Growing the Sangha
By Rev. Ron Miyamura, Midwest Buddhist Temple

It is good to be back as a BCA minister. It has been almost 30 years since I was an active full time BCA minister. So I am a ‘Rip van Winkle’ of sorts. Many of the issues remain the same and many things have gotten better and some things are bigger issues. The dedication and sincerity of our members continue to inspire me.

As I look around, I am encouraged by the many non-traditional members that have come to join the BCA temples. By non-traditional members, I mean people who did not grow up in the Temples, or became members through marriage. There are the new members who have found Shin Buddhism and joined BCA temples. I just wish we could have more of the non-traditional members. When I resigned from the active ministry in 1981, there were just a few non-traditional members.

Obviously, the real growth of our Temple has to be from these non-traditional members. Additionally, it goes without saying, the future of our Temples depends on this group of new members. This is the real challenge for the next 20 years. I do not have a magic wand that I can wave to ensure our future. In recent years, we see a lot of initial interest in Buddhism, but we do not know how to transform that interest into a curiosity enough to join the Sangha.

Looking back on my education and training, all the emphasis is on the Dharma which is really necessary. However, it was not balanced with the Sangha and how to manage and nurture a Sangha; and we were not shown the value of the Sangha. Perhaps this is the result of an academic education of ministerial training.

Just in the few months that I have been trying to figure out what to do, it was pointed out to me that we sometimes just need to change the terms we use. It is a small thing, but instead of using the term, Nehan-E, we could be using the term "Nirvana Day." It makes a big difference to someone who does not understand the Japanese language or grown up in the Temple. This small example is the challenge we have in making Japanese Jodo Shinshu into just Shin Buddhism. Jodo Shinshu carries with it the sense of being a Japanese religion, while using the term Shin Buddhism carries the sense of a school of Buddhism. It is the task of ministers and other leaders to explain the universal teachings of Shinran Shonin beyond the Japanese language and culture.

As Shin Buddhists we have the advantages of being part of the Pure Land tradition, and we have a married clergy, we have a congregational system, we have a path to Enlightenment which is available to all, and within this lifetime. These are some of the things that make Shin Buddhism the path of Wisdom and Compassion which is the universal message of the Nembutsu.

When non-traditional people come to the Temple, we have to ask ourselves are we really welcoming? What does it mean when we say, “Just come as you are”? Are we really up to the challenge to accept diverse people who have no real idea what it means to be a Buddhist? Yes, I know we are able to meet the challenge, because we only have to be a real Sangha. Each of us brings something different to the Sangha, each of our personalities contributes to the whole. It is like an orchestra which is made up of different instruments, each adding a different sound to the beautiful music of an orchestra. It is with the spirit of being “fellow travelers” that we build the Sangha so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Recently, I spoke to a class at Northwestern University. There were 143 students enrolled in the Introduction to Buddhism class. I spoke about Shin Buddhism and the Midwest Buddhist Temple for about 20 minutes, and then allowed about 20 minutes for questions. It was quite interesting because all the questions were about what Buddhists do or what our services are like. None of the questions were on doctrine. The class taught the academic side of the Dharma. I came to realize that the questions were really all about the Sangha.

In a quiet afternoon, I came to realize that we need new tools to build the Sangha. The Teachings can be taught, but how to build a Sangha is much more difficult. I am sure that if we always have a spirit of fellow travelers, we can reach out and welcome non-traditional people to become members….and see our Sangha grow.

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