The dharma was always there, helping Reverend Blayne Higa stay balanced during 17 years of public service in his home state of Hawaii. Back then his focus was urban planning, which he’d studied in graduate school before ordaining as a Shin Buddhist minister.

“The dharma helped me work in public service and not be so reactive to events and situations. It helps us to be able to apply equanimity to the everyday stresses and struggles that everyone faces,” he said in a Zoom interview.

Working in public service, Rev. Higa longed to go deeper into his own Buddhist roots, and he left Hawaii in 2016 to study at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California, where he focused on Shin Buddhist ministry and chaplaincy and received a master’s of divinity degree. He was then ordained, receiving both the preliminary tokudo and full kyoshi certification, at the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha temple in Kyoto. Back in Hawaii, he was named resident minister at the Kona Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, the region’s oldest Buddhist temple, which will celebrate its 125th anniversary next year.

“I feel a great sense of responsibility to honor the rich history of this temple by helping to envision a vibrant sangha that embodies the Buddhadharma for today and the future,” he said. Rev. Higa is a fourth-generation Japanese American whose great-grandparents migrated to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane fields. His mother’s family practiced Shingon Buddhism, a Japanese school in the Vajrayana tradition.

“My grandmother was very devout. I learned to appreciate Buddhism and spirituality by her example,” he said. Although he grew up Buddhist, he didn’t know much about the dharma until college, when he came across books about Shin Buddhism in English.

“I was drawn to the Shin Buddhist spirituality of living with our imperfections and how we are embraced by universal wisdom and compassion,” said Rev. Higa, who started attending a Shin Buddhist temple in his early twenties.

Although Shin Buddhism came to America with the early Japanese immigrants, Rev. Higa considers it “a universal path of awakening” that is being woven into America’s spiritual fabric. “Asian American Buddhist communities have been hiding in plain sight for many years, even though they were the first sanghas to be established in America,” he said. His hope is that with more awareness, the voices and stories of Asian American Buddhists will come to be seen as part of the “wonderful” diversity of American Buddhism.

In his brief two years at the helm of Kona Hongwanji, there have been plenty of opportunities to apply Buddhist teachings.

First came COVID-19. During the lockdown, Rev. Higa’s sangha responded by organizing food giveaways for elderly members of his congregation who were spread out across western Kona. “We have a lot of seniors not connected to technology. So we started a phone ministry team. Our volunteers called all our members, just to check in and to offer that lifeline,” he said. They also packed fresh food boxes. “The temple is most importantly about community and relationships. Many members and their families have been part of our sangha for generations.”

With COVID also came the rising wave of anti-Asian hate crimes. Although Rev. Higa’s community has not been directly targeted with vandalism or violence, the issue is of great concern to him.

“It is really sad to think that we are still facing these deep-seated levels of animosity or hatred for any group,” he said. Such crimes, he added, stem from the three poisons outlined by the Buddha—greed, anger, and ignorance.

“The dharma offers a path of liberation from suffering,” he said. “So it is important for Buddhists to be able to comment and reflect on the nature of suffering in our world and to offer guidance on how the dharma can help.”

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