The Changing Face of Shin Buddhism in America

Dr. Taitetsu Unno gives memorable talk at Higashi's District Seminar in Los Angeles and emphasizes our future must be based on the teachings of Buddhism

On June 13, 1999, the Higashi Honganji's North American District sponsored a seminar for the board members of its four temples. The featured speaker was the distinguished Dr. Taitetsu Unno, author of River of Fire, River of Water, and Professor of Religion at Smith College. Dr. Unno gave a very deep and insightful talk, yet his talk was also fairly easy to understand. Interestingly, throughout his talk, he would occasionally stop and present a "pop quiz" to one member of each of the four temples, pointing to someone and asking things like, "Can you explain how what I've just said relates to your life?" It certainly seemed to keep the board members on their toes.

Where Do We Go From Here?
He began by saying, "It's an honor to share my appreciation of this great Buddhist tradition with all of you today, and I hope we can work together as we face the challenges of the 21st Century." First, he shared with us some of his extensive background of studying Buddhism both here and in Japan. "I devoted my time to studying Buddhism because I realized I needed a deeper understanding of Japanese Buddhism in order to translate this great gift not only to our children and grandchildren, but to the greater America as well."

But the question, Dr. Unno pointed out, is "Where do we go from here?" And related to that, he asked some of the board members present, why are you serving on the board?" From Berkeley, Richard Fujii said, "Because I am the fifth generation of my family to belong to this temple." From the Betsuin, Steve Murata said, "A group of us here were asked to serve; we seem to be the only ones around to keep the temple going." From West Covina, Johnny Martinez joked, "I got railroaded into it."

Dr. Unno clarified the historical perspective regarding the services the Japanese-American temples used to provide. "Until 1952, Japanese-Americans couldn't become US citizens, couldn't buy land and, even with a college degree, couldn't get a job. However, what saved us all was the refuge our temple Sanghas provided. But what about the future?"

Why New Buddhists Come
To illustrate the changing face of Jodo Shinshu in America, Dr. Unno, who lives in Northhampton, MA, profiled some of the members of his growing Shin Discussion group, which meets every month at his home. In the beginning, there was just a handful of people, but now about 25 people come regularly. "Why do they come, some from more than 2 hours away? Also, the majority of them are either Caucasian or Hispanic."

Dr. Unno told us about "Jake," who said, "I didn't look for Amida Buddha, Amida Buddha searched me out...the compassion that Amida Buddha brings to my life helps me in times of trial." "Pat" said, "I have come home...this is my home." "Chris," a former Zen and Tibetan Buddhist, said, "Without the Nembutsu, I couldn't deal with the problems of my life." "Barbara," a Catholic Sunday School teacher, said, "I learn a great deal from Jodo Shinshu about applying the Buddhist teachings to my life." "Jeff," a practicing Zen monk, said, "Having the boundless compassion of Amida Buddha, allows me to sit in zazen and not think about the pain in my legs anymore." As an aside, Dr. Unno added, "Zen is very popular and growing, but they don't really have a "Sangha" as we do in Jodo Shinshu." Then there was the physics professor from the University of Massachusetts who said, "I come for the insight." And the attorney, Jane, who said, "The Shin teaching acts as a lubricant to smooth the difficulties of my kind of work. "Adele," said, "I understand the difference between Christians and Buddhists; Shin Buddhists are not afraid to talk about being foolish, fallible, ignorant or mortal."

To Dr. Unno, the fact that few of these new Buddhists are Japanese-American is not a problem. This is because of the meaning of the "Pure Land," one of the key terms used in Shin Buddhism. To illustrate its meaning, Dr. Unno quoted from Ellison Onizuka, the Japanese-American astronaut (and Buddhist) who died in the tragic Challenger explosion. Onizuka once said, "I saw the Pure Land...it is the land of 'no boundaries.'" Dr. Unno added, "It is we that create boundaries-light/dark, good/bad, old/young-but Buddhism says, take these boundaries away...then we can 'settle' into reality."

"My mother passed away earlier this year," he said in an emotional moment. With tears welling in his eyes, and touching his heart, he said, "My mother has passed on to the Pure Land...which means to me that she is always with me...the Pure Land reveals to us the formless and the boundless."

"I share these stories of my Sangha because these are all new Buddhists." These are the kinds of Buddhists we must attract if we are to continue, much less to grow, he pointed out. "And," he continued, "they always say that they come because they receive nourishment from Jodo Shinshu. We are grateful to our Issei pioneers, but as we look forward, the fundamental reason for having our temples has to be the Nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu."

Board of Directors Must Provide Spiritual Leadership Based On Nembutsu
"In the BCA, we currently have real problems; we already have temples that don't even have a regular minister and, in just a few years, we are going to lose 5 or 6 more ministers. How can we continue? That's why we started our "Lay Teacher's Training Program." At the Cleveland Temple, there is no minister, but it's run anyway entirely by lay members. In fact, they even started a Dharma School without a minister. People on our Boards of Directors must take leadership in terms of the spiritual aspect of the temples."

Dr. Unno then focused on what this spitual aspect is by first describing some of the methods used to share the Dharma in various Buddhist traditions. "If you go to a Zen temple, they'll show you how to sit. Go to a Tibetan temple and they'll teach you to visualize the Bodhisattva of Compassion. But what do our Shin teachers say if you ask what to do about your problems in life?" Dr. Unno recalled that he used to ask his father, a Shin minister, these same questions. "Just say Namu Amida Butsu" was the answer his father would give. "But that doesn't mean anything to me," Dr. Unno would reply. Then his father would say, "Well you have to have Shinjin." Namu Amida Butsu, explained Dr. Unno is like the expression of Shinjin. He said that "Butsu" means "Buddha," or "awakened one," and that "Amida" means "immeasurable wisdom and compassion." But what does "Namu" mean? "Namu," said Dr. Unno, "is me. Specifically, it is me embraced by the immeasurable compassion of the awakened one."

"We are all Namu," Dr. Unno continued, "which is to say that we are all limited human beings who are seeking a reality upon which we can always depend. In contrast, I can't always depend on my family, friends, or even professionals like my doctor. But when I say Namu Amida Butsu, I am at the very heart of boundless compassion...to say Namu Amida Butsu is to experience oneness."

"What Namu Amida Butsu means," Dr. Unno continued, "is that all of our flaws and attachments, the Buddha already foresaw...and that's all OK because of the boundless compassion of the Buddha. Things will turn out all right for us as long as we can understand that we are all Namu, that we are all sustained by a power greater than ourselves. In that sense, Namu Amida Butsu is also like a wish for all of us: May we all be happy; may we all be complete. And, even if things don't turn out the way we wish them to, perhaps this is simply the fulfilling of a direction that we cannot perceive. This kind of compassion changes a person's life."

"To say Namu Amida Butsu gives us a kind of energy; as Buddhists, you know that we don't talk about a past or future-we only have the present. And so, saying Namu Amida Butsu is like saying, 'I've come home; in this present moment, I have everything I need.'"

Panel Discussion and Presentations by Board Members
After a delicious lunch, the participants gathered together to listen to a panel of lay members from the 4 temples each give a presentation on some aspect of the theme of "The Future of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America" that they have participated in at their temples. Peter Hata, representing West Covina Buddhist Temple, gave a presentation about the Living Dharma Website, which he manages. He began by clarifying how it was created. "Creating a website of course takes a lot of time and energy, but in looking back at its creation, I honestly can't say that it was really my energy that was involved. I think whatever energy I had really came to me because I was fortunate to be able to attend many retreats and seminars, and to be inspired by great teachers. And perhaps, closest to my heart, I believe I owe a great deal of whatever energy I have to the 10 years of deep conversations in the wee hours of the morning while doing the Gateway Newsletter alongside Rinban Nori, Rev. Kiyota, and now Rev. Ken. I feel very fortunate to have received their constant encouragement." As part of his presentation, Peter also read a few selections of e-mail that the Living Dharma website has received that illustrate the interactive nature of a Buddhist website. One of these was the memorable "field mice" question answered by Rinban Nori. In closing, he clarified the process of answering the e-mail. "To me, the distinction between who is actually sharing the teaching and who is receiving it, is blurred. I think the reality is often that both the person asking the question and the person answering it are receiving something simultaneously."

From Berkeley, Art Yamashita and Ken Yamada made a presentation about their new Bombu Bombu quarterly newsletter. Ken, who edits Bombu Bombu, said that the theme of the newsletter is "Buddhism as a vehicle for self-reflection." Art mentioned that the newsletter has had a positive impact, increasing their membership significantly since its publication. The newsletter seems to have encouraged some former members who had stopped coming to attend again.

Representing the Betsuin, Rudy Gomez touched upon the similar theme of examining "patterns for reasons why people leave." He stated that the Betsuin is trying to contact people who have left the temple to find out why they did so and to hopefully make the necessary changes to prevent it from happening in the future. Rudy emphasized that the key is in the temple meeting the needs of its members. In this regard, the Betsuin now asks new members to fill out a short "info card" to determine what their needs might be.

Representing Newport Beach, Ronnie Young described how finances have unfortunately been the biggest concern for their Sangha. On the positive side, their weekly Bingo Nights have raised sufficient funds for them to continue. However, Ronnie confirmed that the negative aspect is that people tend to get burned out by the constant fund-raising. Also, Newport Beach Higashi was founded only a decade or so ago by Issei, and so they of course prefer to hear talks in Japanese. However, though there are large numbers in Orange County, Newport Beach does not seem to attract any Japanese-Americans, most of whom are Nisei-Sansei-Yonsei and prefer the well-established and English-dominant Nishi Temples in Orange County. "Therefore," Ronnie said, "most of our new members are Caucasian and new to Buddhism." Ronnie mentioned that meeting the needs of this kind of diverse Sangha is a difficult thing.

Rinban Nori Ito (head minister of Higashi's main LA temple) then took the floor and responded to the panelist's presentations. He expressed many positive comments about the efforts of all the panelists. In particular, regarding the Living Dharma website, he said, "West Covina is a very small temple, yet its website is having a positive impact across the country." He also commented that "Bombu Bombu is a great new project by Ken Yamada and staff."

Rinban tied these outreach and educational efforts into the future of Shin Buddhism in America. He stated, "The focus of any temple in the 21st century has to be on the Dharma, Namu Amida Butsu. I remember while at WCBT, that Japanese families would say, 'I want my kids to experience Japanese culture,' so we'd 'push' that. But then I'd notice that there were also many people who weren't interested in that; they were there only for the Buddhism. We need of course to balance the two, however, in the end, we only have Buddhism to 'push.'"

The Transformation of Our Deluded Self
After the panel discussion, Dr. Unno returned to continue his talk. He began by saying, "As Board members, we must be able to say, 'I serve on the board because the Buddhist teachings have really helped me live my life. My life is full of Jodo Shinshu.'" To illustrate this kind of sentiment, he quoted from participants at his Lay Teacher's Seminar. One person said, "I am moved by Shinran's words, and by his exclusive focus on the human experience...he never moves away from that everyday focus." Another said, "Rather than my grasping at Jodo Shinshu, I am grasped by Jodo Shinshu...this is the meaning of the 18th Vow."

Dr. Unno then went on to write on the blackboard a well-known poem by Saichi, a Buddhist who had lived about a hundred years ago in Japan:

84,000 delusions
84,000 lights
84,000 joys abounding

The meaning of this poem, Dr. Unno said, is something like what Shinran meant when he said, "The moment we open our mouths to speak, we're already lying." "Or," Dr. Unno explained, "if not outright lying, certainly talking half-truths," because we're not even aware of our evil-self. But Buddhism is not talking about the normal everyday ego (that psychologists say we all need to survive); Buddhism is really talking about a much deeper level of self...our constant self-centered motivation. "As Bishop Imai already said this morning, 'To learn the self is to learn Buddhism; to learn Buddhism is to learn the self,'" he said.

However, though what comes out of our mouths may not be the truth, "Words are not totally meaningless either," he clarified. We understand that there may be hidden agendas in our words. That's where the 84,000 delusions come in." Dr. Unno gave us an illustration of our delusions, by citing a situation that had once occurred between he and his wife, Alice. He recalled that, a long time ago when his son was a small child, the three of them we getting ready to go out for the evening. Alice had already put a heavy jacket on their son. But Dr. Unno thought, "that jacket is too heavy, he'll break out in a sweat and probably catch cold." So he replaced the jacket on his son with a light sweater. Then Alice saw their son with only the light sweater and an argument insued about whether their son was more likely to catch cold with the jacket or with the sweater. Meanwhile, the son was, of course, running around outside without either on! "The point is," Dr. Unno emphasized, "If you board members, like Alice and I, focus on your disagreements instead of on the issues and your common goals, our temples will die."

Continuing on the topic of "understanding the self," Dr. Unno explained the process of the Buddhist transformation: "It is immersion in the teaching that exposes this darkness within...Amida of boundless light reveals my true self to me, but without judging me. Through Amida's power, the darkness within is transformed to light, and I can receive a small measure of wisdom. The hard 'ice' of the self is melted to become the water of enlightenment."

"Just to be alive, in good health or bad, is the greatest gift," he said. "To be made to see that this moment of here and now is the gift of our ancestors to us...the gift of each vegetable leaf, each living thing that gives up its life so that I can extend my life. The awareness of this gift is contained in the Buddhist expression said before eating of 'itadakemasu.' But we cannot penetrate this reality alone...we need the teaching of Buddhism." Related to our need to take life to continue living, Dr. Unno said that to him, "Rather than being at the top of the food chain, I think we humans may be at the bottom-other animals do not kill needlessly the way we humans do."

To describe the process of awakening to the Buddhist teachings, Dr. Unno cited the example of a tiny acorn seed. "Just as an acorn can only become an oak tree when it receives nourishment from the soil, water and sun, we need to be open to 'nourishment' from our teachers in order to receive the Buddhist insights. Anyone can be a teacher to us; the person I hate, the homeless person...everyone and everything everywhere nurtures me."

Furthermore, Dr. Unno clarified, especially when we have difficulties in our lives--things not going our way, illness or the loss of a loved one--through the compassion of Amida, everything negative can ultimately become something positive. The poem mentioned previously about the "84,000 delusions" ultimately means there can be a transformation, a growth and an acquiring of maturity in us. Dr. Unno then "popped" another of his quizzes, this time calling on Peter Hata of West Covina Buddhist Temple to comment on the "84,000 delusions" poem. Peter said, "I infer from your talk that you are saying the delusions inside us never really go away, but maybe my attitude towards them changes...that perhaps I can accept them more easily, and hopefully accept them more easily in someone else also." Dr. Unno responded, "Good answer, except I think 'see through' might be a better way of putting it than 'accept,' but still a good answer." Then Dr. Unno called upon Shin Ito (Rinban Ito's brother) to answer the same question. Shin said, "For me, the poem probably should be changed to 840,000 delusions instead of 84,000 delusions. And therefore, I'm going to need 840,000 lights and then I'll hopefully also have 840,000 joys abounding." Dr. Unno said, "Another good answer," then joked, "Maybe you should also be a minister...don't they need another minister around here?"

Mrs. Alice Unno gives Engaging Talk
At that point, Dr. Unno turned the floor over to his vivacious wife Alice to say a few words about her experiences as a teacher. Alice Unno explained to us that she's now retired, but she had been a special education teacher for 20 years. The kids she worked with were all "tough cases," kids with Attention Deficit Disorder, kids who had been abused. In this difficult work, she emphatically stated, "Without Shin Buddhism, I could not have done it. Shinshu allowed me to be able to say to my troubled students, 'you are OK just as you are.' Before any learning can take place, a child needs to first be accepted as they are. Shinshu has always been my life."

Alice then told the story of how the principal at her school had learned of her being a Buddhist and had asked her if she could help a certain young couple she knew, both doctors, and both of whom had just found they might have cancer. She called upon Dr. Unno to share with the participants a letter he had written to the couple.

Dr. Unno's Conclusion
Returning to the mic, Dr. Unno recalled what he had written to this young couple. He had said, "The compassion of the Buddha transforms every pain into a means of receiving deeper wisdom...may your pain and suffering be eased knowing that ultimately it will become the still water of real life."

In closing, Dr. Unno encouraged the participants to work together to meet the challenges of communicating Buddhism in America. "Buddhism," he said, "can transform the lives of all people and bring meaning and significance to their lives."

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