The "Japanese Thing"
- 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
- 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 email@example.com, "DAC Crowell" <dacc@s...> wrote:
>An article by Kenneth Tanaka entitled "American Buddhism's Racial
> 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.
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.