A popular landmark on the Hawaiian island of Oahu is the Byodo-In Temple, located at the foot of the dramatic Ko‘olau mountains near the northeastern town of Kane‘ohe. It stands just off of a main road from Honolulu to Laie, the site of the first temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint built outside of North America, and the location of both Brigham Young University’s Hawaii campus and the affiliated Polynesian Cultural Center. (It’s only 13 miles from downtown Honolulu.)
Although located along a main road, it’s not actually visible from the road, so it’s easy to miss. But it shouldn’t be missed. It offers visitors to Hawaii — and especially those perhaps already traveling along that particular route — an easily accessible taste of Japanese Buddhism.
The building isn’t an ancient one. It sits nestled on the hilly grounds of the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, a rather large non-denominational cemetery that was established in the early 1960s and which now includes sections for Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists and adherents of Shinto. The temple itself was built in 1968, as a way of celebrating the centennial of the arrival of Japanese people and culture in the Hawaiian Islands, and it was dedicated by the then governor of the state.
Strictly speaking, it isn’t a fully functioning Buddhist temple (which is simply a house of worship designed to create a space of calm beauty for meditation) because it’s associated with neither an active congregation nor a resident monastic community. But it’s a faithful half-sized replica (though mostly in concrete rather than wood) of the famous nearly 1,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site temple from which it takes its name, that is located in Japan’s Kyoto prefecture. The serene and lush grounds that surround it include Japanese gardens, large ponds full of koi and a deep-toned three-ton bronze bell that visitors are encouraged to sound.
The buddha statue at the Byodo-In Temple in the Ko'olau Mountains in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park on Oahu, Hawaii. | Shutterstock
Inside the temple is a 9-foot wooden image, covered in lacquer and gold, of the “Lotus Buddha.” He represents “Amida” or “Amitabha” (“Infinite Light”), the celestial buddha who is the principal figure in the “Pure Land” branch of East Asian (Mahayana) Buddhism.
Amitabha is said to have been a king either upon Earth or in some other world-system many ages ago who, encountering Buddhist teachings, gave up his throne to become a faithful monk under the name of Dharmakara. He is believed to have gained enormous merit thereafter, during trials and tests extending over a very long series of righteous lifetimes. By means of the power thus accumulated, Amitabha eventually created a pure land called “Sukhavati” (from the Sanskrit words for “possessing happiness”). This land, in which Amitabha himself now lives, is located far away in the uttermost west, beyond the boundaries of the temporal world in which we mortals currently reside. Out of his love and grace, Amitabha guarantees that all who call upon his name, even if only at their deaths, will be reborn, when they die, into his Pure Land.
There, according to a doctrine that might appropriately be called “eternal progression,” Amitabha will instruct them in the “dharma,” the doctrine or teachings of Buddhism, so that, in the end, they can become “bodhisattvas” and “buddhas” in their own right.
In other words, they will eventually be people who are qualified to enter into blissful nirvana, the sought-for end state of Buddhist striving. However, because of their compassionate desire to help the rest of us who are still suffering in mortality, they will delay doing so. Instead, they will become reincarnate in our world to continue to serve mankind.
Unsurprisingly, Amitabha is often described as the Buddha of “comprehensive love” or “infinite compassion.”
The Byodo-In Temple offers a very easy opportunity, for those who might be in the area, to appreciate something of the rich, ancient heritage of Buddhism. However, it also has a few things to offer to those whose historical interests are a bit more contemporary:
For example, after his death in Honolulu in 1989, the body of exiled former Philippine president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos was interred in a private mausoleum overlooking the Byodo-In Temple. Only in 1993, after four years had passed and amid considerable ongoing controversy, did the government of the Philippines grant permission for his remains to be repatriated.
Oahu’s Byodo-In Temple has also shown up, among other places, in episodes of the television shows “Lost,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “Hawaii Five-0,” and as a stand-in for its Japanese original in the movie “Pearl Harbor.”
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.