By Mary Adamski
Here's a religion that distributes leaflets of its teaching to unbelievers, sponsors a public parade and street fair to put its message out there and has posters of its sacred image plastered around town to publicize the event.
Well, sure, that's Christian evangelizing in the 21st century, right?
No, this is a new face of Buddhism in Hawaii.
The Buddha's Light International Association, Hawaii, is a local branch of a Taiwanese sect that spreads Buddha's teachings with modern-day savvy beyond the insiders' world of temples and Zen meditation centers. They invite the public to join in a celebration of Buddha's birthday next Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Chinese Cultural Plaza.
There will be a parade from Aala Park, music including the Royal Hawaiian Band, lion dances, martial arts displays, firecrackers, food booths and other vendors.
And there will be the traditional birthday ritual in which people pour water over images of the baby Buddha. The ritual recalls the story of the birth of the Indian sage Shakyamuni 2,500 years ago. He studied the suffering and illusions in the world, went on to achieve enlightenment, then created a complex body of teaching to guide others to the same state of perfect mental and spiritual awareness and detachment.
The celebration comes a month after the birthday was marked by the Hanamatsuri or flower festival, a tradition Japanese Buddhists brought to Hawaii and have observed here for more than 100 years. This was the first time that other ethnic groups joined in the annual celebration, held this year at the Blaisdell Center.
More than 200 temples and shrines in the islands are affiliated with denominations that originated in Japan and are more traditional and reserved than the newer sects. In Hawaii, some practices, such as memorializing the dead and marking the New Year, are so woven into the Japanese-American culture that third- and fourth-generation descendants aren't always able to distinguish between belief and ethnic custom.
The new face of the old religion has similarities to new Christian churches that mix merchandising, socializing and service organizations with their worship center.
The Buddha's Light organization is led by businessmen who shed light on Buddhist teachings in terms modern Westerners can easily grasp, often by using comparisons with Christianity.
Albert Lui, who recently also was elected president of the Hawaii Association of International Buddhists, said he often encounters people who try to express their good will by asserting that "you and I worship the same God, we just call him by different names."
Lui feels obliged to set them straight. "If you're Christian or Jewish or Muslim, you worship God, he's up there," he said.
"We don't worship Buddha; anybody can be a Buddha," said Alan J.L. Chang. A retired executive of a Taiwanese manufacturing company, Chang and his wife established the denomination's first local temple in 1986 in a Hawaii Kai house.
Most members of the Fo Kuang Shan denomination, founded in 1967 by the Rev. Hsing Yun, are Chinese. But the organization has spread to America, where it has 30 temples and numerous schools, as well as a university in Los Angeles. It publishes books and leaflets in several languages, sponsors international academic events and expresses Buddhist teaching of kindness and compassion in projects that provide medical care, shelter and relief efforts.
Lui said: "Fo Kuang Shan is an international organization equivalent to the Lutheran Church. Just like in the Christian religion, our founder has his own vision and is promoting Buddhism in his own fashion. The goal is the same, different teacher, different style."
"In Taiwan it rapidly was welcomed. People recognized that the old dinosaur way had to be changed. (Hsing) has new, fresh ideas on promoting Buddhism," Lui said.
Lui drew another comparison with Christianity, simplifying Buddhist teachings in terms of commandments. "We only have five: Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not lie and thou shalt not use drugs, alcohol, whatever hurts the body."
If anyone can bring Westerners to an understanding of the Eastern religion, it would be Lui, a jeweler who has been in Hawaii for 30 years. Lui was raised in Hong Kong Catholic schools and "converted" to Buddhism about eight years ago.
Seeing the statues typical of a Buddhist shrine leads some outsiders to conclude that the idols are being worshipped, he said. "We don't worship Buddha. We pay respect to a teacher; we don't mind bowing to pay respect. It's like a kung fu student bows to the teacher.
"Buddhism doesn't say that we all are born with sin in us. We have the potential to be Buddha within us. We aren't required to have blind faith."
A figure of the Buddha carved of white Burmese jade graces the temple, which was relocated in January to the Chinatown Cultural Plaza. The Rev. Yi Chao is abbess of the serene space behind shaded glass almost indistinguishable from the plaza's restaurants.
Retired Honolulu dentist Joseph Young helped organize the Friends of Buddha's Light, a support group that includes non-Buddhist members. He said he is the only one of his parents' nine children who still visits their places of worship, particularly the Kwan Yin Temple at Foster Botanical Garden. He was an avid listener to the teaching tour by Chang and Lui.
"A person may come in here who has fear and needs consolation," Lui said of the temple. "We don't discourage an old lady who is here praying for good health.
"That is the kindergarten level of learning."
A dharma class, exploring the deeper levels of Buddha's teaching, is part of the weekly 10 a.m. Sunday service. Most attendees are Chinese and the service and lecture are in the Mandarin language.
"We talk about life, about how we should treat other people," said Chang.
Lui said the Buddha teaches that there are three poisons that "are at the root of all suffering. One is greed or craving. It causes you to have hatred or anger. It leads to delusion or ignorance. Everything wrong in society ... in politics, in business ... can be found in those things.
"If you do good, ultimately there is a good result. If you do bad, there is a bad result. That's what karma is."
The local Buddha's Light association is engaged in medical and social service outreach projects. One such program was the donation of about 600 wheelchairs to local agencies including Tripler Hospital, the Palolo Chinese Home and the Waikiki Community Center.
For information on the international organization, see its Web site, www.blia.org.