Hawaii’s ornate Buddhist festivals are increasingly popular among people of all faiths, but Buddhism itself is in decline in the state.
The New York Times (Aug. 10) reports that the Japanese Buddhist ritual known as a bon dance, originally intended to celebrate the annual return of departed loved ones, has become a custom shared by many Hawaiians. Bon dances have become a time to dance, eat and “celebrate the culture. Hawaii is so mixed you feel like you’re part of the culture, even if you’re not Japanese,” says one student attending a dance with a carload of friends.
Scholars say the popularity of the dance masks the serious decline of Buddhism on the islands. With an estimated Buddhist population of 100,000 recorded in 1999, Hawaii is one of the nine states with 50 or more Buddhist centers. But the state’s largest temple has lost nearly half its membership, falling to 1,300 families from 2,500 in 1990.
Young people are not replacing the elderly members who die, as well as increasingly inter-marrying. Intermarriage accounts for more than 50 percent of all unions, according to the State Health Department. Some critics charge that Hawaii’s Buddhist temples have remained too traditional, chanting the same chants for 100 years in a language the young no longer understand.