Hunt, Ernest (1878-1967)

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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 English-language 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 non-sectarian 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, 1967.


Hunt, Ernest. Essentials and Symbols of the Buddhist Faith. Honolulu: The Author, 1955.

. Gleanings from Soto-Zen. Honolulu: The Author, 1953.

. 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.