In May 2005, the Buddhist Churches of America held a ground-breaking ceremony for their new $14 million Jodo Shinshu Center, scheduled to open in Summer 2006 in Berkeley, California, and destined to be a major center for Jodo Shinshu learning in America. The San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper, which covered the event, states that, when complete, the center will integrate the BCA's offices, a library, bookstore, conference and educational center, the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS), and residence rooms for students and visitors in a spacious 37,000 square foot building.
The BCA is affiliated with the Nishi Hongwanji tradition of Jodo Shinshu, which has worldwide headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. Jodo Shinshu was founded approximately 700 years ago by Shinran Shonin, a 13th century Japanese priest. What is most significant about Shinran, is that for 20 years, he diligently tried to attain Enlightenment via the traditional Buddhist monastic path (e.g., vegetarianism, celebacy, practicing good deeds, etc.), but at the age of 29, he acknowledged not only his failure to "attain" anything, but that in many ways, his self-effort had made him even more arrogant than when he started. He left the monastery, but fortunately, met his teacher Honen, who convinced him to give up "self-power," monastic, practices in favor of the path of "non-practice," or "other-power." In essence, rather than attaining enlightenment through the gradual "purification" of self-evil and delusion (i.e, the "self-power" path), this path instead emphasizes deeply accepting the inherent flaws and limitations of the ego-self, that the self cannot "Enlighten itself." In Shinran's understanding, Enlightenment or Awakening was only possible for ordinary human beings like himself through the working of "other-power." This power is the power of the Dharmaboth the teachings of Buddhism and the teachers and experiences of our lives that make the teachings come alive and through which we are ultimately able to see our true nature. Paradoxically, though the seeing of this nature is self-negating and humbling, it is simultaneously liberating and energizing. After meeting Honen, Shinran devoted the rest of his lifeover 60 yearsto tirelessly sharing his understanding with others.
Though Shinshu's message is obviously universal and, given its lay emphasis, more accessible than many other Buddhist traditions, its future is uncertain in America. One reason is that Japanese American communities, which Jodo Shinshu temples originally were centered around, have been steadily shrinking due to factors such as intermarriage and the lessening ties to Japanese culture amongst younger generations. Another reason is that, while a growing number of Americans seem to be interested in Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Shin Buddhist organizations in America have generally not been actively engaged in the community beyond their temple's walls. Due to their Japanese origins, both the Nishi Hongwanji tradition and the nearly identical Higashi Honganji tradition have been slow in making the necessary changes required to effectively communicate Shinshu's message in America. Both Nishi and Higashi have reported concerns over shrinking membership and the lack of fluent English-speaking ministers. These challenges are the same ones that all transplanted religious traditions face in America. In the case of Shin Buddhism, now entering its second century in America, if it is to truly take root here, its leaders must filter through all the culture-specific elements in its current presentationfor example, Japanese expressions, terms, images and musicand ultimately discover the universal message in the teaching and effective ways to make that message compelling to Americans.
Given the historically slow pace of change and the complexity of the challenge, what seems most significant about the BCA's new center is the massive scale of the project and the corresponding decisiveness of the leadership behind it. Credit for much of this leadership must be due the recently elected BCA Bishop Koshin Ogui, who led the dedication ceremony. Bishop Ogui expressed his hope that the center will help spread Jodo Shinshu Buddhism to people who are not of Japanese descent. In this regard, he was also recently quoted in a Los Angeles Times article as emphasizing the need to create a lay-training program designed to produce homegrown ministers with what he called an "American cultural IQ." Obviously, creating such homegrown ministers should be the most important goal of any tradition hoping to effectively communicate with Americans, yet this is a task beyond the resources of most individual Shin temples. To address this pressing need, and as mentioned above, the BCA's Jodo Shinshu Center will also house the Institute for Buddhist Studies, their already well-established American-directed minister-training program.
Bishop Ogui is one of the most open-minded leaders in Jodo Shinshu, someone attempting to institute the changes that will, as the Times article put it, "transform Shin Buddhism into a major American faith." We wish the best for Bishop Ogui and the BCA's ambitious Jodo Shinshu Center project.
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