Return to Lahaina Hongwanji: A Firsthand Account by Bishop Toshiyuki Umitani

As the re-entry restriction to zone 12B was lifted for the residents of Lahaina on Monday, November 27, 2023, Rev. Ai Hironaka, Business Manager Derrick Inouye, and I returned to the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission for the first time since the wildfire devastated the town of Lahaina on August 8, 2023.

You may use the arrow that appears at the right edge of the photos to advance to the next image (19 photos total).

Upon arrival at the temple, the three of us stood on the top of the stairs leading to the temple’s front entrance. We placed our hands together in Gassho and chanted the sutra Sanbutsuge as we overlooked the debris-filled altar area destroyed by fire. The sound of the Nembutsu echoed through the quiet town. We then entered the Nokotsudo (columbarium) building. The exterior seemed to have minor damages, such as cracks in the glass doors and some heat damage to the roof, but the interior, including all the niches and the altar, was intact. This is truly good news for the temple family, especially for those who have their loved ones interred in the Nokotsudo. We offered the incense and again chanted the sutra Sanbutsuge in front of the altar. It is indeed fortunate that the Nokotsudo was intact.

We then wore protective gear and began searching through the burnt rubble and assessing the situation. Although cloudy on the day, it wasn’t easy to continue working with protective clothing for a long time. It was necessary to take breaks every 30 minutes or so to rehydrate. The temple building, minister’s residence, garage, temple office, social hall, and the Japanese School building were all burned down, leaving only a few remnants, such as the stone pillars and walls. We carefully and respectfully searched the remains, especially in the altar area, while taking photographs of the damaged area. It is truly regrettable to report that the Gohonzon (Amida Buddha’s statue) and the other altar ornaments, such as picture scrolls of Shinran Shonin and Rennyo Shonin, Daikin bell, Shumidan, Mejoku table, pews in the Gejin area, etc., were all burned to the ashes. We discovered some altar ornaments, but they were all heavily damaged, and it was hard to identify what they were.

In the desolate scenery, the statue of Shinran Shonin was still standing firmly with great dignity.  His back, blackened by fire, indicated the fierceness of the blaze that engulfed the temple. By the side of Shinran Shonin, the small tree that the Gomonshu planted during his official visit to Hawaii in 2017 survived the fire and sprouted some new green leaves. The blackened statue of Shinran Shonin and a humble tree with greenery symbolize our resilience and commitment to the future. The road to recovery has just begun. We never know what the future holds. But we will move forward together. The Lahaina Hongwanji’s statue of Amida Buddha has disappeared, but in our own voice of the Nembutsu, the three of us clearly heard the voice of Compassion that still embraces and sustains us warmly. Namo Amida Butsu.

On behalf of Rev. Ai Hironaka, the Lahaina Hongwanji Mission, and the people of Lahaina, I would like to humbly ask for your continued support.

In Gassho,

Bishop Toshiyuki Umitani
December 4, 2023

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