Lawai International Center: A Life’s Purpose—and Some Shrines—Revealed.

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Lawai International Center: A Life’s Purpose—and Some Shrines—Revealed.

Lynn Muramoto was a tenured elementary school teacher when an afternoon in a valley on Kauai’s west side changed her life. Hawaii can do that to you. Many visit the Hawaiian Islands and dream of moving here. I did. But Lynn is second generation Japanese American. Kauai was already her home.
 
The 32 acres in Lawai Valley were overgrown with invasive trees and shrub, so thick it took chainsaws, many people and hours too numerous to count to hack out a decent clearing. But Lynn saw something that afternoon on Kauai’s south shore. She saw her life’s purpose tucked behind a cluster of homes that front Kaumualii Highway. The place didn’t look like much. Not then. It certainly didn’t look like a classroom. Lynn loved teaching. She loved children. But she returned home, quit her job and devoted her efforts to restoring a skinny stretch of land in Lawai Valley--land she didn’t even own.

“Initially, we thought it was just going to be a clean-up project, but as we started clearing, we knew that this place was meant to be shared with all people of the world, a place to uplift all of humanity, through compassion and the pure aloha that the host culture has given us.”

Tucked on the hillside, in the shade of monkeypod and mango trees, underneath a tangle of branches and dislodged by tree roots and sticky fingers, sat 88 miniature shrines.
 
The name, Lawai, translates to “forgiving waters.”
 
Lynn tells the story of Lawai with a quiet, melodic voice. The air around her resonates with something as graceful and easy as a peaceful Sunday afternoon. She says, “This area was actually a pu’uhonua--place of sanctuary and safety. Hawaiians journeyed here from around the island for healing. The area was very sacred. Queen Emma had her summer home at the mouth of the Lawai Stream, and she would bathe in sacred ponds up in the mountains.”
 
In the 19th century, Hawaiians made room for Asian immigrants as they journeyed to Hawaii to work in pineapple canneries and sugar fields. The heiau was joined by Taoist and Shinto temples. In the early 20th century, lay priests from Japan built 88 Shingon shrines to replicate a thousand mile walk that is over a thousand years old. Today, the 88 shrines situated on a humble hillside in rural Lawai is one of oldest Buddhist temple sites in U.S.

“One woman named Grandma Nonaka came here every month for over 60 years. Before her sons went off to World War II and the Korean War, she went to each one of the little shrines and took a pinch of the soil and put it in a Bull Durham tobacco pouch and pinned it onto her sons. She told them that when they returned safely, they were to return this pouch of soil to the land. And, so, they did. Each and every one of them. Five sons. The tradition continues. Pouches of soil have gone to Iraq and back many of times.”
 
For almost 50 years, people traveled to Lawai from all points of the island. They came to walk the path connecting the 88 shrines. They came for healing. They came to offer prayers. In the late 1960s, however, the Lawai Cannery closed, people moved away, and “that’s how this became a forgotten place and soon the little weeds became trees and was totally overgrown.”

Forgotten, that is, until 1990, when Lynn stopped by for an afternoon. She pours jasmine green tea for us on our visit. “Come close,” she says, “Because of my natural speaking voice.” We lean in, eager to hear.
 
“We took chainsaws and hand-cleared the land. Gave it more breath. More light. The energy of this place totally changed,” she says as the sound of birds singing in the background mix with the faint sound of tires on the nearby highway’s pavement.

Soon after, the property went on the market. Asking price: $6 million.
 
Lynn didn’t have $6 million dollars. But she kept working and acting as if she did. She formed a non-profit organization. Volunteers appeared. Boy Scouts Troop #83. A retired Grove Farm executive. A local librarian. They weeded. They repaired. They dusted shrines, using five different types of brushes, requiring five hours. “They do this, because they want to serve the community and the world,” Lynn says. “This project is way beyond shrines.”
 
Lynn and her volunteers went to the county fair and made 28,000 malasadas, the largest malasada booth in the fair’s history. They went to Waimea Town Celebration and made 78,000 plates of stew and rice. “Grandma made mango seeds. She picked her own mangoes, dried them in the Hanapepe sun and cooked them on an open fire. We sold those at $5 a bag; 10,000 bags over a 15 year period.”

And, then, people outside Hawaii started to get involved.

“The path may be a Buddhist path, yet many of the board members are Christian. The first large contribution coming to the organization came from a Jewish community foundation from California.”
 
About 12 years ago, Lynn’s pro bono attorney suggested it was time to make an offer on the land. They offered $200,000, and on $250,000 for the 32 acres. But Lynn and her team of volunteers didn’t have $250,000.

Five days later, a couple from Maine came by the property. They were moved by the place that they offered a one-year $50,000 interest-free loan. “Total strangers,” says Lynn. “The other $200,000 was lent by another generous individual on this island, and so we had a mortgage.”

Soon after, Lawai International Center appeared in the in-flight magazine of the then-operational Aloha Airlines. Somehow, a couple on the mainland received a copy of the magazine, and without visiting, they called and made a $250,000 donation.

The check arrived in the mail. “Everything was handwritten, the check, the envelope. Everything. So we paid for the land.”

Hand-written. Hand-cleared. It seems appropriate. Especially when you consider the next event for the Lawai International Center is a replica of a 13th century structure—that has already been hand-carved and hand-built and named the “Hall of Compassion.” It will be shipped from Japan and erected on site at Lawai International Center in the Fall of 2011.
 
Lynn pauses in her story to ask, “Are there any questions?” A good teacher, still.
 
“It will take six master carpenters and two weeks to erect. We might be able to video stream the construction. We don’t know the cost. But we just put it out there. Like everything else.”

And we believe her.
 
“They told us 21 years ago that this was a “no can” project. They told us that dreams are not possible. And, today, you are here. You are living the dream.”


Lawai International Center is open the second and last Sunday of every month from 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m., or by appointment.

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