Hunt, Ernest (1878–1967)
Ernest Hunt, founder of the Western Buddhist Order and
a leading figure in the introduction of Buddhism to non-Asian
Americans, was born August 16, 1878, in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire,
England. He went to sea as a young man, but returned
home and studied for the Anglican priesthood. As he
was making preparation for his ordination, he converted to
Buddhism. In 1915 he moved with his wife, Dorothy, to Hawaii
(where Buddhism had its strongest presence in the West) and
worked on a plantation. In the early 1920s he moved to the big
island and began teaching classes in English for the children
of Japanese plantation workers. His work was recognized in
1924 when he was ordained by the Honpa Hongwanji, the largest
of the Buddhist groups operating in Hawaii.
In 1926, Hunt, in cooperation with the Bishop Yemyo Imamura,
became head of the Honpa Hongwanji’s Englishlanguage
department. The school was originally established to
serve Japanese youth, many of whom had begun to drop the
Japanese language, but Hunt also used it to reach out to the
Caucasian population and teach Buddhism. He wrote a book
of Buddhist ceremonies in English, and Dorothy Hunt composed
a number of poems that were adapted as hymns. By 1928
some 60 converts formed the Western Buddhist Order, a nonsectarian
branch of Buddhism attached to the Honpa Hongwanji.
Hunt’s ideal of a nonsectarian Buddhism found an ally in
1929 in the International Buddhist Institute founded by Chinese
Buddhist abbot Tai Hsu. Tai Hsu came to Hawaii and convinced
Hunt to found a branch of the institute. Hunt saw it as
a perfect means of spreading his notion that the surest way to
Nirvana was through metta, active goodwill. He was able to
bring Buddhists of all persuasions together in the institute and
set them to doing good deeds, from visiting the sick and imprisoned
to building schools.
The late 1920s proved the period of Hunt’s prime literary
production, beginning with his often-reprinted pamphlet, An
Outline of Buddhism The Religion of Wisdom and Compassion. He
edited four volumes of the Hawaiian Buddhist Annual as well as
the institute’s magazine, Navayana. All came to an end, however,
in 1932 with the death of Bishop Imamura. His successor
was both a strong sectarian Buddhist and a Japanese nationalist.
He rejected Hunt’s approach and in 1935 removed Hunt
from the Honpa Hongwanji and disbanded the English department.
Hunt moved his membership to the Soto Temple, a
branch of the Japanese Zen Buddhist movement, and continued
much as before. He was eventually ordained as a Soto
priest (1953). He was also honored as the first Westerner to be
given the title Osho, a rank acknowledging his accomplishments.
During the 1950s, Hunt produced his last two publications,
Gleanings from Soto-Zen and Essentials and Symbols of the Buddhist
Faith. He spent much time in his last years in the Soto Temple,
where he greeted the increasing number of tourists who were
coming to the islands. He died in Honolulu on February 7,
Hunt, Ernest. Essentials and Symbols of the Buddhist Faith. Honolulu
The Author, 1955.
———. Gleanings from Soto-Zen. Honolulu The Author,
———. An Outline of Buddhism. Honolulu Hongwanji Buddhist
Temple, 1929.
Hunter, Louise. Buddhism in Hawaii. Honolulu University
of Hawaii Press, 1971.
Peiris, William. The Western Contribution to Buddhism. Delhi,
India Motilal Banarsidass, 1953.