Nestled deep in Kalihi Valley sits Chozen-ji, a beautiful, serene Zen temple with a most unusual story.
On a 2-plus-acre spread abutting Kalihi Stream, the temple is the home of its own line of Zen Buddhism, independent from any temple in Japan, though there are strong historical ties. “Chozen-ji is actually a headquarters temple, so the seat of its own line of Zen,” said Cristina Moon, a resident monk at the temple who also works as a nonprofit consultant. “So it was the first one that was established outside of Japan, and as far we know the only one.”
As such, Chozen-ji presents a somewhat private face to the public, a stance that differs sharply from other Buddhist temples in Hawaii, where public events like bon dances are commonplace. “It’s more like a monastery. It’s not one of those temples where you can come and pray and light incense,” Moon said. “People come in here and are maybe facing the hardest thing they’ve ever done or ever experienced, so we really protect this environment.”
The exception will be next weekend when the temple holds “Zen Ken Sho,” its annual Zen art show and open house, offering visitors an introduction to its unique philosophies and practices, as well as the chance to come away with some extraordinary works of art. The show will offer paintings and ceramics done by students, members and teachers of the temple.
This year’s show will feature the work of Jackson Morisawa (1921-2013), a member of the legendary 442nd Infantry Regiment who later created designs for aloha shirts. Morisawa painted using traditional Japanese “sumi-e” technique — black ink and brush — but worked with extraordinary detail, creating lively, vibrant illustrations of people and animals.
“He first became known because he did a lot of portraits of folks in the 442nd when they were overseas, and then ended up focusing on Zen,” said Michael Kangen, who, in addition to being head resident monk at Chozen-Ji, also works in real estate development. “A lot of local folks remember him from the late ’80s and ’90s, there were these ‘Aloha Spirit’ posters. Jackson designed those and they went up everywhere.”
Dozens of the posters will be on sale, many of them rescued from the temple’s storage. “This is the first time we’re showing a lot of his work in several years,” Kangen said.
Morisawa’s connection to Chozen-ji reflects its unusual philosophy of using art — both the martial arts and the fine arts — as a method for approaching Zen enlightenment. In addition to his artwork and calligraphy, he also is known for founding the temple’s archery program, known as “kyudo.”
Morisawa designed the temple’s traditional archery facility, where the archer shoots from inside a graceful structure specially designed to accommodate the archer’s dramatic, ceremonial motion, raising the 7-foot-tall bow high above the head before drawing the arrow to the eye and taking aim. It is such a refined act that in a single session, an archer might shoot only one or two arrows, Moon said.
“The approach here is very physical,” Kangen said. “There is meditation, and we chant the sutras (Buddhist texts) and those kind of things, but we’re also practicing things like archery and kendo. The spirit of it is that Zen’s pretty useless as a concept or a philosophy, but it’s very useful if you can put it into practice in your life.”
In practice, that can mean extreme attention to physical discipline and control. A meditation session at Chozen-ji will last 45 minutes, and will require the person to sit absolutely still, Moon said. “So if your foot’s asleep, your whole leg’s asleep, a mosquito lands on your face? You don’t move. And then after that you can train in the other arts.
“What we’re most interested in is: Are you getting this whole machine — of the human body — actually operating the way it’s supposed to? Are you breathing really deep and slow? Are you sitting up straight? And are you completely aware of everything around you? We actually sit with our eyes open, so that you don’t close your eyes and go off into Neverland.”
The philosophy of incorporating the body into the arts extends to the temple’s ceramics program, which will also be offering items for sale. A pottery student at Chozen-ji will use a conventional pottery wheel while facing a mirror, not only to look at the pot that’s being created but to ensure that his or her posture is properly upright and strong, Moon said.
“Sometimes a senior student or teacher will come over and push against you, saying ‘resist me.’ You really have to pull your strength from your core … to stay totally centered no matter what conditions are around you,” Moon said, adding that the effect on one’s psyche can be quite dramatic.
Chozen-ji was established in 1972 by Omori Sogen of Kyoto and his student Stanley Tanouye, a music teacher at Farrington High School, who during his summers would study martial arts in Japan, eventually mastering seven by age 32. Sogen was a skilled martial artist who, along with Tanouye, believed that martial arts in Japan had fallen on hard times.
Together, they wanted to bring a kind of spiritual training called “shugyo” to the West, Moon said.
“Shugyo is considered the deepest possible spiritual self-discipline,” she said. “There are six different terms in Japanese that you use to describe spiritual training. … Shugyo is the deepest and most intense out of all of them.”
In addition to the art on sale, visitors will also get to participate or observe demonstrations of the arts offered at Chozen-ji, such as chado (tea ceremony), ceramics and kyudo. Master taiko drummer Kenny Endo, co-founder of the Taiko Center of the Pacific, will perform. Beginning meditation will also be offered. A schedule of events can be found at chozen-ji.org/art-show.
“ZEN KEN SHO”
A Zen art sale at Daihonzan Chozen-ji temple
>> Where: 3565 Kalihi St.
>> When: 6-9 p.m. Nov. 8; 9-2 p.m. Nov. 9-10
>> Cost: Admission is free
>> Note: Appropriate attire requested. No tank tops or shorts.