Ernest Hunt was born in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, England, on the 16th of August, in 1878.
It’s said he encountered Buddhism in Asia as a merchant marine. It is said that he was preparing for ordination as an Anglican priest when he decided his heart led him to formally convert to Buddhism. One version I heard had him making the decision on the eve of his scheduled ordination. That seems unlikely, but I do like the sense of conflict and his trying to find a right path within his own life.
In 1915 Ernest and his wife Dorothy (ne Poulton) decided to move to Hawaii, which they considered still a part of the West, but where Buddhism had a significant place within the culture. In Hawaii he took a job at a sugar plantation.
Ernest was an avid student of the Buddha dharma and eventually received a degree from the Burma Buddhist Mission. Dorothy was also deeply investigating the great matter. Sadly, the sexism of the era and the lack of documentation readily available online leaves her more a shade than a fully rounded figure. In truth today Ernest is only a bit better known.
Beginning in the 1920’s Ernest and Dorothy began teaching Buddhist religious education classes, mostly for the children of Japanese workers on the plantation. Within a few years nearly 13,000 children were registered in the various programs they’d established within the Honpa Hongwanji.
In 1924 Ernest and Dorothy were both ordained priests within the Shin tradition. The Honpa represent the largest of the Pure Land schools in Japan. Their continental North American branch would organize as the Buddhist Churches of America. Although as with most other Japanese sects, the Hawaiian organizations and the continental organizations would have separate institutions.
In 1926 Bishop Yemyo Imamura appointed Reverend Hunt as head of the English-language department. The initial plan was to reach out to Japanese descent people. Quickly the Hunts began to reach out to people of European descent, as well.
The Reverends Hunt began to compose various hymns and other documents. Shinkaku, his ordination name, first translated a book of ceremonies, and from there wrote various pamphlets on doctrine and other aspects of Buddhist teaching. This included a catechism for the Sunday school program. Among the notable features was how universalist his message was, usually not even mentioning the Shin school’s founder Shinran Shonen.
He was a founder with the equally remarkable Robert Stuart Clifton, best known as the Venerable Sumangalo, of a Western Buddhist Order, (not to be confused with the later organization the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order). By 1928 it had approximately sixty members, all converts. Reverend Shinkaku saw the order as non-sectarian. The next year he aligned this ecumenical Buddhist work with that of a Chinese missionary, the Venerable Tai Hsu. Reverend Hunt’s vision was focused on metta as a path of compassion and love.
Ernest Hunt’s pamphlet, An Outline of Buddhism: The Religion of Wisdom and Compassion would be reprinted numerous times. He wrote extensively. As well as editing four volumes of the Hawaiian Buddhist Annual and the institute’s magazine, Navayana, were all part of a prodigious effort to reach out to the European-descent community.
He, his spouse Dorothy, and A. Raymond Zorn collaborated in composing a number of hymns, many of which continue to be used within the larger Shin Buddhist community. They also survive in the Sutras and Gathas published by the Hawaii Soto Zen Mission. And opening the service book of the Long Brach Buddhist Church (an independent non-denominational Buddhist community not aligned with the Buddhist Churches in America) shows a number of these hymns, as well. These hymns are interesting for a number of reasons, not least their Christian and often what I’d have to characterize as theosophical echoes.
One commentator observed that his Buddhism was more traditional Theravada. “His was a Buddhist humanism in which Shakyamuni was a wise teacher but not a god, and the Dharma was about love, charity, kindness, respect, service, gratitude, and poise.” Writing from a contemporary perspective, I’d say it was more “modernist,” and looking at the hymns particularly, I’d add in “theosophical” or maybe “New Age.” Digging a bit I found he in fact wrote a number of articles for the Occult Review. The titles for these articles suggest more than a passing interest in subjects ranging from hypnotism to spiritualism, as well as New Thought in general.
Sadly Bishop Imamura died in 1932. And his successor, Bishop Kuchiba Gikyo wanted a purer commitment to the Pure Land. And the Hunt’s broader, even universalist Buddhism seemed well off that mark. In 1935 Reverend Hunt’s project was disbanded by the new bishop.
With this the Hunts moved to the Soto community. Which at least in that moment was more receptive to their broad and ecumenical Buddhism. I also suspect their success in establishing religious education programming outweighed their light commitment to the finer nuances of Soto Zen.
In 1953 Shinkaku was ordained Osho by the Venerable Zenkyo Komagata, Sotoshu sokan, or bishop for Hawaii. With this Ernest Shinkaku Hunt became the first person of European descent to be ordained a full priest within the Soto school.
As I mentioned above, Dorothy and Ernest Hunt have mostly been lost to history. Which is too bad. They’re both significant figures in the formation of convert Buddhism in the West.
Dorothy, for instance, composed a gatha, the Golden Chain. Slightly adapted over the years it goes:
I am a link in Amida Buddha’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world. In gratitude may I keep my link bright and strong.
I will try to be kind and gentle to every living thing and protect all who are weaker than myself.
I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts to say pure and beautiful words, and to do pure and beautiful deeds.
May every link in Amida Buddha’s golden chain of love be bright and strong and may we all attain perfect peace.
We thank the Buddha for showing us the way of freedom.
We will endeavor to walk in his noble path, everyday of our lives.
My google searches revealed a little about Ernest but less about Dorothy. While I’ve found a couple of pictures of Ernest, I was unable to find one of her. I did, however, stumble on an obituary for their daughter, Dorothy Poulton Hunt Gillis who died in 2016 at the age of ninety-seven.
For fifty years she, the younger Dorothy, led the Island Paradise Academy in Kaimuki. The obituary notes that the school was founded by her mother who led it from the 1030s until her retirement in the 1060s. Basically, that’s it.
The Golden Chain appears to be the one Dorothy’s many poems set to music that has continued on to this day. The Golden Chain is a beloved verse within North American Shin or Pure Land Buddhist communities, especially those associated with the Buddhist Churches of America. Whole generations of BCA members know this verse by heart.
Ernest Shinkaku Hunt died in Honolulu in 1968. He was 90 years old.
Dorothy, who was born in 1886, died at 97 in 1983.
However, the Golden Chain continues…