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The "Japanese Thing"

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  • DAC Crowell
    I m going to try and split the ethnic issue off here, since it seems to be getting enmeshed in other points and it really is something which seems to need some
    Message 1 of 3 , Apr 2, 2004
      I'm going to try and split the ethnic issue off here, since it seems
      to be getting enmeshed in other points and it really is something
      which seems to need some separate treatment/clarification.

      There seems to be a lot of misconceptions being tossed
      around here, a good bit of which is based on PAST encounters
      with BCA temples and not on PRESENT encounters. Things
      have changed a good bit in many (but not every...more on this
      ahead) temples and sanghas as we've gotten into the present
      day. If you roll the clock back to the early 80s at MBT in Chicago,
      yes, you find the same cultural/ethnic insularity there as is being
      complained about. BUT...over time, and over encounters with
      non-Japanese-Americans who are also seeking the Nembutsu
      teachings, attitudes and the like have changed. A lot. At present,
      our temple board is pretty much an even ethnic mix. And as for
      the Zaike Shinshi (lay dharma leaders), _most_ of us are

      I have been told numerous times by the Nisei members (we
      have no living Issei) that they're so glad to see people other than
      J-As involved in such a major way with the temple because...and
      note this...they know that the _future of Jodo Shinshu in the USA
      lies with people outside of the J-A community_. Now, these are
      the older people saying this, a goodly number of which were
      affected directly by the Relocation. If one were to accept this idea
      that such an experience has made these people intractably
      insular...well, this would certainly run counter to that. And the fact
      is, things ARE quite counter to that in many places.

      The subject of ethnic barriers and such has come up in
      discussion numerous times there. Recalling one in which our
      current Socho, Koshin Ogui, sat in on, I remember that there was
      a great deal of concensus that certain aspects that maintain our
      lineage, such as chanting sutras in Japanese and certain of the
      gathas, shouldn't be changed. And I would have to agree; to
      sever links that maintain that lineal tie to Japan, and thence back
      to China and then to India where this all began would be
      something of a mistake. It would be like tossing history out in
      favor of some nebulous potential 'gain'...which may, in fact, not
      be there without those lineal links. BUT...as far as the ethnic
      separation issues, Ogui and all present agreed that to go
      forward, BCA MUST be there for ALL. We have lost temples due
      to insularity and its intermix with declining temple communities,
      and these losses are needless and pointless.

      True, there are some temples where there are possibly Shinshu
      who cannot deal with other ethnic groups coming into 'their'
      community. But by and large, this attitude is either declining or
      gone. The future, most likely, looks sort of like MBT: a very mixed
      community which is still 'there' for the J-A community, but which
      also is wide-open for ALL people while still maintaining some of
      the Japanese 'flavor' that says 'this is where we came from' but
      nothing which becomes so impenetrable and turgid that
      non-Japanese cannot follow.

      Now, as for those things we still maintain...they get explained.
      Usually, in depth, and in such a way as to extract some lesson
      from the dharma from them. For example, I recall a wonderful
      dharma talk that explained the origin of 'arigato' as an
      expression of thankfulness, and the actual word's origin as part
      of a phrase meaning "I am not truly worthy of this", and how this
      brings an expression of humility into a situation of
      interdependence. The whole talk was, of course, a lot more
      complex...but the point is, if you throw ALL the Japanese aspects
      out, you lose things like this. One poster above mentioned that,
      in America, we suffer a lot from a lack of contact with other
      cultural points of reference, and I would have to agree if just on
      the point of that one dharma talk alone. But the thing is, we DO
      forget that the world is much larger than America alone, and it's
      nice to have those references to remind us that we live in a much
      larger and, yep, interdependent world.

      At the same time as the need for Japanese-Americans to reach
      out to those outside their ethnic community, there must also be
      understanding and a true desire to work toward a mutual and
      beneficial goal by those 'hakujin' looking to reach IN.
      Understanding the past is useful to making some sense of that
      insularity, usually only seen among older members (if even
      then!) these days. And also understanding that TIME is essential
      for becoming part of a community; one simply does not walk in
      the door ANYWHERE and presume that everyone inside will
      automagically accept who this stranger is from second #1. This
      goes for anything from a Jodo Shinshu temple to something as
      mundane as a new job at the local MccyD's. That being said,
      though, I'm sure that people will find that just a little discussion
      with people will go a long way to breaking down these presumed
      'barriers'. As an example, I attended one of the daily morning
      services at the Venice Temple back this past summer, while
      working on some recording work in LA. These people, almost all
      Nisei or older Sansei, didn't know me from Adam. In fact, I was
      the only hakujin there. We got along wonderfully, though,
      because I didn't make any preconceptual judgements about
      them and they didn't appear to about me, and when we all sat
      down afterward for coffee and snacks and some chatter,
      whatever ethnic 'barrier' was there was 100%

      Ultimately, while there is much that can be learned as 'book
      learning' online, the true 'experience' can best be felt in a larger
      sangha; remember, it IS one of the things we do take refuge in,
      y'know, and there are quite good reasons for placing such a
      strong emphasis on that aspect. I would say that if any here ran
      into 'issues' in the past, forget about it for the present and try
      again. And when those chants start up, or if the sangha flips to
      "Ondokusan" as one of the gathas...accept it for what it is: a link
      to a long and significant heritage and NOT some way of
      couching these teachings in some impenetrable 'foreign'
      trappings. Ultimately, the temples these days DO give their
      dharma talks and so on in English (yes, even at that weekday
      service at Venice I mentioned with all the older J-As), and it's
      THOSE things which, ultimately, are of the greatest importance
      as they are the things which allow us to relate these teachings to
      us as we are now the best of all.

      BCA is about to see some significant changes, and many of
      them will deal with this; Ogui-Sensei was one who, in both
      Chicago and Cleveland, flung the temple doors wide open for
      any and all people, and I have no doubts that this is what is in
      store for the entire BCA. It will be a good change, I think, but the
      fact is that many members, both J-A and otherwise, have already
      felt the need for this change as it is. Ogui's 'imprimatur' on this
      will more or less be the cherry on the cake that sets these new
      directions, where needed, into motion. Interestingly, while we're
      discussing these points involving the 'Japaneseness' of Jodo
      Shinshu, these likely changes will come from someone who
      could not be MORE Japanese, given that Ogui-Sensei is the 18th
      generation of a familial line of Shin priests in Japan. He sees
      Shin Buddhism's potential as a 'gate' for so many people, and
      understands that it has to be open for all, not merely a restricted
      few. And I have no doubts that part of his mission as our new
      Socho is to make that vision happen. But never expect to see us
      throw all the ethnic aspects out; just as there are certain Greek
      cultural aspects that make Greek Orthodox churches what they
      are, and certain Jewish cultural aspects that make Jewish
      temples what they are, there will hopefully always be those
      Japanese cultural aspects that keep our ties to this greater
      sangha's originating culture intact without making things
      'off-putting' to those who aren't 100% up on those aspects. It is
      our way of saying 'this is us'.

      Besides, MBT makes a DAMN fine teriyaki chicken at our Ginza
      festival, and I would NOT want to see THAT go away! ;-)


      Shaku Kyomei Ho / DAC Crowell
    • Robert Garvey
      DAC, thanks so much for your posting. The issue of religion and culture in the temples merits serious reflection. At the centenary celebration of the Higashi
      Message 2 of 3 , Apr 2, 2004
        DAC, thanks so much for your posting.

        The issue of religion and culture in the temples merits
        serious reflection. At the centenary celebration of the
        Higashi Honganji Hawaii district, Dr. Nobuo Haneda gave a
        talk that touched on that issue. The full text of his talk
        is available here:

        Some aspects of the Japanese language and culture will
        always be part of Jodo Shinshu. For example, the term
        "shinjin" might be better left untranslated. The word
        "faith" is not accurate, especially in light of the
        Judaeo-Christian dimensions that word has in the West.
        Similarly, what is often translated as "mind" (for example,
        "sanjin" as the three minds of shinjin) might be better
        translated as "heart".

        Some feel that the chants should be done in English. In my
        own view, that would be a mistake. Chanting in the
        vernacular might mislead some into thinking they grasp the
        full import of the words they are chanting.

        The 11th conference of the International Association of Shin
        Buddhist Studies (IASBS) was held in Berkeley last
        September. I think non-Japanese participants were in the
        majority. I mentioned that to someone just this week. His
        response was that in general non-Japanese Shin Buddhists are
        more interested in the religious aspects of belonging to a
        temple. [Please note that I said "in general" and that
        generalizations can be inaccurate.]

        There is much diversity in the Shin community worldwide.
        That conference had attendees from temples in Australia,
        Brazil, and Poland.

        There is a dojo in Brooklyn headed by an African-American
        Shin priest, Joseph Jarman. (Free jazz aficionados will
        recognize him as a founding member of the Art Ensemble of
        Chicago.) Information on his aikido dojo and the Brooklyn
        Buddhist Association is available at:

        Peter Lait is a Jodo Shinshu priest who grew up in England,
        studied Buddhism in India for seven years, and has lived in
        Japan for over two decades. His perspective on Jodo Shinshu
        has sparked some lively discussion. Transcripts of two of
        his talks are also available at the Living Dharma site:

        What has come across in many of the recent posts here is
        serious concern about the future of Jodo Shinshu. As was
        noted recently, it is up to each of us as members of the
        sangha. May our concern be reflected in our actions.

        "Don't say things. What you are stands over you the
        while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say
        to the contrary." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

        The minister at my temple thinks that we need to bring Jodo
        Shinshu back to Japan. He has heard remarks about how
        American followers are so serious and committed. My son
        went to Kyoto last June and stayed at the retreat center at
        the Higashi headquarters. Adults there from Niigata met
        with that group of young people and asked about their
        involvement. They do not see the same level of interest
        among the young people in their area.

        DAC, I agree with you that books are good, but sangha is
        invaluable. And, much as I enjoy this forum, direct,
        personal, face-to-face contact I value much more.

        In recognition of the value I place on personal interaction,
        I invite you all to contact me should you plan a visit to
        the San Francisco area. For some Japanese culture here, I
        will take you to the tasting room of the Takara sake brewery
        in Berkeley. And for a different flavor of Buddhism, the
        Thai temple in Berkeley serves wonderful food every Sunday.

        in gassho,

      • Robert Garvey
        ... An article by Kenneth Tanaka entitled American Buddhism s Racial Divide was published in Beliefnet a few years ago:
        Message 3 of 3 , Apr 2, 2004
          --- In shinlist@yahoogroups.com, "DAC Crowell" <dacc@s...> wrote:
          > I'm going to try and split the ethnic issue off here, since it seems
          > to be getting enmeshed in other points and it really is something
          > which seems to need some separate treatment/clarification.

          An article by Kenneth Tanaka entitled "American Buddhism's Racial
          Divide" was published in Beliefnet a few years ago:

          In tracking this article down, I came upon a special report on Buddhism
          in the US that appeared on the Asia Source web site in June of 2001:

          That report has a good collection of links to different articles including
          the one by Ken Tanaka.

          One important point made by Professor Tanaka near the end of his
          article is that the Asian Buddhist he contacted want to see non-Asians
          at their temples. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Many of
          the experiences related in this group are further evidence of that view.

          Have a good Hanamatsuri.

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