By Dr. Bjorn Mercer and Dr. Achilles Gacis | 02/04/2021
Taking an objective approach to learning about different religions can lead to a greater connection with other humans. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Religion and Philosophy professor Dr. Achilles Gacis about the unique diversity of religion in Hawaii. He also talks about the educational benefits of religious studies, how a deeper knowledge of religions can lead to greater understanding among people, and more.
Listen to the Episode
Read the Transcript:
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking to Dr. Achilles Gacis, religion and philosophy faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. And today our conversation is about religions of Hawaii, and welcome, Achilles.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Hi, thank you.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, definitely. I’m excited about this conversation. And let’s jump into the first question, which is: What is the religious make up of Hawaii and why is it unique amongst the states in the U.S.?
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Well, the religious make up of Hawaii is quite fascinating. It’s uniqueness is because we’re really the crossroads of the Pacific. I mean, we’re right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, further from anywhere else that has good solid geography, if you will. So to get anywhere, you’ve got to travel somewhere first.
But, as far as the religious make up, let’s start with the basic statistic of our population as of 2020, which is about almost 1.5 million people throughout the entire chain of islands, which is basically nine islands.
As far as the religious statistics, 63% would be Christianity-based faiths, and 10% would be non-Christian-based faiths, and 26% would be unaffiliated to any particular faith. So like anywhere, demographics change with travel and also with our big military population, religion statistics kind of go up and down.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense. I know when we have traveled, my family and I, when we’ve traveled to Hawaii takes about five and a half hours from Arizona?
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Yeah, that’s about the time even, like I guess, from LA like four and a half, five hours or so. Just to give you an idea, going straight south going over the Equator, the South Pacific, like towards Tahiti, is about four and a half, say five hours as well. So it’s a bit of a flight.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is. And Hawaii being a state, of course, a part of the United States, is very geographically isolated, I guess you could say? Very far away from the mainland and like you said, it is really the crossroads from- from the U.S. to say, East Asia.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Yes. Definitely geographically isolated and also a desirable place for commerce, if you will, which explains why the United States decided to make Hawaii the 50th state as many cultures and countries east and west were looking at Hawaii from way back when as a nice location, whether it was the Russians in the 1800s wanting to establish a military base, fort, over on the island of Kauai, and that’s because of the whaling industry, when it was something popular.
And then eventually later in the 1800s Hawaii became very important to the continental United States in a very, very weird way because of sugar. And when you look at the war, say with the Civil War, the predominance of sugar was grown in the south, I believe it would be sugar beets.
So all of a sudden there’s a place somewhere in the Pacific far away that we get to this sugarcane grown, ship it up to the West Coast, build the railroad, and get that sugar over to the Northeast. That’s why you have a company like CNH California and Hawaii sugar, those little packets at the diner.
But with that, when you have business, when you have commerce, you also have religion. And along the way, you have a lot of religion that did come here by way of the missionaries out of the Northeast with the Anglican Church and Boston specifically. In addition to, say, the Catholic tradition and later, obviously, with the Mormon church and what have you with the mission outposts.
So you have many, many religions that come here. For example, like Buddhism. If you look at how the Japanese Buddhism of the Hongan-ji Church here, they’ve got a dioceses here in Honolulu, the headquarters, and their main cathedral. And I believe they have approximately the number escapes me, but I’d say well over 60 temples throughout the entire state, which tells you how big it is.
The state is big, but it’s also small, if you compare it to say, other islands like Manhattan or something, in that sense, you know? We are small, but we are big and there are many kinds of religions.
There’s a huge Hindu temple on Kauai as well, with the arts and the craftsmen that designed everything were brought in from India to do this. And it’s a new monastery, if you will, in the temple. You have all types all types here.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, and Hawaii, amongst other states, especially since it’s in the middle of the Pacific you know, it makes sense that there would be the convergence of Christian faith and Buddhism and Hindu. And I would say, how prominent is the native Hawaiian faith?
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Interesting enough, it was in January, 1778 that Captain James Cook discovered Hawaii for his sponsor, the Earl of Sandwich. And once you had that contact, after that, everything changed. Because you had technology, you had the religion, you had politics you had you know, new styles of warfare, et cetera. With all of these influences there was no choice but Hawaii had to change and it had to evolve.
So while Christianity was adopted by the royalty as a new way of belief, a new way of expressing spirituality, a new way of joining the modernizing world, if you will, the Hawaiian traditions never really went away. They were always respected as being something important to the basic identity of the indigenous people here.
So they were always respected, but they were subdued. The language was subdued, it was spoken at home, you’ve got to learn English now and be standard and formalized. But people definitely were still speaking Hawaiian. I mean, there were numerous Hawaiian newspapers, so it was a very high literacy rate once the language was transcribed, if you will, by the missionaries and given an alphabet, et cetera.
So, they were able to spread the religious practices quite readily and easily, but with development comes a new mindset, especially when you look at what religion does. It does produce a different mindset, but people will hang on to their indigenous practices and there’s been a kind of a rebirth with this thing called the Hawaiian Renaissance.
In 1976, there was a rebirth, especially with the Hokulea, the first voyage of the double-hulled canoe that went from here to Tahiti using only the natural celestial navigation techniques that were being relearned from other Polynesian practitioners throughout the Pacific.
And now recently, this double-hulled canoe went around the world, so if you can circumnavigate the globe just using natural means, as I like to tell my students, these people were not sailors, they were not navigators, they were astronauts.
Because whenever I fly into home, and I’m looking down, if I’m lucky enough to get a window seat, and I’m looking out the window and I see this vast ocean. The USS Nimitz can seem like a massive city on the ocean when you drive up next to it whenever it’s here, docked in Pearl Harbor. But when you look down at the ocean, it is huge. It just really is very humbling.
And when to think that a double-hulled canoe, I don’t care how big it is, the operative word here is canoe, can go around the globe, it’s a testament to the power of humanity’s ability and desire to explore and go through to new horizons and really to have faith in themselves to seek a different reality.
Now we do it with space, but there’s still a lot to discover here, whether it’s the macro cosmos of our universe, of the micro cosmos of who we are as individuals and human beings, and I think religion has always kind of played that role in one way or another.
So it’s good to hang on to as much information sources as you can get and some of these renaissance practices are important because in a pre-literate culture, oral tradition was very, very important for the Hawaiians and even the Polynesians in general.
The best place to keep information is between your ears, and the techniques used for memorizing vast volumes of work were incredible. Say you would memorize a chant for how to build a canoe or how to navigate or how to build a structure for shelter or how to fish. It could last for maybe 20 minutes or half an hour.
So it’s like memorizing a passage. I mean, how many people have memorized the New Testament? It’s that kind of level of memorization and so it’s a different mindset and a different education process and definitely a different religious emphasis.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Definitely, and I love how you brought up so many wonderful things to talk about, and even just the memory aspect, when you talk about the double-hulled canoe, that sounds absolutely terrifying to me.
Even going from island to island in Hawaii in a double-hulled canoe, it would be a lot for me, and then to go from one island state to the next and, I think, as contemporary humans, we think we’re brilliant. We think we’re so brilliant in all of our fancy technology, but to think of what old or ancient humans had to do in traveling from island to island in a double-hulled canoe.
Or going back to, like, the western tradition, memorizing the Iliad and the Odyssey or memorizing the Bible, or memorizing the Quran or I would say, even the- the troubadours and trouvères of, like, medieval Europe, it was all in their head.
And that’s where they memorized it and that’s where their culture came from and how they connected with people and entertained and shared their faith. And today, I can’t remember anything.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Well, it’s important to be able to not just objectively study something as a subject but these are traditions and cultures and religious worldviews that you don’t leave on the shelf, if you will. You don’t leave them on the back burner of your memory. You live them.
It’s better to have everything memorized and have a super ironclad memory, of course, but what personal, say, daily phrases does a person keep in their mantra wallet, if you will, for their daily use? We hear things like “carpe diem” other political kinds of phrases, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
You know, these little bumper stickers phrases that really have a profundity to them and looking back in religion, you find a lot of these kinds of phrases that mean something that you can apply to something when you need to.
So there’s a lot of good in studying the ancient as well as studying the modern, as well as studying foreign traditions that have played a certain kind of influence, and hopefully a positive influence. I don’t think we should be negating religion, I don’t think we should be attacking religion, I don’t think we should be dismissing religion.
I think we should look at the word religion itself and say, “Wait a minute. If this comes from the Latin religare,” which is not an exotic menu item, but it means to unite or to combine the tangible, say, with the intangible. Now we’re seeing religion for what it is. It’s something good.
But, like any human endeavor, sometimes the wrong things get in the way, unfortunately. But you can apply that to anything. Technology, religion, the arts.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, and you know, that actually perfectly transitions to one of the next questions, is so you teach religion and philosophy, which is excellent and so what are the similarities and the differences between the fields. Where I would say hundreds of years ago, more in the hundreds, religion and philosophy were intermixed and it was more of a recent thing where they bifurcated?
Dr. Achilles Gacis: I always wondered about that. How even some schools categorize religion in the philosophy and I’m thinking, “Well, these are two distinct sources of cognitive understanding.” In the sense that philosophy’s a study of thinking in slow motion. You break down your thinking if, then, therefore. If you want to look at logic and reason, and you seek a certain kind of clarity and you have to study the art and logic of thinking so that you can frame abstract thoughts and perspectives in a manner that is meaningful, engaging, inviting.
Because it is with religion that asks the deep questions. And when you ask deep questions what happens is you have deep thinking. And when you have deep thinking, what happens is that’s when you have deep learning.
So to ask a question like in the philosophy class what is reality? You know, is there a reality? I’ve had the whole gamut of responses from, “Well, this is a great question, I always think about this. I was talking about with my friend the other day in the discussion forums.” And other people are like, “Oh, this is just an exercise in semantics. It’s a waste of time. We’re here, let’s get to work, I got things to do.”
And both perspectives are absolutely valid. Now, say I pick a philosophy that’s become a religion, and that would be Buddhism. People talk about, “Oh, I can’t wait to experience nirvana as a Buddhist.” You know, to be generically Buddhist, because there’s a million different kinds of Buddhism, if you will, like different kinds of Christianity. But the basic idea is if I reach a certain level of nirvana, which is an extinguishing of my desires, I extinguish the flame of desire and therefore I have no more suffering, if I reach that point, well, how do you explain nirvana?
And I remember seeing a documentary where the person mentioned it’s like a tadpole talking to a frog and the frog is talking to the tadpole and trying to explain nirvana from different dimensions in terms of how you were as a tadpole and how you’ve evolved into a frog. And the frog will tell the tadpole, “No earth land has no water over it, you can’t swim over it. It’s not like air. There are aren’t any fish here.” And eventually, the tadpole thinks the frog is insane.
So you have fundamental different worldviews that are different. They’re not competing with each other. But they’re different. And to look at how people function in different worldviews, I’ve always found that fascinating.
In other words, how can I apply that to my daily living? If I study world religions, and I have some idea that certain people eat certain foods or don’t eat certain foods, or think of this or think of that or have a certain worldview or value system, if I have some inclination that way and hopefully they have some understanding of say, my worldview and my perspective and how I function, then we can really begin a process of the getting to know each other and dealing with each other and being effective with each other within a community.
So it’s not to indoctrinate or proselytize or to wear a hat and say, “I’m a good fill in the blank.” You know, that’s a kind of costume play for me. You know, you don’t put the thing in front and hide behind the thing.
This religion or that religion has spiritual vehicles in it. Where are you going with that vehicle? Don’t just enjoy the ride. Evolve, become, immerse yourself in it, and ultimately use what works for you. Because we do have free will and self-determination. We’re not robots, we’re not clones we do have this wonderful thing called individuality, but we also have to develop what we are and what we hope to become and what we know we can be.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are all absolutely excellent. And I like how you described that as cosplay, costume play. Why do you think so many people are hesitant to talk about religion? You know, there’s the old adage of don’t talk about politics and religion. But to me, if you talk about politics or you talk about religion from a very open perspective, and in a perspective of where you want to learn, then you could have great conversations. But so why do you think people are hesitant sometimes?
Dr. Achilles Gacis: What I usually tell my students is that the most people reject religion because, for some reason, they’ve had a bad experience, not with it, but with someone in a religion. It’s always a human that says, “Oh, I don’t like religion because-” Because what?
And before you know it, the layers get peeled and it’s an individual. They didn’t like this, how it was presented, how it was forced on them whatever. It’s a million things. Because no one has 40,000 lifetimes to study all the world’s religions and now pick the best one that fits you.
It’s almost an act of, I guess we could say, use the word faith. And for the most part, people don’t want to talk about religion because they haven’t really had an analytical, objective perspective towards even what they may have followed as a religion.
In other words, I was told to do this because if I don’t, posthumously something terrible will happen and we’ll be in an abyss of fire and brimstone or what have you. Or something where they say, “No, that’s affecting my mindset.” So again, that goes to they weren’t given the proper education in how wonderful religion is, what it can do for you, if you’re seeking a edifying mindset.
Also they don’t have the vocabulary to speak about religion in an objective manner, so that you don’t really know what the conversation is going to go. That’s what I tell students, I said, “Look, whatever we do in class and we talk about it, et cetera, et cetera, whether it’s face to face or if it’s a Zoom class, do not try and emulate what we’re doing in class at the local bar. Because make no mistake about it, people will kill in the parking lot over what they believe in or what they don’t believe in, based on what they understand or do not understand. It is dangerous.”
So when I go out and people say, “Oh, what do you do?” I say, “I teach.” “What do you teach?” “Um, religion.” “Great, I’m religious too.” I know where the conversation’s going to go and what I need to do to get out of it. So for the most part, people talk about some kind of religion that’s philosophy, which is I guess you just got to believe in something and just be nice to everyone, it always gets distilled down to that one kind of comment.
But I just don’t think people have been sensitive enough to really understand and discuss religion in a manner that is objective, there’s always a subjectivity and that’s the nature of that particular subject.
I mean, nobody goes to a party and says, “Wow, hey, I’m made up of chemicals too. I’m having a chemical right now. It’s called a vodka.” You know, nobody says that, but when you ask them about religion, oh wow, it turns on all kinds of perspectives. Which is good, but it can also be bad if you don’t know what’s happening, because you don’t want to be someone who condemns a particular practice or worldview. That is not what someone should do to anyone’s worldview.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly, and those are all absolutely wonderful comments. And when I think about religion, I always think about what this Father I used to know, a Catholic priest, where he said “How many people truly study religion past say, the age of 10? They go to, like, Sunday school or they go to some sort of religious education, basically, or even take a class or two in college, and, but do they study beyond that? And do they reflect? And do they, per se, pray in a way that is very focused in really trying to acquire both understanding of themselves and the religion?”
And I’d say very few people do that and I’ll say people oftentimes study scripture, but then I’ll say they repeat the scripture as was repeated to them at their local church.
And so, having that understanding of yourself and your relationship with religion is so important and I’m going to make a huge generalization here, so I apologize. In whereas I think for many Americans, they’re put into the position to where they’re around other people, but those other people are oftentimes less similar to them in the sense that, “Oh, well, this person’s a Christian, this person’s Evangelical or Methodist, or there’s a Catholic or there’s somebody who’s LDS.”
But it’s not as often that they’re put into the position of being around someone whom might be Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim, in which then you have a conversation because then you’ll just avoid it.
So how do you think people could have better conversations about religion with all of the things you talked about, which can be very difficult and/or sometimes dangerous?
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Well again, growing up in Hawaii, we’re spoiled because we come across the best of everything. And I always begin with food, because that’s always something good to share.
But it just seems to me that by the time we get to a point where we’re studying religion as an objective subject and we learn different kinds of vocabulary that are used, it’s in college. I never remember having a formal world religions course in junior high or high school, it was in college.
And I was just totally fascinated by it because here was something that I felt was a space that was missing where if I study these world religions, which includes the cultural practices, the history, it’s just a massive, wonderful subject.
Like, mathematics would be mathematics for the mathematician, but they’ll tell me no, it’s different as well. So once you delve into it, you find out all the different, wonderful aspects of it, so I think perhaps, even like philosophy, perhaps we should start when the student is maybe 12 years old, like the seventh grade, if that’s the right age, 12, 13.
Because, if you’re able to break down the way you make decisions, then you should be able to discuss the way other people view the world. But you’re going to come across, especially with religion, philosophy might be okay, but religions becomes something that the family might say, “Wait a minute, we don’t need a kind of sterile indoctrination into humanism, et cetera, et cetera.”
Which is sometimes the trap that public schools or the public education system will get into. For example, let’s say we look at, say, science. Philosophy breaks down science and makes logical and reasonable statements to frame its hypothetical perspectives and then away we go with the research.
And then we look at say, evolution. Well, we can go on for hours on that one particular topic. But the bottom line to bring some kind of equity to the discussion, I always tell my students, if we look at evolution and if we look creationism, if you will, they both have a beginning, a process, and a now, and a possible future. In other words, there’s a sequence. So we see development anyway. What’s the problem? Whether we evolved from this, or whether we were created from that?
Then it becomes a personal choice. But see, even to get to that simple break down, I don’t how many you know, headaches I’ve had along the ways to be able to distill it to that particular phrase. Knowing where the conversation’s going to go. So it’s very difficult, but it involves a kind of an intellectual training as much as any other subject to make you someone who’s able to have a discussion even an informal discussion at a dinner table.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For sure. And in one of my previous podcasts with a philosopher, she grew up in Italy and she said that they start studying philosophy at around 12, maybe 14. It’s in high school and several years of it. Which actually sounds absolutely wonderful, because studying philosophy and being able to learn and be logical and learn about fallacies and really dissecting arguments is really one of the more important things we do as humans. And so that would be very helpful and I think really needed.
I mean, I never had a philosophy course in high school, and my education was 100% public so there was no discussion of religion, but to have those tools, those philosophic tools, of being able to discuss things. And then when you’re in a position to where you feel like you can discuss religion and not from a simplistic perspective. And you talked about evolution and I always find, like, when you have discussions about evolution or creationism or even more the, like, the creationism of, like, “Well, the world’s 6,000 years old.” It’s like certain folks want everything to be very simple, if that makes sense?
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Well, I think that’s the stressors that society puts on academics. Just distill it down the basic talking points or arguing points. But I’d rather use a peripatetic approach and be kind of discoursive in the sense that we can just look at the basics.
For example, if we were to look at world religions and offer them in sections in terms of myths, rituals and dogmas, identity myths. What does it mean that a human being is? Creation myth, so the individual of the world. Rituals, how do we connect with the abstract around us? What is this thing called a soul? And why do people do what they do to connect themselves with this other parallel dimension called the spiritual dimension? And then dogmas, why do we have rules and regulations? You know, human beings need guidance.
And just on the basis of some of the basic world religions, you can start to see a kind of interesting commonality that religion does give us guidelines, it does organize our behavior because if we’re left to our own devices, any kind of education, do we really constantly need to reinvent the light bulb?
We’ve taken the light bulb and we’re turning it into a laser beam. So what we do with the information is what matters. Not to negate the information because I don’t like it or I don’t understand it or I don’t even want to try it. So that’s how I look at how the academic study of religion can make it interesting, make it applicable, make it relevant and make it certainly worthwhile as an object to study.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right, and understanding where people come from and their background and what they have been taught, it’s so interesting when you’re talking about certain aspects of religion or different things like that.
And it’s really just to understand the other person. And living in a pluralistic society, in which there’s many different types of people, including many different types of religion, is important and this might sound naïve but getting along is extremely important.
And all you have to do is look at the history of every country out there, and to see how people have fought with each other from a secular point of view and from religious point of view. And, in no way at all, does anybody want to repeat, essentially, the mistakes or the ills or the violence of our forefathers.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Well, there’s something interesting what you said there. It reminded me of something. I remember years ago reading that the in history the two most valued, and it can all be a list of two or three or four, it doesn’t matter, there’s always a number, but I remember the perspective was, “The most important things humanity has always protected. The first was its religion and the second was its weapons.”
When I read that, I must’ve been like 12 or 13, I was like, “Whoa.” But in a weird way, it makes sense. Go to a national museum, a military museum, and look how wonderful all the work and the artistic swords and suits of armor and all that. I mean, we put an unbelievable and it’s not because we’re warlike, but it has to do with something more than that, which is survival.
We want to make sure we survive and religion bolsters that because it also provides something that we haven’t really touched on in this conversation, or maybe we have, but it’s the idea of values. What do you value? Where do you get your values from? Don’t tell me your mom and dad. Where’d they get theirs? Because you’re going to keep going back, back, back and you can’t make this stuff up. There’s something important there that we transmit to the next generation and why do we do that? Because it ensures our survival.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I was thinking that exactly and through a religion or even living in an area where everybody has a similar type of cultural upbringing, but religion helps, you then have a commonality amongst people. So as somebody who was raised in Arizona or Hawaii can have a similarity to somebody who was raised in Germany or even Japan. And then even if you layer away the different cultures or even different religions, there’s still some commonalities that as long as people approach the table and have great conversations, you can really find so many commonalities, no matter where you are and who you’re talking to.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Commonalities are definitely important. But I can give you specific examples in terms of, and you know, again, I’m spoiled because I’ve studied this stuff formally and if I didn’t study it, I wouldn’t have had the ability to have those examples.
Years ago, when I was in Greece, I get on a flight going on over to Crete from Athens and the man from India was sitting next to me. And then we were talking about this or that or whatnot and somehow the conversation got onto his business dealings and the Hindu god Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, who Ganesha was. Was also the destroyer of obstacles.
And I mentioned that, and I said, “I hope you have a good business approach.” And he smiled and I thought, “How wonderful, I made a connection, not because of commonalities, but because of understanding.” I knew that a particular deity is important in this culture and I kind of framed it in such a way that, you know is this important to you? “Absolutely.” I said, “If it’s important to you, it’s important to Ganesh, so go get that business deal.”
And then just a couple years ago, coming back, I got a taxi at the airport because I was too lazy to park my car there. And I get into the car and the driver is from Southeast Asia, I could hear an accent and he wasnfrom Thailand and on his dash, he had a little statue of Guanyin, who is a Buddhist bodhisattva, a being of infinite compassion and wisdom, almost like a kind of a parallel of the virgin Mary in say the Catholic or the Orthodox tradition where in Asia, it’s like, “I love my mother, I respect my father.” You know, that kind of compassion as it’s a female concept female attribute.
So, I looked at the statue, I pointed and I said, “Ah, Guanyin.” And he says, “Oh, you know?” I said, “Uh, yeah. It’s Hawaii, everybody knows.” I didn’t know what else to say after that. But I didn’t get a discount in the taxi bill, but we had a great conversation and it’s just amazing how nice it is when two strangers can connect on something that means something incredible and powerful to one individual and the other person acknowledges that importance.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And it’s one of those things that as humans we’re so obsessed with ourselves. Because it’s all we know. We’ve got a brain, we’ve got eyes and this is the existence we most intensely understand.
But then, when you do connect with someone and if you can connect with them via religion or like you said food or I would say music you can really connect with people and really start to understand them.
And again, with all the problems that humans have always had, not even today, there’s problems today, but there’s been big ole problems in the past. There’s problems in other countries, there will always be problems, when it comes to humans.
But having that, that commonality and just understanding can really help. So the last question I wanted to get in here was what are some of the important religious sites in Hawaii? Now I went to one and I don’t remember what it was called.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Was it the Byodo-In? Up in Kaneohe?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yes.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: That’s a popular one, up in Kaneohe translates as, the Arab bamboo, bamboo man. Very popular tourist site. Hollywood has used it in many of its shoots. Japanese Buddhist expression. And that is a popular place to visit. People have some services there as well.
But also you have other places that are more conducive to having almost a western influence in the Buddhist practice. They’ve got choirs, they’ve got hymns Buddhist temples don’t have choirs and hymns. The priests do all the chanting. They’ve got pews, they’ve got an altar that you look at like, kind of like what Martin Buber talks about on relationship of I and thou, like I’m here and thou is there.
Whereas when I went to Japan at Lake Todaiji and I walked around the temple, it’s like you just walk around. You just kind of like go on this journey, a kind of walking journey of different levels and eras of the Buddha’s life and kind of a journey, if you will.
Whereas the idea of pews and an aisle are very, very western, organ in a Buddhist temple is very, very western. But that’s the influences. But the core aspect doesn’t change. So you have the White Temple, the- that I’m really kind of been talking about, it’s the Hongan-ji Temple, which has a fusion of east and west. Greek Corinthian columns, Indian stupa structures, Japanese wide golden leaf temples, altars, if you will.
You’ve got the Anglican cathedral in the center of Honolulu, the Saint Andrews Episcopalian, where some of the rocks were even brought over to Hawaii as ship’s ballasts when the cathedral was being built.
So you have many, many structures and if they’ve got the economic means to build their style of building and they can get the real estate. When they build something, they build with permanence and it is wonderful just to go to these places.
I look at these structures and these places as the jewels of a community. Which is why I had done an 11-year documentary called “Sacred Sites of Hawaii: Religion in Paradise.” And I went into these places and was able to film and discuss with the caretakers and the clerics there because, oftentimes, even in any city, we’ll drive right by a giant cathedral and say, “Gee, I wonder what that’s like in there. But I don’t want to go in there because I’m afraid or I’m hesitant or…” There’s some trepidation involved on the part of the individual to want to go there.
And I tell my students, just go, visit, these are good people. They want to share things with you. They’re nice places. Don’t shortchange yourself because you don’t know. Right now it’s no, all you got to do is ask.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Know what, I love that. And, like you said, especially in Hawaii, land is so expensive that if you build anything, it’s going to be forever.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: And many of these religions have like cultural festivals. You know, the Japanese have theirs, the Greek church has theirs. The Buddhist temples have the annual Obon dance. And again, you’ve got the great barbecues, you’ve got the great music. It’s just wonderful. You’re spoiled. You’re year round party time, you know? You can only imagine what Chinese New Year is like here. I mean, the fireworks are just phenomenal. Phenomenal. Let alone the regular New Year.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, for sure. No, it would be wonderful. And so, thank you for such a great conversation about Hawaii and the religion of Hawaii. Any final thoughts?
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Well, there’s always constant learning. I tell my students, as I would like to convey to anyone listening to this podcast, that open yourself up to personal research. Enjoy learning, enjoy asking questions, because one thing I’ve discovered in the time I’ve been on this planet is whenever you need help and you want to learn something and you just ask people. For some reasons, perhaps that’s the way the universe works, the people show up and there they are, ready to help you, ready to teach you, ready to guide you, ready to inspire you, and ready to educate you. So take advantage of that, because we’re walking a wonderful journey, and that’s called being alive.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely wonderful. And I would say, I love how you said be open to learning and to really delve into that, even where you just said the pew structure is a very western idea, and as a westerner, didn’t even think of that. And you know, I think when you learn about other peoples and other religion and when you really philosophically look at stuff, you’re like, “Oh, well, many other people have different approaches and or different perceptions and realities when it comes to any number of things,” and it’s just realizing that and then being open to it.
Dr. Achilles Gacis: Yup. Religion works.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Well, excellent. Well, thank you for a great conversation today, Achilles. And my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and thank you for listening.