Learning From A Master Temple Builder

The new Hall of Compassion, a traditional 13th century Japanese structure nearing completion at Lawai International Center, serves as a symbol of peace and fellowship. Every element of the building, from the curvature of the arch to the hand-carved yellow cedar, represents more than 100 volunteers who came together to create a place where others will be invited to share the same sense of camaraderie for years to come.

“It’s the people’s creation,” says Japanese master artisan Tohta Mizuguchi from the Kyoto area, who is leading construction and speaks only in his native tongue.

The humble temple builder says the structure – which also was made possible by people from around the world, including a lumber company in Canada and Taiwanese wood carvers – would not have been realized without the many volunteers who donated their time and skills.

“I was lucky enough to hear about it and really lucky to be a part of it,” says Mo Seiler, who has been volunteering his carpentry talents every day since construction began approximately 10 weeks ago. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s a real privilege to work on this.”

Seiler was particularly excited to work with Mizuguchi, who learned his trade from Master Nobuyuki Yamamoto, one of the last traditional temple builders in Japan.

“He’s everything and more,” says Seiler of Mizuguchi.

Still, for Seiler the most-gratifying experience of working on the Hall of Compassion has been cultivating relationships with the other volunteers.

“I’ll be sad when it’s over,” he admits.

Larry Conklin, owner of Island Crane and Rigging, also volunteered his time and says he too is grateful for the relationships built.

“The rewarding part will be the friendships that were made here that will carry on in the future,” he says.

When asked why he chose to help out, he explains, “I feel better about my community, and my life works better. When an occasion like this comes up, I go for it.”

Working with people like Seiler and Conklin, who are not professional temple builders, was a new experience for Mizuguchi.

“So that was my place to learn how to work with the people who have no experience,” says Mizuguchi, who patiently offered everyone step-by-step guidance and even extended his stay on Kaua’i in order to finish the project.

But the community’s generosity made it easy for him to persevere. In fact, the kindness of the people and the richness of nature are his most-treasured attributes of the island.

Coincidentally, these are two elements that define Lawai International Center.

“This center is a place for all people,” says Lynn Muramoto, president of the nonprofit.

The building will serve as an additional aspect of the 88-shrine healing sanctuary originally created in 1904 by Japanese immigrants, which Muramoto was inspired to restore after quitting her job as an elementary school-teacher. The shrines, originally built by teenagers, are set along a pathway nestled against a hill overlooking the Hall of Compassion. The shrines represent an ancient pilgrimage of the 88 temples in Shikoku, Japan.

Residents once traveled from around the island to receive the healing benefits of the mini-pilgrimage, until the 1940s.

“Nature has a way of providing places of comfort and they are found all over the world,” explains Muramoto.

However, the location was a “total jungle” when she discovered it several decades later.

“We gave it more breath, more light,” she says.

Now, the tradition is able to continue for residents and visitors alike.

“This is more than shrines and more than a building, it’s really about the heart of the people,” says Muramoto.

The Hall of Compassion is a project that has been more than 20 years in the making, since Lawai International Center was established in 1991, and it is something that is expected to be a beacon of light for years to come.

“These buildings have been known to remain standing for a thousand years,” says Muramoto. “Future generations will be touched forever by the commitment of the people who have given from the depths of their being to help the next person. It is this extraordinary generosity from the gifts of the heart that transform an island, a society and a world.”

To contribute, contact Muramoto at 639-4300 or email lm@hawaii.rr.com. For more information, visit lawaicenter.org.