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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 21, 2006

Peace guides school in uncharted territory

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer

Chelsea Toyama and Lori Kim work on taiko drumming at the Pacific Buddhist Academy. The course's aim is to connect students to Buddhist values. "If you want (students) to fully understand certain values, then they have to experience it and do it in action," says principal Pieper Toyama.

Pacific Buddhist Academy

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School name: Pacific Buddhist Academy

Where: 1710 Pali Highway

Phone: 532-2649

Principal: Pieper Toyama

History: Established in 2003 by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i, with Bishop Chikai Yosemori's help

Enrollment: 57

Technology: Each student is required to purchase a laptop with wireless Internet capability. The school downloads all classroom and library materials needed.

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When the first senior class from the Pacific Buddhist Academy in Nu'uanu graduates in May, they can expect two ceremonies to celebrate two achievements academic and spiritual.

"We feel commencement has to be two things. One is to recognize the traditional education end and beginning (of the college education phase)," said principal Pieper Toyama. "But it also has to represent spiritual growth, a recognition that they are leaving as more mindful and compassionate people. We're planning two parts so that both aspects can be celebrated."

The Pacific Buddhist Academy, which opened in 2003, is considered the culmination of the mission of former Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i Bishop Yemyo Imamura. In the 1920s, he envisioned a strong Buddhist school system that would prepare students for college education and also enrich the lives of students through the teaching of Buddhist values.

The school is the nation's first Buddhist-affiliated high school. Its curriculum centers on the study of peace, which is integrated into every subject, Toyama said.

For instance, when news reports indicated that North Korea had tested nuclear missiles, the school's physics teacher took a moment in class to discuss the situation and how it relates to maintaining peaceful international relationships, he said. Peace education is capped off in the senior year with a global studies course.

"All of the faculty are asked to be sensitive to the issue of peace and discuss the conditions of peace whenever appropriate," he said.

In addition to traditional college prep subjects, students also take courses in taiko, kendo and judo. The idea is to connect students to Buddhist values through experiential learning.

"If you want them to fully understand certain values, then they have to experience it and do it in action," Toyama said. "It takes something like taiko, which is based very strongly in values, to transmit the idea of interdependence and cooperation, the idea of self-discipline and the idea of impermanence and mindfulness," he said.

Much for the same reason, and in recognition of the school's connection to Japanese culture, students are required to take three years of Japanese language courses.

Most students at the academy are not practicing Buddhists, said Toyama, which helps to create an atmosphere of diversity. He believes the Buddhist values the school teaches do not conflict with the religious beliefs students may have.

"All the values make sense," he said. "There's almost nothing we ask the students to believe or do that's not somehow based in experience. So we don't talk about any doctrine that would require the student to make a leap of faith. The idea of change being constant or the need for compassion are things we can all accept."

Students are also viewed as partners in education, working cooperatively with teachers and administrators. They are also viewed as already possessing the values the school tries to foster.

"They are already in possession of all the good things; they have Buddha nature. Our job is to awaken them to that," Toyama said.

  • What you are most proud of: "I am most proud of the students," said Toyama. "I truly believe they, in their own teenage way, are beginning to understand the perspective and values that we're really trying to transmit in our mission. They are making efforts to live the mission, to do something with those values."

  • Best-kept secret: "We are the first Buddhist high school in the United States that was developed, is being administered and taught by Western educated teachers," Toyama said. "We're the first high school that is integrating Asian philosophies and values with a traditional Western model. ... It's truly uncharted territory."

  • Everybody at our school knows: Josh Morse, who acts as the school's dean of academic affairs, dean of students and athletic director. "He is the students' most enthusiastic cheerleader," Toyama said.

  • Our biggest challenge: "We're on the (Honpa Hongwanji Hawai'i Betsuin) temple grounds, so the challenge is to work with the temple to plan for future growth. We can maintain what we're doing now, but we do want to get larger. How? Where?" he said.

  • What we need: "We have two needs. One is an endowment, to ensure the school's financial security in the future," Toyama said. "An immediate need is a bus. We are in the heart of Honolulu with so much going on and if you really want to make Honolulu a part of your classroom you need a bus."

  • Special events: Toyama said the school wants to create an annual tradition of an all-school retreat, where everyone goes away for two nights together. And with the school's first senior class graduating this year, Toyama wants commencement to be a central event for the school's community.

    Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.