Buddhism in the Southland

Excerpted from The LA Times Newspaper, Los Angeles, CA, Saturday, November 14, 1998

In the November 14, 1998 edition of the LA Times, Religion Writer Teresa Watanabe gave us an informative overview of the current Buddhism scene in Southern California. She pointed out that this area is a center for worldwide Buddhist activity, since there are more than 100 different Buddhist sects represented here. Quoted in her article is J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of Religion at UCSB, who stated that "Forty percent of U.S. Buddhists live in this area," and that these numbers reflect the "high level of immigration from Buddhist countries to the Southern California area over the past 10 years." Melton also said that, compared with only about 100,000 Buddhists, mostly Japanese, in 1965, the number of Buddhists nationwide has grown to an estimated 1.5 million from a broad range of ethnic backgrounds.

The Times article points out that many Buddhist temple's numbers grow because many immigrants "flock to temples not only for spiritual sustenance, but for comfort and companionship in a strange land." The article gives the example of N. Hollywood's Wat Thai Temple, which "attracts more than 1,000 people every weekend for religious services as well as classes in English, U.S. citizenship, the Thai language, classical dance and even decorative fruit-and-vegetable carving. The temple also offers free medical checkups and Thai food booths; it serves as a social meeting place, polling place and, in a highly publicized case a few years ago, as a refuge for Thai workers who escaped from virtual slavery in a local sweatshop."

However, the Times article states that Buddhism is also growing amongst "home-grown" Americans. Also quoted in the Times article is Don Morreale, author of the Complete Guide to Buddhist America, who states that this is because "many of the Buddhist masters who brought the teachings from Asia have died, leaving their American successors to reshape the religion here." An example of this phenomenon is the Zen Center of Los Angeles, led by American (of Japanese-Portugese descent) Wendy Nakao who studied with the late Maezumi Roshi, the center's founder. Maezumi Roshi is credited with single-handedly and deliberately bringing Zen out of Little Tokyo's Japanese immigrant community in 1967 to reach out to non-immigrant Americans. The Times article points out that, since taking over the leadership in 1996, "Nakao has worked to flatten the hierarchy, soften the patriarchy and encourage greater interaction with the community."

Some of her innovations are: "discussion circles," where the Sangha can openly discuss issues of concern; an added line in one of her Soto sect's recitations to "remember all women whose names have been forgotten or left unsaid"; and plans in January for a regular memorial service for "our Buddhist women ancestors." But one of the most dramatic steps was last year, when Nakao and a few of her members lived on skid row for three days. "We want to have life in our face so we can look at our differences and get beyond them," said Nakao in the Times article. In Nakao's view, these activities actively honor one of Buddhism's fundamental tenets, which is that all life is interconnected.

The Times article also says that this move from "isolated ethnic enclaves into the larger community" is perhaps the most significant change in American Buddhism. Soka Gakkai International, which originated in Japan, is the largest Buddhist organization in Southern California with 20,000 members. In a recent study of the organization, over 40% of members were white, about 25% are Asian, and another 20% are black and latino. The Times article states that "The religion's emphasis on actual practices for self-transformation appears to be one of the most powerful attractions to many American adherents."

Another branch that is rapidly growing is Tibetan Buddhism. As the Times states, "Their practices have only begun reaching the West since the late 1940s, when scores of Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, began fleeing the Chinese occupation. Today, Tibetan Buddhism is regarded as the fastest-growing branch of Buddhism; at least 21 major study centers have been established in the Los Angeles area in recent years."

Lastly, the Times article mentions "the largest and oldest presence in Southern California," the traditional Japanese sects of Shin Buddhism. The Times points out that "these sects are in decline as succeeding generations assimilate and weaken ties to the faith of their ancestors. The Rev. Noriaki Ito of the Higashi Hongwanji Temple in Little Tokyo said his congregation has declined to about 350 families from more than 450 in the late 1970s. Many of the sutras and songs are still in Japanese, a language that has become entirely foreign to most baby boomers."

Rev. Ito is quoted in the article as saying, "We're starting to realize, with the assimilation of the Japanese community almost complete, that we can no longer depend on the ethnic members to sustain us in the future. But the biggest question is whether an American Buddhist denomination can be born that will swallow up many of the ethnic temples. Can we come together, or are we going to stay separated?"

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