Note: The original publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Membership and Outreach Committee of the Buddhist Churches of America and is also available at www.americanbuddhist.org
By Kenneth K. Tanaka
“Given the continuing importance of immigration, I think that American Buddhists, both immigrants and converts, might do well to pay more attention to the progress of older groups like the Buddhist Churches of America, in which tensions between tradition and innovation, sectarianism and universalism, Anglicization and language maintenance, and ethnic identity and Americanization have played themselves out over many generations.”
Richard H. Seager, Buddhism in America (1)
The tension between Buddhism (religion) and ethnicity (JapaneseAmerican culturalsocial center) characterizes the nature of Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) and its temples from the beginning of its history and continues to do so today. In my view, any discussion about outreach that does not address the role of ethnicity would be virtually meaningless. Yet ethnicity, when it becomes the source of prejudice, is rarely discussed because it is sensitive and deeply personal, particularly in a religious institution. People may discuss it on a “sociological” or “historical” level, but not on a personal level to ask oneself, for example, “How do I feel if more non-Japanese people came in and the temple no longer became a place to enjoy Japanese food?”
Given the importance that I believe for addressing this issue from a personal perspective, permit me to begin with a very personal account of my encounter that demonstrated the depth of my own “attachment” to ethnicity.
Personal Experience of Temple as Cultural and Social Center
On the one hand, the issues that confront the BCA now seem somewhat distant as I write this in Tokyo, situated at least 5,000 miles on the other side of the Pacific and some 5 years after making the move to Japan to accept a university faculty position. Yet on the other hand, my very upbringing as well as my current profession cannot be divorced from the BCA. It was the Mountain View Buddhist Temple that provided the initial environment that nurtured me spiritually and socially through its Sunday school system, Young Buddhist Association (YBA) activities, and adult study classes. Then, it was the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) where I received my initial formal education that enabled me to make Buddhism my profession as minister and scholar. IBS also provided my first full-time employment for 11 years as a member of its faculty. Also, it was at the Southern Alameda Buddhist Temple where I was given an opportunity to experience the life of a resident minister for 3 years with its joys as well as the frustrations of working directly with people in a local temple setting. Simply put, BCA will always be my “spiritual home.”
Before I found myself going to the Mountain View Buddhist Temple at the age of 13, I was a Christian of sorts. I was attending a Seventh-Day Adventist Church encouraged by its JapaneseAmerican pastor who lived next door to us. He saw that our family was “unchurched,” as we had arrived 2 years earlier from Japan. I appreciated the kindness of this pastor and the members at this predominately JapaneseAmerican congregation. However, I did not feel culturally at home, for the Christian view of history and its doctrine seemed rather foreign and hard to accept. For example, it taught that people lived for 800 years in the “golden age” in the ancient past but that we now live far shorter lives due to our sinful existence. Also, no satisfactory answer could be found to the question, “Why did an all-loving God create a world in which there was so much suffering in the forms of wars, famine, social unrest, domestic disharmony, personal struggles, etc.” (This was the perennial dilemma within Christian doctrine, called “theodicy”, which I would learn years later.)
However, what broke the straw for me to leave the church was the portrait of Jesus that hung in the church hall. He was white, blonde, and blue-eyed! What troubled me was not that Jesus, a Jew, had blonde hair and blue eyes, for I was not sophisticated enough then to know the obvious discrepancy. Instead, what I found unsettling was the fact that he was not of the same race as me. I hesitate to talk about this for fear of being misunderstood as being racially prejudiced or racist. My reaction was not due to the fact that I disliked white people, for my Caucasian teachers and classmates at school had welcomed me with open arms to this country, and I was immensely grateful. Rather, perhaps I was still adjusting to a new country after having grown up in Japan until the age of 10. America was still a foreign country to me, despite the fact that my family had lived in Hawaii for close to 40 years after my great-grandfather had immigrated there around 1898.
We then moved to a “better part” of town, where our next-door Japanese American neighbor belonged to the Mountain View Buddhist Church. By then, our move and my personal feelings had made me grow distant from the Christian church, thus, making it easier for my two younger brothers and me to attend Sunday school at the Buddhist church at the strong urging of our new neighbor, Mrs. Murakami. From my first visit there, I felt an affinity and a sense of belonging. Everyone there was JapaneseAmerican, a situation that was no different from the Christian church, but I felt very comfortable with the environment, which included the smell of incense, the bowing, gassho, and especially the religious iconography that was familiar. There was a statue of Amida Buddha and the two paintings on his sides were of Shinran Shonin and Rennyo Shonin who looked and were Japanese (2)!
This is the first time that I mention these sentiments publicly, partly because discussing such matters is rarely encouraged, for they can easily be construed as being overly sensitive or, even worse, racist in nature. However, I would think that many members of the BCA might share similar feelings and sentiments and could identify with my experience. Hence, I don’t think I am an exception in this regard. For many BCA members, their sense of ethnicity, even at an unconscious level, has been deeply affected by World War II and the camp experience for themselves or their families.
I present this context in order to help the readers to understand and to become more sensitive to the extent to which the racial/ethnic dimension plays a pivotal role in the outlook and psyche of many of the BCA members. Having discussed this context, I am in no way affirming or justifying these sentiments as being Buddhistic, but simply describing the reality for purposes of better understanding the conditions that have created and will continue to create the “challenges” in any effort to pursue outreach.
The Strong Ethnic Character of BCA Throughout Its History
We need to understand the historical environment of the Meiji period (18681912) in Japan to better appreciate the nature of the first missionaries in 1899, Dr. Shuye Sonoda and Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima, as well as the approximately 400 who would follow them. They and others who followed them have been referred to as kaikyo-shi (emissaries who open up the teachings). However, in the history of Japanese Buddhist overseas activities of the Meiji Period, which included activities in Korea, China, and other parts of Asia, another term was used, that of tsuikyo (following the teaching in existing Japanese Buddhist communities).
In the case of the BCA, the first missionaries were the result of the Hongwanji following up on the active request from the existing community in San Francisco, whose members were already committed to Jodo-Shinshu and were all Japanese! In this light, then, it would be more accurate to perceive the BCA missionaries as tsuikyo-shi (emmisaries who followed the teaching in an existing Japanese Buddhist community) rather than kaikyo-shi (who opened up the teachings to new groups).
This difference is important to keep in mind as we attempt to understand the nature of BCA temples, for it has consequences for the way a minister relates to the communities beyond the temple to which he is assigned. When a temple minister attempts actively to “open up the teachings” beyond the existing membership, he/she often encounters resistanceas well as subtle and overtamong some members. This resistance is rooted in those who see the temple as a center of an ethnic community.
The pressures on the BCA ministers from opening up the teachings beyond the JapaneseAmerican population were nothing new, although for slightly different reasons and because of a separate group of people. I had met with the Rev. Julius Goldwater (who served in the Los Angeles Betsuin around World War II) a few years before his death and had learned of an unwritten rule that had been spearheaded by the Japanese government to strongly discourage ministers from Japan from propagating to “Americans”, meaning non-Japanese. This attitude is consistent with the view that was expressed by the Japanese Consul, who a few years before the arrival of the first BCA ministers in 1899, expressed his unhappiness about bringing Buddhism to America. He feared that bringing a “foreign” religion would jeopardize the peaceful relationship between the two countries.
The trials and tribulations that beset the BCA (or then, Buddhist Mission of North America), stemming from a racially hostile environment throughout the first half of the 20th century up to the end of World War II, are well documented in the writings by Prof. Tetsuden Kashima (3). Also, I have addressed this issue in an article (4). Readers are encouraged to refer to these writings for details.
However, I would like to cite a couple of concrete examples of the effect of racial hostility on the strongly ethnic nature of BCA. In the early years of the 1920s, some, many of whom were politicians, asserted that the BCA temples where actually Shinto institutions that comprised “emperor worshippers.” Bishop Koyu Uchida responded by denying any such affiliation and emphasizing the democratic ideals of Buddhism, and he called upon the local temples to refer to themselves as “churches” to blunt the appearance of being too foreign. Hence, this period led to many BCA institutions being referred to as “churches” from the 1920s to the 1960s (in the 1960s and 1970s a sizable number switched to “temple,” inspired in part to the ethnic identity movement of the period).
The 1924 Alien Land Laws and the Oriental Exclusion Act proved to be a windfall for the Buddhist temples. Many isseis interpreted the law as extremely unjust. As a result many of them, including those who were “fence-sitters”, became members of the Buddhist temples. The Buddhist temples came to be perceived as bastions of Japanese culture and refuges from the storms of a hostile society. This is reflected in an observation made during that period about the Gardena Buddhist Church:
After the passage of the Immigration Law in 1924 discriminating against the Japanese, the number of Buddhists increased rapidly, and so did that of the Buddhist Churches. Before that event, some of them had been hesitant in declaring themselves Buddhists, considering such an act impudent in a Christian country. But the immigration law made them more defiant and bold in asserting what they believed to be their rights; it made them realize the necessity of cooperation for the sake of their own security and welfare, and naturally they sought centers of their communal activity in their Buddhist churches. (5)
This observation, I believe, demonstrates the inextricable connection between ethnicity (as a result of racism) and the Buddhist temples. The same can be said of the name Buddhist Churches of America, for the organization was so named at a meeting in July of 1944 in Salt Lake City at the Topaz relocation camp, one of the camps that interned 110,000 JapaneseAmericans during the war.
Jodo Shinshu Buddhism Within the Larger American Buddhist Development: Some Reasons To Be Proud of Our Accomplishments
I would now like to shift our timeframe (from the past to the present) and our scope (from one Buddhist sect to the overall Buddhist development in the United States) as a way of to better understand the Buddhist scene in this country that has grown dramatically in the number of Buddhists but also of schools. If the Topaz meeting were held today, this organization could never have “monopolized” Buddhism with a name like, The Buddhist Churches of America!
It is estimated that today approximately 3 to 6 million Buddhists live in America, which makes Buddhism larger than some of the mainline Protestant denominations and perhaps even Judaism. Buddhists include such high-profile people as Richard Gere (actor), Tina Turner (singer), Gary Snyder (poet), and Steve Yauch (lead singer of the Beastie Boys). Also, there are Buddhist “sympathizers” such as Jerry Brown (politician), Martin Scorsese (movie director), and Phil Jackson (basketball coach). Buddhism is, thus, no longer a foreign Asian religion but a far more familiar “American” religion than when most of us were growing up.
Buddhism has actually been around in America since as early as 1844, when Henry David Thoreau translated a portion of the Lotus Sutra from French into English. Others, such as the Theosophists and Paul Carus, followed to promote Buddhism in the second half of the 19th century such that a small but devoted number of intellectuals came to regard Buddhism as a viable religious alternative due to its compatibility with science (unlike Christianity) and the affirmation of the American individual spirit. However, the excitement for Buddhism “lost steam” by the 1920s, as it failed to meet two of the qualities sought by Americans: spiritual optimism and social activism.
The Buddhists discussed so far belong to the category that the specialists refer to as “import or elite,” comprising primarily EuroAmerican Buddhists and distinguished from “baggage or ethnic” AsianAmerican Buddhists whose origins are found in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia. Today 2 million of the 3 million (I personally think this is closer to reality than 6 million) Buddhists in America are AsianAmerican. A controversy swirled up several years ago when a prominent EuroAmerican Buddhist stated that “AsianAmerican Buddhists … so far … have not figured prominently in the development of something called AmericanBuddhism” (6). Such an opinion reflects the view that AsianAmerican Buddhism is “Buddhism in America” as opposed to “American Buddhism” of the EuroAmericans.
As a key segment of the AsianAmerican group, Shin Buddhists should take this appraisal as an opportunity to self-evaluate our past accomplishments, of which there are plenty to be proud of, while envisioning our future. Often we become overly critical of ourselves despite the many reasons to be proud of our accomplishments. Richard Seager writes:
Despite the challenges the BCA currently faces, it has the most substantial Buddhist track record of any large group in this country. What then are some of the accomplishments? Let me cite three of them. First of all, Shin Buddhism is by far the largest among the Japanese schools, and it turns out that Japanese Buddhists in America are the only Buddhist group to continue and even prosper through the period from the 1920s through the 1950s. Yes, Chinese were the first Buddhists to set up temples in America as early as 1853. However, virtually all of the Chinese temples were abandoned in the 1930s and 1940s on account of the cessation of immigration after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the subsequent population decline and disinterest among the younger generation. The current strong Chinese presence, symbolized by the magnificent compound of Hsi-lai Temple in Southern California, is a post-1960s phenomenon fostered by the revival of Buddhism in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and the dramatic increase in immigration from those countries. Hence, Shin Buddhists should be proud of playing a major role in keeping the torch of Dharma lit continuously for over 100 years on the American soil, especially during the middle-third of the 20th century. (7)
Second, Shin Buddhism has been “Buddhism of the family.” At least three generations of children have been educated in the English language through its Dharma School (formerly, Sunday School), YBA, and various scouting programs. It is not surprising, therefore, that many families (mostly EuroAmericans) from a Tibetan school centered in Boulder, Colorado, have elected to participate in the Sunday services and programs at the Denver Buddhist Templea Shin temple. I am told that it is the family atmosphere and the educational programs for children that they find extremely attractive, which lure them beyond their own organization. This example is indicative of the rich resources (of materials, experience, and environment) that are part of the Shin Buddhist heritage in America. Perhaps, this know-how and materials resources can be actively shared with the new Buddhist groups, particularly the recent arrivals from Asia who are starting out in this country.
The third of the accomplishments, I believe, is that Shin Buddhism is much more of an “American Buddhism” than “Buddhism in America.” This distinction is apparent when we compare ourselves with our Shin Buddhist counterparts in Japan. For example, they do not hold Sunday weekly services, their young adults hardly get married in their temples, they rarely include scouting programs as part of their temple programs, and most do not consciously regard the teachings as guiding their day-to-day lives. In most American Shin temples, most of the services are now held in English, and the number of services conducted in Japanese has decreased dramatically. Further, Shin Buddhists have been engaged in the training of two generations of ministers in the seminary programs at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in California. Approximately half of the ministers are Americans, which include a growing number of Americans of non-Japanese ancestry. The Institute of Buddhist Studies was the first seminary to be authorized for the training of military chaplains for the U.S. armed forces. Despite the pros and cons concerning this development, it nevertheless symbolizes the extent of its Americanization reflecting its qualities as “American Buddhism.”
Meeting the Challenges To Broaden the Shinshu Appeal
We have looked at some of the strengths of BCA, so I would like to focus on some of the areas for improvement if Shin Buddhism is to hold a more viable future as an American religious tradition. To do so, let us go over the characteristics of many of the American Buddhist schools, particularly of Zen, Tibetan, Insight Meditation, and Sokagakkai, which show the largest number of convert Buddhists.
To some degree, they have demonstrated three characteristics that contributed to their growth: 1) accessible practice, 2) social engagement, and 3) active outreachthe very qualities that are virtually absent in the Shin Buddhist communities. I certainly do not advocate that we make changes just to grow in size or to be more American. However, given the sense of crisis that many within the Shin institutions are recognizing and the declining membership, it behooves us to take note of the reasons for growth among other Buddhist groups. No institution can afford to stay static, particularly one that espouses “impermanence” as one of its cardinal teachings.
Practice, mostly in the form of sitting meditation, is the single most reason for the appeal of Buddhism in America, underscored by an article in Time, which reported that approximately 10 million Americans meditate on a daily basis. For many that turn to Buddhism, they normally ask each other, “What is your practice?” not “What is your belief?” They are attracted by Buddhist teachings that value personal spiritual experience over doctrinal claims and offer positive perceived changes in their present lives over promises of a better life after death. Among the four schools, Sokaggakai is distinct from others as it promotes chanting of Namu-myoho-renge-kyo rather than meditation; nevertheless, it constitutes a form of practice, with similar results.
Rather, Shin Buddhism has made the “absence of practice” the hallmark of its self-identity and has rejected any form of practice. However, we need to define what we mean by “practice.” In my view, practice has two meanings: One is to change one’s nature in order to eradicate greed, hatred, and delusion or to cultivate oneself with the understanding that one’s practice itself would be the direct cause of one’s unity with the ultimate law. The second meaning of practice, however, does not call for such radical change in nature or an intentional effort but fosters self-reflection, trust, and new awareness about oneself and the world. Shinran rejected the first type, pejoratively calling it “self-power.”
I believe that we need to promote the second type of practice, which I like to refer to as “self-effort” rather than “self-power.” Self-effort can take the form that Dr. Taitetsu Unno has proposed, which he calls “interior practice”: 1) hearing, 2) reflecting, 3) applying, and 4) hearing and awakening. Within this process, for those who need self-effort, I propose that we adopt the Six Perfection (Paramita) at the levels of reflecting and applying it as a supplement to the central Shinshu teachings centered on the Primal Vow. Again, these practices are not mandatory but are offered to those who want some practice.
Especially noteworthy is Seiza (quiet sitting), which I have adapted as a meditation (one of the Six Perfections) for Shin Buddhists. I have found Seiza effective in meeting my need for calm and quiet in the course of a busy and hectic schedule. I simply sit in a chair with my back straight, arms resting on my lap, and my eyes closed. I inhale through my nose and then exhale through my mouth until my abdomen caves in as air escapes. I repeat this at a natural pace of my bodily rhythm. When I breathe in, I think of the many people and current interests that fulfill and give meaning to my life. My very existence is the result of all that I receive from the outside. They are the “power through others,” which is one way of appreciating the meaning of Other Power or Amida’s Vow. When I breathe out, I repeatedly recite Namu Amida Butsu quietly or silently. And in repeating Namu Amida Butsu (Nembutsu), I am not only able to express my appreciation in the most profound way possible as a Shin Buddhist but also to keep alive the presence of the Nembutsu in the course of my everyday life. This Seiza can take place wherever you feel comfortable: outdoors, at the office, in your kitchen, in a bus, or before your home shrine.
As for the second trait, social engagement, I have argued elsewhere in my promotion of Shinran’s teaching of jogyo-daihi (constantly practicing great compassion) as a basis for engagement in the world. However, the Shin teachings present many instances that underscore engagement in the world as inherent and central to Shin spirituality, for example, ho’on-kansha (repaying the gratitude for the caring received) and jishin-kyoninshin (realizing Shinjin for oneself and sharing Shinjin with others). Of course, such efforts cannot be forced or contrived, for they emerge spontaneously from one’s spiritual awakening.
Among the numerous examples of social engagement by Shin Buddhists is Lady Kujo Takeko (18871928), the daughter of the 21st Abbot of Hongwanji. She dedicated much of her short life (42 years) to helping women in the temples to have greater voice and carrying out relief work in the aftermath of the devastating 1923 Tokyo earthquake. Individuals such as Ms. Kujo are not emphasized enough as models for Shin social involvement. We must unearth the hidden resources within our tradition so that social involvement is not just simply tossed aside as a case of ego-gratification but as a natural outcome of Shin Buddhist spirituality. Yet, we need to be mindful that this does not become a requirement or the standard by which we judge each other. Individuals will have to express their realization of their interconnectedness in their own distinct way.
The third characteristic, that of outreach, requires that each temple makes the Dharma the “center pole” that holds up the “big tent,” which includes varied and disparate groups and interests. This commitment to the Dharma should be integrated into the mission for the temple. I believe that the time has now come for the temples to draft a “vision statement.” My experience has shown that all temples have their by-laws but that most temples lack a vision statement, hence, no strong mandate for collective and unified efforts for outreach. I do not think that we are calling for any drastic changes to what is already being done, usually by a small segment of any given temple. Because this outreach is inextricably related to membership and the future of the temple, all segments from the board and minister down to average members need to agree and do their share.
Ethnicity in Its Various Dimensions
In drafting its mission statement, most temples will have to face up to the perennial tension between Dharma (which is universal in its nature) and ethnicity (which is potentially limiting). However, ethnicity in its entirety does not detract from the Dharma but can, in fact, strengthen it. It is, therefore, necessary that we distinguish the various facets of ethnicity.
First, “ethnicity as race” rests on the need to associate with members of the same race (i.e., JapaneseAmericans) and the desire to limit the temple membership to that group. This perspective clearly conflicts with the Buddhist teaching that rests on non-discrimination. As a member of a racial minority group, I fully understand the need for a “social oasis” where we can be ourselves with those who look like us and often have similar societal values. However, if we affirm this need as legitimate in a temple centered on Dharma, we are not evolving spiritually but are instead stagnating. We are resting on tribal sentiments and not on the Dharma, which transcends tribalism. Having been born into this human life, which Dharma tells us is a miracle in itself, would it not be to our spiritual interest to realize a “deeper” level of ourselves by confronting our anxieties and prejudices and, thereby, seeing ourselves for who we are, bombu (foolish beings). If we can self-reflect in this way, we can turn our weakness into an opportunity for deepening our appreciation of the Nembutsu and the Primal Vow, which is meant specifically for persons such as myself. Wouldn’t it be a reason for celebrating if we can create a temple where we can engage persons of any ethnicity like members of our own family, which after all, is what a true Sangha should be.
The second kind of ethnicity, that is, “ethnicity as culture,” can be categorized into three sub-types: 1) religiously related, 2) culture-specific, and 3) general American. First, the religiously related includes oshoko (offering incense), offering to the Buddha (e.g., rice), and onaijin (shrine/altar and related paraphernalia). Second, culture-specific includes food (e.g., chicken teriyaki), language learning (e.g., Japanese school), martial arts (e.g., judo), arts (e.g., flower arrangement), crafts (e.g., doll-making), music (e.g., Taiko drumming, karaoke). Third, general American culture refers to basketball/sports, scouting, and bingo. Unlike the previous “ethnicity as race”, these cultural expressions are not intrinsically limiting, for persons of any race can participate and partake in them. With the right guidance and leadership, all of these expressions can foster the Dharma or lead people to the Dharma. What is then required is a greater commitment of effort and resources (an active participation of the minister is indispensable) to coordinate for those who gravitate to the temple the connection between these cultural activities and the activities of the Dharma. This is no easy task, and it would be best to focus on certain groups, for example the basketball group or the Taiko drumming, which tend to draw larger numbers of young families.
Pay Your Ministers Better!
Among all the people at the temple, you still a need the strong, dedicated leadership of a minister. Provide them with better wages and decent retirement plans, not only when they reach middle-age when they appear to be paid more “decently” but from the very outset of their profession.
This investment will prevent many of the problems associated with not having enough ministers with the necessary drive, energy, dedication, and smarts. It’s really very simple! The challenge is whether the members deem the temple and the Dharma worthy enough to open their purses to a higher level of monetary contribution.
Further Thoughts on Outreach and Propagation for BCA Temples
Let us resume our discussion of the role of culture. We must recognize that these cultural expressions will not be eliminated any time soon, nor am I advocating that they should be. So, those new to the temples that wish to participate in the Shin temples must be willing to learn and participate. They should not and cannot come in with the arrogant attitude of making things “American,” for, after all, America is a conglomeration of a multitude of cultures. There is no one “pure” American culture! Having said so, my experience has been that only those non-Japanese who enjoy the cultural dimensions of the temple have stayed on and have made the commitment to be part of the community.
So far, I have focused on those who already have made the effort to come to the temple, but other efforts need to be directed toward informing the larger community about the temple. I have found that local newspapers are quite eager to cover activities at the temple, thereby providing free publicity! Sunday papers are full of churches advertising their service hours, but rarely have I seen Shin temples participating in them. The numerous other ways cannot all be mentioned here. As with many other good ideas, they are as good as there are people to implement them. I think that if this is important for the temple, its members should be willing to hire specialist for this purpose. The same goes for music coordinators, youth coordinators, and service coordinators, as are found in some Christian churches.
Ultimately, what will enable the temples to thrive are the people of the Sangha whose lives have been uplifted by the Nembutsu teaching. They need to be rooted in and touched by the Dharma/Nembutsu and, as the colloquial expression goes, “by having fun” and “enjoying each other’s company!”
This effort requires more “debriefing” after temple activities to discuss matters in reference to Dharma and one’s spiritual growth. If “debriefing” is an inappropriate or an uncomfortable a term, perhaps “reflection” is better. Reflection refers to members getting together to discuss temple activities (for example, the summer bazaar or basketball game or board meeting) for purposes of relating them to one’s personal and spiritual growth (for example, questioning motivation for “helping out” the church when I felt unappreciated because no one acknowledged my contribution). This is, again, no easy task given the nature of our priorities and mutual relationships, but it can be started in a limited way, perhaps focusing on one or two activities a year. Temple leaders (both ministers and laypersons) need to make it a top priority.
With the enormous growth of Buddhism as a whole in America in the last third of the 20th century, this trend will likely continue. Although Shin Buddhism has not shown any increase in numbers, it can build on the legacy of having the longest uninterrupted presence on the American soil to accomplish some of the endeavors that I have suggested above, which is why I began with a quotation from Prof. Richard Seager’s book.
However, even more than the BCA “track record” from the past, the Nembutsu teaching must serve as the source of any outreach. I began this essay with a disclosure about my own ethnic and racial bias, which, too, needs to be made the “fodder” or opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. If I were to use the BCA temple merely as an ethnic social and cultural oasis, then I would not be walking the Nembutsu path. I might be comfortable, but I would not grow spiritually.
As a Shin Buddhist, one’s utmost priority should lie on following the Nembutsu. So, I would need to face up to my own prejudices and fears by acknowledging them within me. Although I might not be able to eliminate or even reduce my prejudices, my attempt to confront my biases is a step in the right direction. Doing so casts glimmers of the world of “infinite light and infinite life,” wherein the sense of deep bond that we have for people of any race and ethnicity (as well as all the flora and fauna) is experienced. The true joy and satisfaction of relating to people of any race eclipses by far any feeling of fragile security that arises from associating with a community limited to members of one’s own ethnicity.
With this realization, we come closer to appreciating the kind of spiritual joy and wholeness that I believe Shinran experienced. This realization is reflected in these inspiring, famous words that express his move away from narrow, “tribal” attachments toward a more open and universal vision of life and the world, which speaks to the heart of Nembutsu:
As for me, Shinran, I have never said the Nembutsu even once for the repose of my departed father and mother. For all sentient beings have been my fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, in the course of countless lives in the many states of existence.
1. Richard H. Seager. Buddhism in America. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 248.
2. I should add here that all was not well at the Buddhist temple, for some of my Sunday school classmates teased me, called me “FOB” (“fresh off the boat”, a pejorative term for immigrants). A tightly knit JapaneseAmerican community had existed for decades, and we were not “locals” like them. Despite this, something kept me going to the temple, and these very classmates who called me names would become the best of friends.
3. See for example his articles in Pacific World: The Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, as well as his book, Buddhism in America: The Social Organization of an Ethnic Religious Organization. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.
4. Williams, Duncan Ryukan and Queen, Christopher S. (Eds.). American Buddhism. London, UK: Curzon Press, 1999.
5. Ogura, Kosei. “A Sociological Study of the Buddhist Churches in North America, with a Case Study of Gardena, California Congregation,” Master’s Thesis. University of Southern California, 1932, pp. 8586.
6. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 1, no. 2, winter 1991, 4. (Ryo Imamura responded sent a rebuttal, and the controversy intensified when the rebuttal was not printed.)
7. Richard H. Seager, Buddhism in America. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 248.
Next article: Lay Outreach and the Meaning of “Evil Person,” by Taitetsu Unno
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