Century-Old Japanese Temple Succumbs to Maui Wildfires

The Buddhist Channel, 22 August 2023

Maui, Hawaii — A historic Buddhist temple that stood for over a century as a beacon of spiritual solace for Japanese migrants has tragically fallen victim to the recent wildfires that swept through the picturesque Hawaiian island of Maui. Among the casualties of the flames is the revered Lahaina Jodo Mission, an establishment founded in 1912 on a serene cape in Lahaina, situated on the western coast of Maui.

With its commanding view of three islands and its tranquil atmosphere, the mission had become a sought-after destination for both locals and tourists alike. The blazing inferno quickly consumed the wooden Hondo main hall, the elegant three-story pagoda, and the Kanetsukido facility, which once housed a resounding Buddhist bell. Within moments, these architectural wonders were reduced to ash and rubble.

The temple's invaluable ceiling and wall paintings, which had borne witness to generations of worship, were tragically lost forever. However, a flicker of hope emerged amidst the devastation as the temple's copper Great Buddha statue, the resonant Buddhist bell, and a wooden statue of Amida Buddha, the temple's central deity, miraculously survived the inferno.

Amidst the ashes, Gensho Hara, the 87-year-old resident minister of the mission, reflected, "Though the temple may have been consumed by fire, our spirit endures." With a heavy heart, Hara recounted the harrowing events. He still wore the same clothes he had worn when escaping the flames as he spoke about the town's widespread devastation.

On the afternoon of August 8, well after the fires had ignited, Hara became aware of the impending catastrophe. Ferocious winds shattered the glass door of the main hall, and flames rapidly engulfed the palm trees behind the Great Buddha statue. In a valiant attempt to battle the encroaching disaster, Hara used a hose to douse the flaming trees.

However, the temple complex was soon enveloped in acrid smoke and searing heat. Monks rallied to protect the main hall and pagoda from the sparks, yet their efforts proved futile. After a couple of hours, law enforcement officers ordered Hara and others to evacuate. He and his wife were ushered into a car driven by one of their daughters. As they fled, Hara's thoughts lingered on the Amida Buddha statue. A devoted nun who had remained behind to safeguard the temple faced the smoke-filled main hall and gallantly rescued the statue, managing to escape with it safely.

This statue, symbolizing spiritual solace, had faced danger before. In 1968, during a previous fire, Hara's wife had braved the flames to rescue the same Amida Buddha statue. The main hall was subsequently reconstructed through the efforts of skilled carpenters dispatched from Japan with the support of a compassionate benefactor.

Hara expressed deep gratitude, saying, "Twice, we have safeguarded the Buddha, who has been a pillar of support for Japanese immigrants and their descendants through moments of joy and sorrow spanning over a century." The sentiment was underscored in July, when numerous residents convened on the temple grounds for a Bon dance festival—a cherished tradition revived after a four-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This heartening event served as a poignant reminder of the temple's profound significance in people's lives.

Undeterred by the ruins left in the wake of the flames, Hara contemplates rebuilding the temple, not only as a tribute to Japanese immigrants but as a testament to their indomitable spirit. Japanese people and their descendants constitute over 20% of the island's population, totaling around 144,000 individuals. "Though our cherished memories now lie in the ashes, I am dedicated to exploring how the temple can continue to enrich society in ways that resonate with the contemporary needs of our time. I will pour my efforts into the temple's reconstruction," affirmed Hara.

Currently residing at his eldest daughter's residence on the island, Hara's gaze is resolute as he envisions a brighter future on the horizon.

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