Higashi Honganji Celebrates 100 Years in Los Angeles
Auspicious Occasion Calls Attention to Uncertain Future

Excerpted from The LA Times Newspaper, Los Angeles, CA, December 1, 2004

In December 2004, the Los Angeles Times Newspaper published an article by Religion writer Teresa Watanabe entitled, "Giving Tradition a Chance: Shin Buddhists celebrate Little Tokyo temple, but ponder faith’s future," which covered the auspicious 100th anniversary of the main Los Angeles temple of Higashi Honganji. The temple, belonging to the Jodo Shinshu or Shin tradition of Buddhism, is located in the Little Tokyo area of downtown LA and is the oldest Buddhist temple in LA. While the event itself was obviously a celebration, the Times article had a somewhat ironic tone, as its focus was not actually on the elaborate parade and service ceremonies of the anniversary. After briefly describing the event highlights, the article went on to add, "amid the congratulatory speeches at the Higashi Honganji Temple’s commemoration, an underlying question lingered: Can this 780-year-old Japanese Buddhist tradition survive assimilation in America?"

Looking at the Higashi temple’s current challenges, the answer to the above question would appear to be uncertain. The Times article points out the common problems shared by immigrant religions in the U.S., that, as succeeding generations become more Americanized, the leadership of temples face choosing between sticking to the traditional ways or of looking for new ways to make the presentation of the Shin teachings more relevant to contemporary Americans. Judging by the statistics the article mentions—that amongst the larger (also Shin) Buddhist Churches of America organization, membership has dropped from 50,000 families in 1960 to about 17,000 today—it would appear that Shin Buddhist temples in the U.S. have largely not made these adjustments. The article also looks specifically at the Higashi temple and interviews its head minister, Rev. Noriaki Ito. Rev. Ito related that temple membership peaked in the 1960s, at which time there were some 450 families, 20 sports teams, Boy Scout troops and a Sunday School of 100 kids. However, due to various factors, such as intercultural and interfaith marriages and the widespread migration of families away from the downtown area and out to the suburbs, today there are only about 100 families that regularly attend services.

This trend of declining membership has, not surprisingly, touched off a debate among the organization’s leaders regarding the changes that might need to be instituted to allow Shin Buddhism to survive into the future. Rev. Ito himself is quoted as saying, "In order for us to survive another 100 years, we’re going to have to at least loosen our ties to Japan and focus on the universal aspects of Buddhism." One of the examples cited by the Times article of concrete changes is interestingly, this Living Dharma Website itself. The article states, "West Covina Buddhist Temple has started a successful website, http://www.livingdharma.org, seeking to relate the faith to American culture. It includes interviews with celebrity Buddhists such as actress Sharon Stone and essays on the Buddhist message in such films as "American Beauty." Also cited are the outreach efforts of the LA Nishi Honganji temple’s Rev. William Briones, himself of Hispanic heritage, who is taking the Buddhist message to Blacks and Latinos in East LA through the talks he gives at local high schools. One of the few Shin temples to actually experience growth is the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, CA, which, under the dynamic leadership of Rev. Marvin Harada, has grown from 650 to 1,000 members. The article points out that Rev. Harada has instituted several creative changes at his temple all designed to make Shin Buddhism more accessible and relevant to Americans. For example, his temple created a special school, the Buddhist Education Center, which offers evening classes open to the local community on intriguing topics such as, "Buddhism in Western Literature." Besides the relevance of the topics, part of the appeal of these classes to the community is the less intimidating nature of a class as opposed to a typical ritual-filled religious service. Perhaps even more controversial, at least in terms of official Shin doctrine, is Rev. Harada’s offering of meditation services. Zen-style sitting meditation is something that is not supported by the "official" Shin doctrine, yet as a practical-minded minister, Rev. Harada points out in the article that he has witnessed that meditation can relax people and help open their minds to the Buddhist teachings.

But perhaps the most interesting quotes in the article are from the Rev. Koshin Ogui, the recently appointed Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America. For example, despite resistance from his Japanese headquarters, the article states Rev. Ogui is likely to encourage the offering of Zen-style meditation at temples such as Orange County Buddhist Church. In the article, he states that he had begun to promote meditation years ago while a minister in Cleveland. He said that six out of every ten callers to the temple wanted to learn meditation, but that he "used to answer that [in Shin Buddhism] we don’t practice meditation." But then, Rev. Ogui jokingly recalled his realization that, "If I lose six of every ten people, I would bankrupt my store." Addressing one of the most serious issues impacting the future of Shin Buddhism in America, the article highlights Rev. Ogui’s efforts to create a lay-training program designed to produce homegrown ministers with what he calls an "American cultural IQ." In addition, Bishop Ogui supports efforts to publicize Shin Buddhist views on current events. The article cites the BCA’s resolution opposing the Bush administration’s preemptive war in Iraq and its prohibitions against gay marriage.

Bishop Ogui is one of the most open-minded leaders in Jodo Shinshu, someone attempting to institute the changes that will, as the article puts it, "transform Shin Buddhism into a major American faith." However, when asked what he thought his chances for success were, the bishop offered a reply that actually echoes a central teaching of Buddhism. Implicit in his reply is the Buddhist teaching that, though we hope for the best for Shin Buddhism, it would be a mistake to focus intently on its "success." In fact, if its followers were to have that concern as their primary focus—with its corresponding "desire"—they might very likely stray from the teachings, which of course emphasize that it is our human ego-driven desires which are at the root of our suffering. As Rev. Ogui put it, "Seeking conclusions is a modern sickness; rather, find meaning in the process of becoming."

E-mail your comment to us

Real World Menu | Home