Mary Adamski, Honolulu Star-Bulletin: A Honolulu church believes it’s found the perfect site for a meditation center, a wooded mountaintop retreat with an ocean view.
But there’s no peace and quiet to be found in the reception from the neighbors.
More than 70 Pacific Heights residents turned out at the Tuesday Nuuanu/Punchbowl Neighborhood Board meeting to protest the planned $8 million center at the top of the hillside neighborhood. It was their fourth round before the board with concerns that it will bring traffic, noise and parking problems and introduce visitor lodging in a residential area. They intend to continue their fight at City Hall where an application for a conditional use permit was filed with the Department of Planning and Permitting.
At the center of the storm is the Institute for Research in Human Happiness, a group unknown to the neighbors before it bought the 3.2-acre site, former home of Hawaiian author John Dominis Holt and his wife, Frances Damon Holt, both deceased.
It’s a new experience for the church, which has 12 meditation centers in Japan. But it’s not the first church to meet a hostile reception, even though residential zoning allows for places of worship.
The Rev. Sean Matsumoto said the congregation is “confused and sad” about neighborhood response.
“We want to be good neighbors. We’re very quiet, no loud chanting, no gongs.”
About 30 people at a time would attend three-day directed meditation seminars at the center, he said. Attendees would spend two nights in housing described as a monastery. The meditation is a basic facet of the faith and only members would attend the center, he said.
One of the new religions that have arisen in Japan in recent years, the IRH literature describes its teachings as “based on the spirit of Buddhism.” Studying the writings of founder and leader Ryuho Okawa and self-reflective meditation are the core spiritual practices.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Rev. Sean Matsumoto, director of the Hawaii branch of the Institute for Research in Human Happiness, said his congregation is “confused and sad” about the response to the church’s plans.
Okawa, 47, turned away from his financial business career to found Kofuku-no-Kagaku — “science of happiness” — in 1986. It was brought in 1994 to the United States, where there are centers in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and in 1995 to Hawaii .
Okawa’s books are sold in major American bookstores. One was the basis of a 2003 animated movie, “Golden Laws,” that played in Hawaii theaters.
Kofuku-no-Kagaku has “an appeal similar to New Age religions, with a cosmology about a new, better world and the focus on the individual,” said University of Hawaii religion professor George Tanabe. “It’s not family-based as traditional Buddhism is. It’s about how an individual person can gain a wisdom, a higher level of consciousness. … That kind of appeal is fairly popular in Japan.”
“We focus on everyday practice and self-reflection,” said Matsumoto, director of the Hawaii branch, which has 300 members.
Okawa’s writing “is based on Buddha’s teaching and translated into contemporary life,” he said. Members are expected to practice four principles:
» Love that gives.
» Study wisdom.
» Progress in spiritual life.
“Members are encouraged to study other teachings, such as the good ideas from Christianity,” Matsumoto said.
The Rev. Akira Fujii, a director from Japan, said: “With wisdom, you move to be open to new ideas. The idea of progress and change is to be open and flexible, to listen and learn from everyone.”
They spoke in an interview at the church’s meeting rooms at 1259 S. Beretania St., where an altar containing a gold dharma wheel, a symbol of Buddhist teaching, and a large hanging video screen are the focal points.
They didn’t have the opportunity to share their spiritual ideas at the neighborhood board meeting four hours later. The crowd didn’t come to listen anyway.
“This use is inappropriate,” said Pacific Heights resident Michael Lilly, former state attorney general. “We do not need another commercial operation on this road.”
Gayle Chestnut said: “This is a lodging facility first and a meditation center second. Lodging isn’t a legal use.”
Chestnut told the Nuuanu board there are a total of 240 signatures on a petition against the meditation center.
“There are as many reasons for opposing it as there are residents,” Chestnut said later.
Nearly everyone in the crowd signed up to speak, but board Chairman Joe Magaldi called for one spokesman from each side, saying the board has heard all the arguments at three earlier meetings. He and other board members were heckled by the noisy crowd, especially when the six votes for a resolution backing the neighbors was two short of a sufficient majority to pass it.
An artist sketched this rendition of what the proposed Institute for Research in Human Happiness meditation center would look like.
The other five board members present abstained from voting, citing the fear of lawsuit, a threat that has dogged neighborhood boards since Manoa board members were sued for their stand in a landlord-tenant dispute. The city paid $20,000 in settlement, and two members also had to pay.
Matsumoto said the church intends to honor the history of the old home, built in 1927, which was once occupied by Princess Kahunu, the widow of Prince Kuhio.
The church paid previous owner Bishop Museum $3.6 million for property. The home and adjoining buildings, unoccupied for more than three years, are so deteriorated and moldy that church members and consultants wear masks when they enter, he said.
Matsumoto said: “We know we have provided mitigation to meet neighbors’ concerns. The design of the new building is similar to the old profile.” Parking for 30 vehicles will be below the road and out of sight.
“We had a traffic survey that showed impact would be minimal.”
Magaldi said the board will forward the petitions and neighborhood concerns to Eric Crispin, director of the Department of Planning and Permitting. The law does not require a public hearing before he makes a decision on a conditional use permit.
Chestnut said: “In my opinion, this is not a conditional use permit, this is a variance from permitted use. If they were going to meet on Sundays and Wednesdays, I’d say OK. But I’m opposed to transient lodging in a residential area. That’s a commercial use.”
Matsumoto said the center would be only for members and only for religious training.
“We are absolutely different from a hotel or a bed and breakfast,” he said. “Someone said we would be strangers coming in. “We are members of the community. We only want a chance to practice our religion.”