"The Living Dharma Website"

West Covina Buddhist Temple’s Website Marks Beginning of New Era
By Peter Hata, West Covina Buddhist Temple
(Reprinted from the April 25, 2000 issue of the Rafu Shimpo Newspaper)

Living Dharma Website staffers Danny Iwama (l) and Peter Hata demonstrate their website at WCBT's Obon Festival

The Living Dharma Website, www.livingdharma.org, is the website of West Covina Buddhist Temple (WCBT). Founded in March of 1997, it recently celebrated its third year of operation and has received 15,000 hits. Of course, that number pales in comparison to the well-known mega-sites on the web, but relative to what religious sites in general and particularly non-mainstream (i.e., non-Christian) religious sites receive, this represents a very respectable amount of "traffic." And, given that we try to answer all e-mail questions, even this moderate amount of traffic can add up to a lot of work. Fortunately, at WCBT, we are also instituting a promising new Temple Communications Staff (more on this later) to help not only with the website, but also with all of our "communications" (i.e. educational) tasks, such as our Gateway Newsletter, our temple discussion groups and our youth group activities. So, along with some upcoming improvements we plan to make to the website, we expect—and welcome—more hits.

Before I go on to describe more about the Living Dharma Website, I think it might be of interest to Rafu readers to learn how our site came into existence. One might expect that some high-ranking official from our headquarters in Japan sent us a "memo" to start a Buddhist website for our temple, most likely also sending some money (how about lots of money) to fund it also. For us at WCBT, "headquarters" means the officials of the large Higashi Honganji Buddhist sect, based in Kyoto, to whom WCBT is one of four American affiliate temples. The particular Buddhist tradition is known as Jodo-Shinshu or Shin. In both Japan and America, there also exists the virtually identical Nishi Honganji sect, which is also in the Shin tradition.

However, in terms of the startup of our website, we didn’t receive encouragement from our headquarters (Honzan). Though our Honzan has not opposed our website, in its three years of existence I, as its webmaster, am honestly not aware of whether they even know about it, let alone read it. This illustrates one of the problems Shin Buddhist Temples in America have. They are controlled from Japan, yet those in control don’t seem to have a real interest in the American temples.

OK, so you’re thinking, "The membership (Sangha) of WCBT got together and got it going, right?" Actually, no. A small group of us here at WCBT had to "fight" (Buddhistically, of course) for it to get it started. As I recall, it received very mixed support at the temple in the beginning. Fortunately, with the support of our minister at that time, Rev. Kiyota, and with generous donations from a few supporters at our temple, we were able to get it going. Interestingly, due to the controversy over the website at the time, members who donated—in one particular case, a sizable donation of over $2,000—felt compelled to request that their donation be kept anonymous!

This kind of resistance to a website from temple leadership is unfortunately not at all unique. For example, I have heard from a few other temple’s webmasters that they also have had only partial support. This points out that we cannot place the blame on the "Honzans" of the world for all our problems. Given that the leadership of most Shin Buddhist Temples is Japanese-American, our own attitudes, as Japanese-Americans, are also at fault.

Specifically, what attitudes am I referring to? I think Rev. Ken Tanaka, of the Alameda County Buddhist Church said it best in a 1998 interview with the Argus Newspaper of Fremont, CA. In the interview, Rev. Tanaka commented that this tendency of Japanese-American Shin Buddhists to not be involved, to not work to outreach to the broader society has many historical reasons, such as Japanese-Americans "...being an immigrant community, suffering discrimination and incarceration during the Second World War. It has really, I think, turned the Buddhist temples into a kind of social center." It is understandable of course that Shin Temple leadership, being primarily Nisei and still remembering perhaps the stings of racism from WWII, are reluctant to outreach into the larger community.

However, this attitude, along with a multitude of other problems such as the aforementioned overseas control has in fact led to rather steep decline in membership overall. For example, a Jan. 27, 1996 LA Times article reported that the BCA’s (Buddhist Churches of America, or Nishi Honganji) membership has dropped from 50,000 families in 1960 to only 17,755 families in 1995, leaving the BCA only about 1/3 the size of what it once was. A similar article in a recent edition of The Sacramento Bee pointed out another reason for the decline in temple membership: Most Shin Temples in America have a distinctly ethnocentric nature, while at the same time, an estimated 70% of Japanese-Americans are marrying outside the community.

This drop has led to a shortage of funds and to the outright closure of some temples. There is also a pending crisis due to a lack of young English-speaking ministers to replace those that will soon be retiring. But to me, the real irony here is that at the same time, interest in Buddhism in non-ethnic, "mainstream" America is increasing by leaps and bounds.

This leads me to give credit to a person that I see as at least partly responsible for the creation of the Living Dharma Website—George Lucas. I’m referring of course to his Star Wars Trilogy, not to American Grafitti (though as a baby-boomer, I’m very fond of that movie also). In Star Wars, the ultimate goal of a Jedi is to become one with "The Force," that great universal life energy that is invisible to us until we get beyond our limited way of looking at the world. This is very similar to the goal of a Buddhist, which is to "awaken" from our normally ego-centered and limited perspective to the true nature of reality, which is that all life is one. I’m not claiming that Star Wars is actually Buddhism, but I think its incredible popularity did in fact demonstrate that Americans could "accept"—albeit with incredible state of the art special effects—a "reality" that sounds very similar to the Buddhist teaching. Of course, it’s just a fictional movie, but it is interesting to note that there is never any mention in Star Wars of an external creator god or supreme being. "The Force" is made accessible within us though training with a master teacher, which is identical to the "path" of initiates in almost all Eastern religions and including of course, the martial arts which arose from those religious traditions. Here’s a passage from The Empire Strikes Back:

Yoda to Luke: "My ally is the force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we—not this crude matter. You must feel the force around you, here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere."

You might also remember in the same movie, the chilling cave scene in which Luke confronts the image of the "evil" Darth Vader only to discover upon slaying it that it is really himself. The "evil" is really within himself. This is very similar to one of the essential teachings of Buddhism, which is the second of the Four Noble Truths, that whatever "evil" or suffering we encounter in life is not due to the changes of life itself or to an external "evil" entity; it is due to our human limitations and ego-attachments. The "problem" is us.
But, along with Star Wars, I would also have to give credit to Disney films such as Pocahontas. Compare Yoda’s Star Wars passage with this passage from "Colors of the Wind":

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends

One can hardly attend a Shin Buddhist Service these days and not hear about the "interconnectedness of life," or the "interdependence of life" (not that I mind, of course). Most Japanese-Americans are also familiar with the term itadakimasu, the Buddhist term said before eating that not only expresses gratitude for the life we are about to receive, but also the recognition that all life is precious and interconnected. For that matter, consider this passage from Disney’s mega-hit The Lion King. This is the scene near the beginning of the movie where the wise lion king (and father) Mufasa takes his young son Simba to a hill overlooking their land:

Mufasa: "Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope."
Simba: "But Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?"
Mufasa: "Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so, we are all connected in the great circle of life."

Our friend Rev. Greg Gibbs over at LA’s Nishi Honganji clarified the meaning of Mufasa’s words at a talk he gave a few years ago at WCBT. He said, "This passage is Buddhism."

If we examine the American media in recent years, we can see that interest in Buddhism is clearly on the rise. "America's Fascination With Buddhism," read the cover of the October 13, 1997 issue of Time Magazine. The article mentioned the veritable "flood" of Buddhist movies in the 90’s, such as Little Buddha, Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. Of course, I think they left out a whole slew of "Buddhistic" movies. I already mentioned Star Wars and the Disney movies, but others in this vein would be Karate Kid and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (borrow your kid’s copy and fast-forward to every time the "rat" speaks!). And how dare Time omit the "classic" Kung Fu!

Seriously though, the article also pointed out some of the most high-profile American Buddhists, such as Richard Gere, Keanu Reeves, The Beastie Boys, Tina Turner, Phil Jackson and Sharon Stone, as well as world-renowned Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh and The Dalai Lama. These "celebrities" (the coverage of the Dalai Lama’s recent U.S. visit seemed like that of a "rock star") are of course also generating increased interest in Buddhism. And, if Time Magazine ever updates their "Buddhist A-List," they can add "Dharma and Greg" (just kidding).

With this kind of interest in Buddhism in the media, some of us at WCBT began to wonder why there wasn’t a corresponding interest at our temple. Let me clarify. Within our own Sangha, while many of our members are among the hardest-working and most responsible people one can ever meet, they may also show comparatively little interest in the religious aspects of the temple, such as attending retreats, seminars or participating in Buddhist discussion groups. Of course, the question then becomes, if our own members aren’t enthusiastic about Buddhism, how can we expect to maintain our temple, let alone build our Sangha? But there is nothing "wrong" with these people. In my opinion, the real problem is, Buddhism—in our Shin Buddhist Temples—has yet to find a truly modern, American expression.

Thus, with the observation of the apparent popularity of Buddhism almost everywhere but our temple, a few of us decided to start a website. Our aim was to experiment and try new ways of communicating and demonstrating Buddhism using the web. We realized that our tradition needed to be presented in a way that made sense to Americans, in a way that they would find meaningful.

It is a challenge to present Buddhism to Americans because, although we know that the Buddhist teachings do have a deep, universal appeal and, perhaps even "a healing power," we also know that at most American temples, the richness that is the Buddhist teaching—known as the Dharma—is largely hidden. Two primary reasons are that English is often only a partially-mastered second language for our generally Japanese-born Shin ministers. Also, Buddhist terms like "Nembutsu," "Shinjin" and "Amida Buddha," and "Sutras" (words of the Buddha), are already difficult to explain, but are doubly so being as they often are of Japanese or ancient Sanskrit origin. Our first step in developing the content of our site was therefore to acknowledge that 99% of Americans are not of Japanese ancestry. Also, many may be new to Buddhism and may even have misconceptions about it due in part to the aforementioned media coverage. For instance, if all I saw was "Kundun" or "Little Buddha," I might think that all Buddhists wear robes and believe in reincarnation (the truth is, only Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation). With this in mind, we wanted our Living Dharma site to not appear "foreign." This meant substituting plain everyday English wherever possible for foreign-sounding Buddhist terms.

Therefore, despite the fact that our Shin Buddhist tradition began 800 years or so ago in Japan, and that for the better part of the 20th century, most Shin Buddhists have been Japanese or Japanese-Americans, I believe Shin Buddhism in America—as evidenced by our Living Dharma Website, as well as others—is sincerely trying to change and to open up its doors to all people. For instance, our site clearly states, in many different areas of the site, that we welcome all visitors. We want to correct the common American misconception that "Shin Buddhism is only for Japanese." In its three years of operation we’ve had dozens of visitors to our Services who wanted to check out our temple in person after browsing our website. We’ve even had visitors from as far away as Belgium!

However, the most encouraging aspect to me personally might be the creation of the Temple Communications Staff I mentioned at the beginning of this article. It is comprised of a dozen members who have expressed to me and to our current minister, Rev. Ken Kawawata, their enthusiastic support of the website and of what it symbolizes. In contrast to Shin Buddhists in Japan, I think our website may represent a unique aspect of "American Buddhism." The members of this staff see the website as a concrete "Buddhist practice" of sharing the Dharma or Buddhist teachings. I think we feel the need for such practice as we go about our study of Buddhism. Designing and managing our website, answering its e-mail, writing articles for our newsletter and leading discussions are some of the "communication-related" things we will be doing. In my experience, all of these activities in one way or another help to focus one’s attention on the Dharma. I think this is the essential practice in all Buddhist traditions. Also, we all want to help WCBT to share this positive, universal and dynamic truth which is Buddhism, and to make it available and understandable to whoever is interested.

After three years of operation, I personally feel the Living Dharma Website has had a positive influence at WCBT. One of the things that increased its influence here is that we also publish some of the website’s e-mail questions and answers in our Gateway Newsletter. Initially, this was done because the majority of our older members still do not have internet access. But reading our e-mail in the Gateway has, I feel, demonstrated to our Sangha—in a concrete way—the human connection we have with the greater community outside the temple walls. Establishing this connection has underscored to us all that Buddhism, regardless of sect or tradition, is a teaching for all people. As Dr. Nobuo Haneda, the distinguished Shin Buddhist scholar and director of the Maida Center of Buddhism in Berkeley, CA, has said, "Buddhism is either for everyone, or it is worthless."

Thus, despite its mixed support in the beginning, our website has gradually received wider support amongst our Sangha. I believe this is due in direct proportion to the site’s ability to demonstrate concretely the teachings of Buddhism.

Peter Hata

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