goes from there,” Mr. Heintz said.

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