Shin Buddhism

Giving Tradition a Chance (Los Angeles Times)

Teresa Watanabe, LA Times: Shin Buddhists celebrate Little Tokyo temple, but ponder faith’s future

In an elaborate ritual reminiscent of ancient Japan, a procession of children in golden crowns and painted faces, traditional court musicians and silk-robed Buddhist priests recently wended its way through Little Tokyo in Los Angeles.

The occasion was the 100-year anniversary of the oldest Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, representing the most popular Buddhist tradition in Japan and among Japanese Americans known as Shin, or Pure Land.

But amid the congratulatory speeches at the Higashi Honganji Temple’s commemoration a few weeks ago, an underlying question lingered:

Can this 780-year-old Japanese Buddhist tradition survive assimilation in America?

As it enters its next century in the United States, Shin Buddhism is encountering myriad challenges not uncommon among various immigrant churches here. With notable exceptions in Orange County and elsewhere, the tradition is failing to retain large numbers of American-born youth. The small number of immigrants from Japan has hamstrung efforts to recruit new Japanese members. And outreach to non-Japanese has been limited by a shortage of American ministers and a culture made more insular by anti-Japanese discrimination in the past.

As a result, the larger of Shin Buddhism’s two branches has lost nearly two-thirds of its registered members in the United States over the last 30 years, from 50,000 families in 1960 to about 17,000 today, according to the Buddhist Churches of America in San Francisco. Higashi Honganji, in the smaller branch, faces similar declines.

The trends have kicked off lively debate over the future of a faith little-known outside Japanese American communities, even though it has more followers than the more familiar Zen and Tibetan schools. Shin Buddhist leaders have also tried to launch a renaissance, reaching beyond their ethnic enclaves with websites, Buddhism classes and the like.

Religious scholars, such as Don Miller of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, say that a transformation of immigrant churches is often inevitable as passing generations become more Americanized. As examples, sociologists point to the decline of once robust Italian Catholic parishes and the Pan-Asian American congregations once dominated by Korean immigrants.

At Higashi Honganji, a graceful building with a traditional tile roof and a glittering sanctuary of golden statues on 3rd Street and Central Avenue, the three-day centennial celebration put equal emphasis on past and future. Both a traditional service of elaborate chanting and another with contemporary music were offered to the 500 attendants. “We feel we have as good a form of Buddhism for the contemporary world as any,” said head minister Noriaki Ito. “But in order for us to survive another 100 years, we’re going to have to at least loosen our ties to Japan and focus on the universal aspects of Buddhism.”

The congregation was founded in 1904 by the Rev. Junjyo Izumida to serve working-class Japanese immigrants. During World War II, Izumida was interned at Manzanar with other Japanese Americans and the temple, its members believe, was safeguarded by non-Japanese friends.

At its peak in the early 1960s, the temple, then located in Boyle Heights, boasted 450 families. That was enough people, Ito said, to supply 20 sports teams, Boy Scout troops and a bustling Sunday school of 100 children. But then Japanese Americans started moving to the suburbs, integrating into the mainstream with high rates of intercultural and interfaith marriage. Competing institutions arrived in Little Tokyo.

Today, the Boy Scouts are gone. So are the sports teams. The adult Buddhist group disbanded in 1999. Although the official church membership has declined to 400 families, Ito said only about 100 of them regularly attend Sunday services.

“It all just kind of faded into the sunset,” Ito said of the activities at the current temple, which was built in 1976.

The forces that pulled so many families away from the church are evident in the life of Higashi Honganji member Yuriko Harada. Harada, 73, experienced the Shin Buddhism of Japan during her childhood, when her family returned to the countryside near Hiroshima after their World War II internment in the U.S.

Every morning, Harada recalled, her mother and grandmother would chant sutras before their household altar. Every meal, they would instruct her to be thankful for the sacrifices made by all living things to provide their food. Once, she recalled, her grandfather stood with her in their rice field, showing her a new grain. “It’s important never to waste even one grain of rice, because so much effort and time from so many people were needed to produce it,” she said he told her.

Harada said her grandmother often took her to clean the family gravesite and would tell her about each ancestor memorialized on the tombstone. Rice cakes and flowers were offered to them at the home altar.

That, to her, was Buddhism: a heart of gratitude, respect for all living things, remembrance of ancestors. But after Harada returned to America, those traditions weakened amid raising four children and helping her immigrant husband run a market in East Los Angeles.

She still retains an altar in her home, but her children do not. She is active in her temple, but not all of her family is. Her son, Craig, is a temple board member and sends his 3-year-old son, Ryan, to its preschool, but said most of his old temple friends no longer attend. One daughter, Gay Harada-Quan, married a man outside her faith and ethnic group and said her husband and children have no interest in Buddhism. Another daughter, Vickie Kanamori, determinedly sent her two children to temple school but candidly said “it was always a battle” with her son.

One survey of Japanese Americans in Northern California and Washington state taken between 1998 and 2000 showed that affiliation with Buddhism steadily declines with younger generations. Among respondents 60 years and older, 37.4% were Buddhist, 35.7% were Christian, 7% were other religions and 20% chose no faith. Among those between 18 and 29, however, only 10.7% were Buddhist, while 21.5% were Christian, 32.1% chose other paths and 35.7% listed no faith, according to the survey by professors at the University of Washington and elsewhere.

USC religion professor Jane Naomi Iwamura cites other reasons behind the attrition: proselytizing by evangelical Christians, a growing trend among Americans to shun any religious affiliation and, among many young Buddhists, a weak understanding of their faith.

Shin Buddhism was founded by Shinran Shonin as a path for the masses, compared to the monastic traditions of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. While those schools focus on lengthy meditation and other rigorous self-disciplines to attain enlightenment, Shin Buddhism preaches salvation not through self-efforts but faith in the power of immeasurable light and life, wisdom and compassion, represented by the Amida Buddha.

The Shin tradition’s message of faith has drawn comparisons to Christianity — one reason, Buddhist scholars say, it has been less appealing to American converts seeking a path distinctly different from their own Christian or Jewish upbringing.

But now Shin Buddhists have begun actively working to raise their profile. A seminal development was the 1998 publication of the first introduction to Shin Buddhism by a major publisher: “River of Fire, River of Water,” by Taitetsu Unno, the nation’s foremost authority on the tradition. The book helped fuel new study groups and sanghas of mostly converts in such places as New Mexico and Connecticut, according to Jeff Wilson, a contributing editor to Tricycle, a leading Buddhist journal.

Among congregational efforts, the West Covina Buddhist Temple has started a successful website,, seeking to relate the faith to American culture. It includes interviews with celebrity Buddhists such as actress Sharon Stone and essays on the Buddhist message in such films as “American Beauty.”

At Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Little Tokyo, Mexican American minister William Briones is taking the Buddhist message to blacks and Latinos in East Los Angeles through talks at high schools and other locales. His temple, part of Shin Buddhism’s larger branch, will celebrate its centennial next year.

One of the region’s most dynamic congregations is the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, which has grown to 1,000 members from 650 in 1986 under the leadership of the Rev. Marvin Harada. Boosted by a 5% hike in Orange County’s Japanese American population in the 1990s, the temple also reaches out to the wider community with such classes as “Buddhism in Western Literature,” and a new publishing arm. Harada said those of non-Japanese descent now account for up to 10% of temple membership.

Harada’s temple is also one of the few to offer meditation services. Official Shin doctrine frowns on meditation as an attempt to gain enlightenment, but Harada said he offers it as a way to relax and open the mind to Buddhist teachings.

The Rev. Koshin Ogui, the newly elected reformist bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, is likely to encourage such measures despite resistance from Japan. He said he began promoting meditation several years ago in Cleveland, where six of every 10 callers wanted to learn the practice.

“I used to answer that we don’t practice meditation, until I realized that if I lose six of every 10 people … I would bankrupt my store,” he said with a laugh.

Ogui, 64, is also pushing a lay-training program to produce more homegrown ministers equipped with an American cultural IQ. Among his organization’s 65 temples, at least 12 have no minister or share one. The bishop supports efforts to project a Shin Buddhist voice into the public arena. Since last year, his organization has passed resolutions opposing the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive war and prohibitions against gay marriage.

Ogui’s goal is no less than to transform Shin Buddhism into a major American faith. But ask for a bottom line on his chances to succeed, and the Buddhist master will not answer.

“Seeking conclusions is a modern sickness,” Ogui said. “Rather, find meaning in the process of becoming.”

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