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645Interesting Article!

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  • anpuheru
    Aug 20, 2002
      The Pure Land in the New World
      The Dhamma Times 13th August 2002

      For 150 years, the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) was the almost
      exclusive domain of Japanese Americans. Now, with an increasingly
      diversified membership and new publications on Pure Land teachings,
      the BCA is riding the winds of change.
      By Dr. Taitetsu Unno

      Pure Land Buddhism in North America is represented by one of its
      Japanese schools, Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism, incorporated in 1898
      in San Francisco as the Buddhist Mission of North America. In 1944,
      at the Topaz Concentration Camp in Utah, this was changed to the
      Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) in order to make it sound less
      alien and objectionable to the general American public. Its history
      may be considered in two phases: from its founding to 1952, when
      Japanese immigrants became eligible fo r naturalization (Walter-
      McCarranAct); and from 1952 to the present, during which time
      American society has undergone vast changes in the areas of both
      racial tolerance and religious pluralism.

      When Japanese laborers were brought to Hawaii and the United States
      to replace the Chinese who were banned entry by the Chinese Exclusion
      Act (1882), the majority came from prefectures considered traditional
      strongholds of Jodo Shinshu. Like the Chinese before them, they
      suffered all kinds of legal discrimination—local, state, and
      national. They could not become naturalized citizens, lease or buy
      land, or testify against whites. They were forbidden from certain
      occupations, their children attended segregated schools, and they
      were subject to miscegenation laws.

      To create a bulwark against an alien and intolerant society, they
      established Shin Buddhist temples and built a dynamic sangha
      (community of practitioners) for mutual aid and protection, Japanese
      immigration was virtually stopped in 1907 by executive decree and
      finally legally banned by the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924. In
      December 1941, anti-Japanese prejudice culminated with the arrest and
      detention by the FBI of 2,000 community leaders, including Buddhist
      priests. In the following year, Executive Order 9066 justified the
      incarceration of 120,000 people, 77,000 of whom were American
      citizens by birth. All this was carried out without due process of
      law, causing Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy to call it "the
      legalization of racism." Throughout the first half of the twentieth
      century, to be a Buddhist was considered to be un-American and

      When the imprisoned Japanese Americans were released from the
      concentration camps in 1945 and returned to the West Coast, the
      Buddhist temples became temporary hostels for the majority of the
      people who had no place to call home. The second generation, or
      Nisei, whose average age was about twenty-three, began to take
      leadership of the BCA and to integrate Buddhism into American society
      by initiating such actions as getting the Scout movement to create
      Buddhist religious awards—Sangha for Boy Scouts, Karuna for Camp Fire
      Girls, and Dharma for both. They successfully lobbied the U.S. Army
      to identify Buddhist with a "B" on dogtags (previously they had been
      classified "P" for Protestant), to inscribe the Wheel of Dharma, the
      dharmachakra, on military gravestones for Buddhists, and to recognize
      Buddhist chaplains. The groundwork for training Buddhist ministers in
      this country was conceived at this time, evolving eventually into the
      Institute of Buddhist Studies, now formally part of the Graduate
      Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

      One representative of this early period is Yehan Numata (1897-1994),
      who became a successful industrialist and founded the Society for
      Promoting Buddhism. Among its many projects, the most important is
      the placement of more than six million copies of The Teaching of
      Buddha in 7,500 hotels around the world; the establishment of chairs
      in Buddhist Studies at Harvard, Chicago, UC Berkeley, Hawaii, Smith
      College, Toronto, Oxford, Leiden, and other universities; and the
      sponsorship of the English translation of scriptures from the Chinese
      Buddhist Tripitaka.

      In the second half of the century, beginning in the 1950s, Buddhism
      became more acceptable through growing American contacts with Asia,
      and, within the last few decades, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and
      Vipassana have each attracted a considerable following. In contrast,
      the BCA temples are facing difficult times with a declining
      membership, a shrinking financial base, and a lack of ordained
      ministers. The major reasons are the high rate of Japanese American
      outmarriages (70 percent) and no pressing need for an ethnic enclave
      among the third and fourth-generation Japanese Americans, who are
      generally well-educated and economically stable. Currently, there are
      about sixty temples in the BCA (and thirty more in Hawaii under
      separate jurisdiction). Among them, the smaller temples will either
      fold or consolidate with larger temples, and those that may survive
      will move in two opposing directions.

      On the one hand, temples found in areas with a sizeable Japanese
      American population, primarily on the West Coast, will remain ethnic
      in conformity with what scholars call the ethnic nature of American
      religions. In my locality, in Western Massachusetts, for example, the
      Immaculate Conception Church, founded by Polish immigrants in 1904,
      still holds services in Polish with 95 percent of the parishioners
      being of Polish descent. Likewise, Portuguese is used in Our Lady of
      Fatima, French in St. Rose DeLima, Spanish and Korean in their
      respective churches. Black churches, too, retain their ethnic
      conformity. The ethnic Buddhist temples have rejected the earlier
      service formats and emphasize sutra chanting, but they are developing
      activities uniquely Asian-American, such as dharma schools for
      children, taiko drumming, Bon dance festivals, Hanamatsuri (birth or
      Buddha celebration), and so on, which are not normally a part of the
      Shin tradition in Japan.

      On the other hand, although small in numbers, Shin temples are
      emerging that include more and more convert Buddhists. In some
      instances they serve in leadership roles, such as presidents or
      officers on the temple boards, as well as teachers in dharma schools
      and study classes. It will be interesting to see whether or not these
      temples increase their non-Japanese memberships in the coming years.
      At the annual general conference of the BCA held in February 2001, a
      notable increase in the number of Caucasian delegates was reported.

      Another interesting recent phenomenon is the formation of Shin
      Buddhist sanghas independent of the BCA. They draw membership from
      the larger American society, frequently maintaining contacts with
      each other through the Internet. Examples of these small Shin
      Buddhist sanghas are found from Massachusetts to Alaska. This is
      partially due to the growing recognition that Shin Buddhism is
      another significant expression of Mahayana Buddhism. With the English
      publication in 1997 of the collected works of Shinran (1173-1262),
      the founder of Shin Buddhism, more people will have direct access to
      his teaching. A study of his works should correct the stereotypes
      attached to shin Buddhism: that it is a watered-down version of the
      Buddha-dharma, or that it is an imitation of Christian faith.

      No one can predict the future of Pure Land Buddhism in North America,
      especially in its institutional form, but there is no question that
      it will add a spiritual depth and breadth to Buddhism in the West.
      And it may even have salutary effects on other areas of Western
      intellectual and religious life. This is because of its emphasis on
      boundless compassion, which is nonjudgmental and all-inclusive, and
      because of the cultivation of self that is tolerant, open, and
      supple, affirming human finitude—limited, imperfect, vulnerable, and
      mortal—as essential for enlightenment.

      Shin Buddhism, being part of the Mahayana tradition, teaches the
      basic doctrines common to all schools, such as no-self, impermanence,
      emptiness, the Bodhisattva ideal, and so on, but it does so from the
      perspective of the lay practitioner. Appreciation of this Pure Land
      approach should minimize the self-righteous arrogance that I notice
      among some convert Caucasian Buddhists, who imitate a monastic
      discipline while maintaining a secular, lay lifestyle.

      Dr. Taitetsu Unno is the Jill Ker Conway Professor Emeritus of
      Religion at Smith college and the author of River of Fire, River of
      Water (Doubleday, 1998).
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