Some Hawai’i Buddhists protest over naming of new Waikiki bar

Some Buddhists are so concerned about the name of a new Waikiki bar that they have started a writing and telephone campaign to proprietors, politicians and community groups.

The Buddha Bar, in the former House of Hong restaurant in Waikiki, opened Thursday. Some Buddhists find the name offensive.

“This is an inappropriate name and is a show of disrespect towards Buddhism,” wrote Barbara Brennan in an e-mail sent to Buddhists and others. “The ignorance of the proprietors and their efforts to create a ‘catchy’ name for their establishment shows disregard for our religious community.”

Brennan said she also sent letters to her state representatives.

In a news release, the bar’s developers, James R. Tennant and Victor Venson, say they are veterans of the nightlife scene in several cities, including San Francisco, where another Buddha Bar draws crowds to hear the latest in techno and electronica music.

In a telephone interview last night, Venson said he has heard the objections, but said the owners did not intend to offend anyone. He said there are many Buddha Bars across the world, although the Waikiki location is not associated with them.

“They see this as that we’re serving people liquor in the name of a religious symbol or concept,” he said. “But I see this as we offer people a good time to come here and enjoy themselves in a nice atmosphere, which I think is very positive.”

Venson said the bar’s name was influenced by the former House of Hong restaurant, which closed in May after 40 years in business.

“It has many Asian influences in the interior decorations, in the ambiance and in the atmosphere. So we tried to come up with a name that was corresponding to these elements,” Venson said. “Plus, Buddha Bar is a world-renowned concept bar that exists in many countries. So that’s also for promotional purposes.”

Las Vegas has its Little Buddha Bar, Denver has its Funky Buddha Lounge, and Paris has the famed Buddha Bar, with new ones coming to New York and Milan next year.

But those towns do not have a large Buddhist contingent. Here in Hawai’i, Buddhism is estimated to be the second largest religious community, after Roman Catholicism.

When an announcement on the opening of the Buddha Bar appeared last Thursday in The Advertiser, comments began circulating among O’ahu Buddhists. A friend sent a copy of the article to the Rev. Al Bloom, a member of the Honpa Hongwanji and a professor emeritus of the University of Hawai’i’s religion department.

Bloom called the bar, and was told the name was harmless.

“There are Buddha Bars all over the place, in different cities, and it’s not intended to offend anybody,” Bloom said he was told. “And then ‘It’s a free country.’ I didn’t want to argue, and tried to find out who owned it. I couldn’t get anybody’s name.”

Bloom alerted Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, president of the Hawai’i International Buddhists Association, who is from Thailand.

Bloom noted that members of some Buddhist sects do not drink liquor, and that some might consider that the name of a bar was culturally insensitive.

Natadecha-Sponsel has fired off e-mails of her own.

“Several individual Buddhists have already contacted me to express serious concern about the new ‘Buddha Bar,'” she wrote in an e-mail, which was forwarded to The Advertiser. “The general consensus seems to be that this is an inappropriate name and any Buddha images inside are inappropriate, indeed offensive to the religion of Buddhism.

The e-mail noted protests persuaded Victoria’s Secret to scrap the image of Buddha on one of its bikinis.

Natadecha-Sponsel urged people to write letters, call the bar during business hours and let the Liquor Commission, other agencies and political groups hear their concerns.

“Perhaps non-Buddhist religious leaders and organizations might be willing to protest in solidarity with their Buddhist brothers and sisters,” Natadecha-Sponsel wrote. “Surely, Christians would find it offensive if this establishment were called a Jesus Bar or Christ Bar, and had images like a crucifix or a statue of Mary inside, and likewise for other religions such as Islam.”

However, Bloom added, after giving the matter more thought, he found himself less likely to take up the protest banner.

“It’s problematic,” he said. “Japanese Buddhists themselves drink. It’s accepted in Japan. … The southern tradition is one thing; in Japan, no one pays any attention to it. I got thinking about it and changed my mind.”

Hawai’i’s largest Buddhist temple discussed the issue at its board meeting last night, said Mary Tanouye, immediate past president of the Honpa Hongwanji Hawai’i Betsuin, and is expected to take up the matter again Aug. 26.

Part of the reason the issue hasn’t moved to the front burner for some mainstream Buddhists is that there’s a fine line separating not just the teetotalers from those who will imbibe, but when it comes to the image of the Buddha, as well.

“We are not idol worshippers,” said Tanouye, who added she was speaking for herself and not giving the temple’s official position. “To have someone use the idol in whatever manner should not be of our concern. … I’m not going to put my life down preserving the dignity (of the image). It’s not tied down into these objects. … I don’t think we’re hurt by labels, (though) I am concerned when there’s venom behind the attack.”

Staff writer Curtis Lum contributed to this report.

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The Honolulu Advertiser, USA
Aug. 11, 2004
Mary Kaye Ritz, Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday August 11, 2004.
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