Chapter Five
Historical Legacy: Ten Watershed Events from India to North America

Could you tell me a little more about how Jodo-Shinshu evolved to what it is today?

Let me answer that by citing ten watershed events that, in my personal view, have helped to shape the tradition as we know it today.

1. Circa 500 B.C.E.: Buddha Delivers a Sermon on Amida Buddha.35

According to the Larger Pure Land Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha delivered a sermon on the sacred story of Bodhisattva Darmakara (Dharma Storehouse), who eventually becomes Amitabha (in Japanese, Amida) Buddha. As a Bodhisattva he sets out to liberate his fellow sentient beings. He does this by sharing his immense storehouse of merit with those who earnestly desire to become enlightened.36 Although sentient beings lack sufficient positive karma of their own, they are able to share in the Bodhisattova’s stock of positive karma. They are then able to be born in the Pure Land to realize complete enlightenment. The Larger Sutra speaks of the events surrounding the sermon as follows:

“World-Honored One, today all your senses are radiant with joy, your body is serene and glorious, and your august countenance is as majestic as a clear mirror whose brightness radiates outward and inward .... I have never seen you look so superb and majestic as today .... For what reason does your countenance look so majestic and brilliant?”

Hereupon the Buddha said to Ananda:

“Tell me, Ananda, whether some god urged you to put this question to the Buddha or whether you asked about his glorious countenance from your own wise observation.”

Ananda replied to the Buddha:

“No god came to prompt me. I asked you about this matter of my own accord.”

The Buddha responded:

“Well said, Ananda. I am very pleased with your question. You have shown profound wisdom and subtle insight in asking me this sagacious question out of compassion for sentient beings .... The reason for my appearance in the world is to reveal teachings of the Way and save multitudes of beings by endowing them with true benefits .... Ananda, listen carefully. I shall now expound the Dharma.”

Ananda replied, “Yes, I will. With joy in my heart, I wish to hear the Dharma. I shall listen with all my heart.”

Then, the Buddha began to speak about a Buddha named World-Sovereign-King (Lokeshvara-raja) who was the last in the line of fifty-three Buddhas, all of whom lived in the incalculably remote past. When World-Sovereign-King Buddha delivered a talk, a king in the audience was so inspired by the talk that he decided to renounce the throne and enter the life of a monk. He was named Dharmakara (Storehouse of Dharma), and with his superior abilities he excelled in his practices. One day, Dharmakara requested World-Sovereign-King Buddha to give him instructions so that he might establish a Pure Land where beings from every corner of the universe could be born. This Pure Land would enable them to realize enlightenment in an environment most ideal for spiritual cultivation.

Upon thorough instructions from his teacher, Monk Dharmakara contemplated for a full five eons (kalpas) and decided on a course of practice for the establishment of an ideal Pure Land called Sukhavati (Realm of Bliss). He then announced his plans through a set of forty-eight vows, which described the physical attributes of the Pure Land, the qualities and requirements of the beings to be born there and the attributes of the Amida Buddha and the Bodhisattvas who dwell thee as spiritual teachers. Amida Buddha was to be the name of Monk Dharmakara when he fulfilled all the vows to become Buddha. The eighteenth vow in particular is central to the Jodo-Shinshu teaching and thus is referred to as the Primal or Original Vow. It declares:

If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and contemplate38 on my name even as many as ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment. Excluded, however, are those who commit the five gravest offenses and abuse the right Dharma.

(Pure Land, p.243)

Upon making the vows, Bodhisattva Dharmakara cultivated the six Perfections, (see page 202) practices for a period of innumerable eons. And ten eons ago, he realized full enlightenment as Amida Buddha and has resided ever since in the Sukhavati Pure Land located billions of Buddha lands to the west (see Chapt. 10 on Pure Land).

In this sacred story, we find the narrative that makes up the centerpiece of Jodo-Shinshu teaching. Its importance becomes clear when we see that the central object of reverence in the shrine is Amida Buddha, not Shakyamuni Buddha.

2. Circa 200 C.E.: Nagarjuna Shows the Difference between the Easy Path and the Difficult Path.

Nagarjuna is known as the father of Mahayana philosophy. He has been held in high esteem by many schools of Buddhism. At least eight Japanese schools claim him as their founder. According to legend, he was invited to the underwater world of the Nagas (mythical serpents) where the Naga King gave him some Mahayana scriptures. These scriptures contained teachings that were taught by Shakyamuni Buddha seven hundred years earlier, but had remained hidden ever since. Such is one account of the beginnings of the Mahayana teachings (The Larger Vehicle).

Despite his high status, Nagarjuna, in his younger years before he became a Buddhist, sometimes got himself into trouble. One story tells how he and three of his close friends sneaked into the women’s quarters of the royal palace to seduce the women. They also wanted to rest their magical skill by making themselves invisible. They quickly learned their magical abilities failed miserably. Nagarjuna managed to escape, but the other three were killed by the guards. Though he escaped unharmed, the experience had a deep impact on him. He began to understand that selfish desire is the root of suffering and magical feats are useless. This understanding helped Nagarjuna to turn to the Buddhist path.

Among his many writings, the one most important for Jodo-Shinshu gives us a metaphor showing the difference between the “easy” Pure Land path and the more “difficult” path.

Although there are numerous ways in the teachings of the Buddha, there are the difficult way and the easy way, as we see in the world. The difficult way is like walking on foot, the easy way is like traveling in a boat. The same can be said about the ways of Bodhisattvas. There are those who are striving toward the Stage of Non-Retrogressing by means of practicing the austere Six Perfections, and those who are trying to approach the State of Non-Retrogression by the way of Faith.39

The path was difficult for it was believed, particularly in India, that three great eons and innumerable rebirths were required before an aspirant could overcome the obstacles to realizing Buddhahood. To overcome the Three Poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance is no easy task for monks and nuns; thus, how much more so the task for laypersons!40 In our mountain metaphor, the difficult path refers to climbing to the top on one’s own power, while the easy path leads to the discovery of the ski lift. Shinran Shonin pays tribute Nagarjuna:

Proclaiming the unexcelled Mahayana teaching, he would attain the stage of joy and be born in the land of happiness. Nagarjuna clarifies the hardship on the overland path of difficult practice, and leads us to entrust to the pleasure on the waterway of easy practice.

(Teachings I, p. 163)

Nagarjuna, thus, cleared the way for laypersons to pursue the path of enlightenment without undergoing the rigors of being monks and nuns. Making enlightenment accessible to laypersons was significant since it was believed that, generally, people needed to be reborn as monks or nuns before they could realize the highest Buddhist goal.

For this contribution, the Jodo-Shinshu shrine has him depicted among the Seven Masters on a scroll located in the far left section. The Seven Masters, selected by Shinran Shonin, are Nagarjuna (in Japanese, Ryuju), Vasubandhu (Tenjin, ca. 4th-5th century), T’an-luan (Donran, 476-542), Tao-ch’o (Doshaku, 562-645), Shan-tao (Zendo, 613-681), Genshin (942-1017) and Honen (1133-1212). The first two are Indian, the second three Chinese and the last two Japanese.41

3. Circa 650 C.E.: Master Shan-tao or Zendo (613-81) Focuses on the Human Condition.

In a famous parable of the “Two Rivers and White Path,” Shan-tao (Zendo, perhaps the preeminent Pure Land Buddhist scholar and practitioner in Chinese history) paints a picture of the problem of being human and the urgent need to seek the Buddhist path. The seekers are urged to awaken to what modern psychology would call the “shadow,” that dimension of the self that one would rather ignore. Here is the story.

A lone traveler comes upon a group of group of bandits and a horde of wild animals. They are symbols of prejudices and attachments that trap him in a life of anxiety and unhappiness. He runs westward to escape from the bandits and the beasts but is stuck when he comes to a bank of two rivers: a river of fire on the north and a river of raging water to the south. The fire represents greed and the water hatred.

He sees a narrow white path of about twenty centimeters across and forty meters long that connects to the other shore on the western bank. The path symbolizes the Pure Land Buddhist teachings. But the path is narrow and the flames of fire and the raging waves would surely topple him over. As he looks over his shoulders, the bandits and the wild animals are fast approaching him.

He cannot go backwards or forward, or stay where he is. If he takes any of the three options, he is certain to die. This is called the “three certain deaths.” There is nothing he can do but await for death; a point of utter despair.

But as this point he hears the voices of the two Buddhas. Shakyamuni Buddha on the east bank urges him to go across without turning back. Amida Buddha on the west bank beckons him to come across without fear of hesitation. Relying on the caring encouragement of the two Buddhas, the traveler confidently takes the decisive step to walk across. He safely reaches the other shore of enlightenment.

This parable is still a popular topic of many sermons in the Jodo-Shinshu temples and among Chinese Pure Land followers. The story calls up deep feelings and gets to the heart of the reasons for spiritual quests. When Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists talk about their foolish, ego-centered nature, they echo the insight Shan-tao experienced fourteen hundred years ago. This self assessment is not forced on them by religious authority, but is the result of personal experience of their human nature.

The parable does not simply end with the problem but offers a simple solution: recite the Name of Amida while trusting in the Power of Amida’s Vow. The simple solution opens this path to even the least refined seekers among the masses. Master Shan-tao spread this message of universal and speedy enlightenment through his writing, artistic works, and public speaking in and around the capital of Ch’an-an.

While Master Shan-tao’s importance in the Chinese Pure Land tradition is undeniable, his role in the Japanese Pure Land development is even more significant. It was his writings that inspired Honen Shonin, Shinran’s teacher, to convert to the Pure Land path. He is, thus, duly recognized as the fifth Master of the Jodo-Shinshu transmission lineage and is depicted in the shrine among the Seven Masters.

4. Year 1175: Honen Shonin (1133-1212) Proclaims Independent Status.

Up until Honen’s time, Pure Land doctrine and practices in Japan, and in China, had not made up an independent school. Pure Land practices were among many sets of practices carried out under “one roof” of a given temple or school. Honen’s independence from the Tendai school in 1175 marked the beginning of the first independent and exclusively Pure Land school in the long history of Buddhism.

Honen had struck a responsive chord, especially among the masses who had been ignored by the older schools whose biggest supporters were the imperial court, aristocrats, and privileged classes. Honen was a reformer and his success in gaining followers made the older Buddhist schools nervous. The older schools became especially angry when the Pure Land school challenged the idea that only the emperor could officially establish a school.

In 1204, the Tendai school petitioned the emperor to restrict the new movement. The next year the powerful Kofukuji Temple in Nara made the same request. They accused Honen’s movement of neglecting Shakyamuni Buddha, rejecting the Shinto gods,42 breaking precepts (of eating meat and gambling), and causing disorder in the nation. These pressures, combined with alleged wrongdoing by some of Honen's key disciples, let to a ban in 1207. A short time later Honen and his top disciples were exiled to remote provinces.

Despite these attempts to block Honen’s group, the old schools were not able to stem the tide of the new movement. The new message was a welcome break from the old elitist teachings. The new teaching was caring and simple. The Pure Land teachings were now open to all people regardless of social class, education, wealth, and spiritual abilities. Honen’s teaching would even embrace people whose work made them violate precepts, such as fishermen and the emerging Samurai warrior class who had to routinely break the first precept of not killing.

All the followers had to do was simply recite the Name of Amida with faith in the compassionate vow. Honen was convinced his was the best teaching in the Last Age of Dharma (mappo), which was believed to have begun around 1152. After Honen’s death in 1212, his disciples, including Shinran, took the message to all corners of Japan.

As the seventh master of the Jodo-Shinshu lineage, Honen is depicted in the shrine with the other six masters. When Shinran spoke of “Jodo-Shinshu” or the “true essence of Pure Land Buddhism,” he always had Honen’s teachings in mind.

5. Year 1277: Shinran’s Daughter Kakushinni (1224-83) Donates her Property to the Order.

When Shinran Shonin died in 1263, he was almost unknown in the Buddhist circles in the capital, Kyoto. He certainly never reached the stature of his teacher Honen. His followers were mostly located 400 miles away from the capital in what is now the Tokyo area, and they were of little political or social importance on the national scene.

But the Jodo-Shinshu road toward its later stature as one of the largest and most powerful Buddhist Schools started with the actions taken by Shinran Shonin’s youngest daughter, Kakushinni.

After her father’s death, Kakushinni built a small family temple with an image of her father on the Otani grounds which she owned. Kakushinni wanted her father’s teaching to live on forever so, in 1277 she donated the Otani property and the temple to the Jodo-Shinshu Order. This was a significant move on her part as her father’s legacy and teaching would reach more people. The Order, which was made up mostly of her father’s faithful from the distant Tokyo area, asked Kakushinni to serve as the Guardian of the Mausoleum who would take care of the property and the temple. Some fifty years later, this mausoleum became an officially recognized temple named the “Honganji” or the Temple of the Original Vow.

Such were the humble beginnings of the Honganji branch of the Jodo-Shinshu school. What is interesting is the key role played by a woman, without whose foresight the Jodo-Shinshu might never have reached its later glory and influence! While Kakushinni is not directly represented in the shrine, her legacy lives on today in the name “Honganji” (Temple of Original Vow) which refers to two of the largest branches of Jodo-Shinshu (See Appendix IV). The Honganji branches evolved from the time of Kakushinni’s grandson, Kaku’nyo (1270-1351, the third Abbot), to take on a primogeniture system, that is to say, the position of the Abbot or Monshu (Gate-Head) came to be handed down to the oldest male heir. The present Monshu Sokunyo (1945- ) is the twenty-fourth in line.

6. Year 1465: Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) Escapes Destruction of the Honganji Temple.

Although there had been rumors of an attack, Rennyo and his followers were not ready for the swift onslaught of the monks from Mt. Hiei. When about one hundred and fifty monk-soldiers from Hiei arrived at the modest Honganji Temple, they quickly broke in and overwhelmed the small number of guards. Rennyo’s attendants helped him escape alive, and he took cover in a friendly temple. By time support from the nearby areas rushed to their aid, the temple had been plundered and destroyed beyond repair.

Rennyo Shonin, the eighth Abbot of the Honganji (before its split into Nishi or western and Higashi or eastern branches), is known as the “restorer” or “the second founder” of Jodo-Shinshu. He earned this title by building the young Shinshu order into one of the best known Buddhist schools in his lifetime. The great things he did are more surprising when we think about the personal hardships he lived with as a child. His mother left him when he was six years old, and he was forced to live with a stepmother who didn’t like him. His family was so poor that he often went without eating for two or three days. Still, he had good religious training. He had some formal training, and he went with his father to visit Honganji supporters in the faraway districts.

When the Otani Honganji (temple) was destroyed, Rennyo lost both his place of birth and his home of over fifty years. More importantly, it had become the spiritual home of a growing Shinshu community. Rennyo had built a large group of followers during the seven years after assuming the role of Abbot at the age of forty-three. It was this success that had caused some Tendai temples to be alarmed and jealous. When they saw Rennyo as a big enough threat, they attacked his temple. Rennyo’s problems had just begun. His enemies kept harassing his rag-tag group until Rennyo fled from the area.

We see an image of Rennyo and his family and supporters fleeing their temporary homes by night carrying whatever they could on their backs. These attacks by fellow Buddhist schools strike us as un-Buddhist-like behavior, but they show us the mood of the time. Japan had entered a time of political unrest and warfare that flooded the nation.

The hard times of his younger years had made Rennyo tough. He fought against his troubles and turned problems into opportunities for growth. He moved his headquarters to Yoshizaki, on the Japan Sea side, where he again built up a large Shinshu following. Without the strong national government, the nation was in the throes of political disunity and civil wars. As the local conflicts spread, Rennyo had to steer a careful course and control his followers. Some of the followers played important roles in the battles among the vying provincial warrior lords as well as between these lords and their peasants claiming greater autonomy.

Having built a strong center for the Honganji, Rennyo returned to Kyoto. At the age of sixty-eight, he built the temple at Yamashina which became the center of the Honganji Order. With a temple from which to work, Rennyo was able to teach and spread the teachings. At seventy-five, Rennyo gave up his post as Abbot to his fifth son, Jitsunyo, but he kept working after retirement. At the ripe age of eighty-two, he established the Ishiyama Temple in the city of Osaka.

Rennyo’s skill in rebuilding the Honganji (both the main temple and the entire network of Honganji branch temples) is truly remarkable. He had a total of twenty-seven children from five wives (not concurrently) with the last child born to him at the age of eighty-four! He led the Honganji Branch through a tough time with strength, courage, and vision. Rennyo’s contribution still shows today in many parts of the tradition.

As the result of his status as the Restorer or the Second Founder, Rennyo is given a special place in the shrine. He is “housed” in a manner virtually equal to Shinran, but on the opposite side (left) of Amida Buddha.

7. Year 1570: Warlord Oda Nobunaga Attacks Ishiyama Honganji.

Political turmoil and fighting grew worse all through Japan during the sixteenth century. The Honganji again fell victim to the conflict when a feudal lord attacked the thriving Yamashina Honganji and burned it to the ground. Abbot Shonyo, his family, and followers barely escaped and found refuge at Ishiyama Temple in Osaka one hundred miles away.

In its new home, the Honganji branch began to thrive again and grow in influence and membership despite the turmoil around them. The fighting finally dragged them in. The most powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga, intended to bring the whole country under his control. He wanted Ishiyama Honganji because it was an important military location. Nobunaga was also uneasy about the great power and influence of the Buddhist schools, especially the Honganji. They could be a threat to his dream of becoming the Shogun, the Supreme Commander.

In 1570, Nobunaga ordered Abbot Kennyo and his followers out of Ishiyama. Kennyo bluntly refused. This started a ten year battle between the two forces. Kennyo saw Nobunaga as the “enemy of the Buddha-Dharma” who would stop at nothing until he gained control of the entire country. Nobunaga was sympathetic to Christianity, which also bothered Kennyo.

When Nobunaga started his siege in September of 1570, Abbot Kennyo appealed to the Honganji Shinshu followers and sympathetic feudal lords throughout Japan. The response was sensational. Men and supplies poured in to defend the mother temple. Though outnumbered and less experienced, the Honganji defenders repulsed a series of attacks by the mighty Nobunaga army. They were inspired by the belief that they were defending their faith from the enemy of Buddhism. With the combination of religious inspiration and material support by the large network of supporters, the Honganji managed to fight the Nobunaga forces for the next ten years!

But by 1580, Nobunaga controlled much of central Japan and had isolated the Honganji from its supporters. Abbot Kennyo, fearing the total massacre of his people, agreed to leave Ishiyama. His oldest son, Kyo’nyo, and his supporters, refused to concede. This was the background for the split of the Honganji into Nishi (West) and Higashi (East) branches. Kennyo chose his second son, Junnyo, as his successor. His line developed into Nishi Honganji, while the first son Kyo’nyo went on to establish the Higashi Honganji (or Otani Branch).43

The Buddhist Churches of Amida, Honpa Honganji Mission of Hawaii and Buddhist Churches of Canada elong to the Nishi Honganji, not to Higashi Honganji which is less well represented in North America. This affiliation has its roots all the way back to the Ishiyama conflict over four hundred years ago.

8. Year 1806: Government Renders Verdict on Sango-wakuran Controversy.

The modern idea of keeping politics separate from religion did not exist during the Tokugawa period (1602-1867). The government used the Buddhist temples as government outposts where the people’s official records were kept. The Buddhist schools were banned from preaching the Dharma to convert new followers. All members of the same family were required to belong to the same school.44 What is more, priests were discouraged from suggesting any new ideas that were not already in the tradition.

A major argument about doctrine broke out among the scholars of Nishi Honganji at the end of the 1700s. On one side stood the professors of the Academy (the highest center of sectarian learning) in Kyoto and on the other side were the scholars in the remote areas. The Academy professors wanted to emphasize the dynamic dimension of “Shinjin awareness” as manifested in one’s daily activities. They thought it was important to express one’s spiritual understanding in the way we act, speak, and think. The technical name for this is “the three karmic actions” (sango) of mind, body, and speech. The scholars from the outlying areas, on the other hand, argued that the serene mind of Shinjin awareness is central to the life of the person of Shinjin awareness. In their view, the three karmic actions become uncomfortably close to being self-power practice (see page 102). The clash can be seen as a difference between a more active and outward interpretation versus a more passive and inward emphasis.

While arguments about doctrine were nothing new to the Shinshu tradition, what draws our attention to this dispute is how much the government controlled and interfered in the affairs of religious institutions. The government in the Tokugawa period was very much against any kind of change. It is not surprising, then, that the government courts finally brought an end to the argument in 1806 by deciding against any change in the doctrine. The winning side in this case happened to be the more passive definition favored by the scholars in the outlaying areas. This decision was largely based on a simple rule: Accept the old and reject the new! Chido, the head scholar of the Academy at the time, not only lost the case but faced a punishment of exile to a distant island. But because he had died in prison before the verdict was handed down, it is reported that his ashes were sent to the island in his place!

The dispute and the way it was solved had a strong impact on the way the teachings would be understood. Today, the passive definition is dominant in the Nishi Honganji teachings. The emphasis is on the activities of Amida Buddha over those of the human seeker. There is little stress on the active definition of Shinjin whose advocates lost out in the government decision of 1806.

9. Year 1899: First Missionaries Arrive in San Francisco.

When the first two missionaries of the Nishi Honganji arrived on September 1, 1899, they were interviewed by reporters of the San Francisco Chronicle. Two weeks later, their picture appeared with the following caption:

Dr. Shuye Sonada and Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima, two Buddhist priests who are the sons of Buddhist priests of Japan, have come here to establish a Buddhist mission at 807 Polk Street and to convert Japanese and later Americans to the ancient Buddhist faith. They will teach that God is not the creator, but the created, not a real existence, but a figment of the human imagination, and that pure Buddhism is a better moral guide than Christianity.

Their priestly robes are as interesting as the lesson that they would present. As they posed before the camera in the hallway near their rooms in the Occidental Hotel yesterday, they were the wonderment of all the Japanese employees who could assemble for the glimpse of the sacred garb.

These first missionaries were not received with open arms when they came to America. For example, notice how the Chronicle comments that, “They will teach that  ... pure Buddhism is a better moral guide than Christianity.” One cannot help but sense a combative tone in that comment.

Some people in the Japanese community didn’t give them much of a welcome, either. The groundwork for the official missionaries was laid several years earlier. One year before they came, a Buddhist representative met with the Japanese Consul, but records show he did not like the idea of bringing Buddhism to this country. He feared that bringing a “foreign religion” here would cause problems when Japan and America were at peace. The Consul was upset by the idea and asked whether the American government would allow a foreign religion to come in. He saw Buddhism as a threat to peace!45

Despite the uncaring attitude, even among some of the leaders of the Japanese community on the west coast, the members of the Buddhist community in San Francisco pressed hard for their dream. On September 1, 1898, (exactly one year before the arrival of the first missionaries), the members of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association met to draft a petition to the Nishi Honganji headquarters. The petition was signed by eighty-three people and asked the Honganji to start a center headed by Buddhist priests sent from their homeland. Surrounded by a lonely, unfriendly religious world, their strong wishes were expressed with the following words from their petition:

In the eight directions are non-Buddhist forces surrounding the Japanese Buddhists, and we cannot be at ease. It is as if we are sitting on the point of a pin; no matter how we move, we will be pricked. Our burning desire to hear the Teachings (of the Buddha) is about to explode from every pore in our bodies.46

From this humble beginning, in just fifteen years the group grew to twenty-five churches and branches. In 1914, the first general meeting of the ministers and lay representatives gathered to officially from the North American Buddhist Mission. In the following year, it sponsored the World Buddhist Conference during the Panama Canal Exposition held in San Francisco. In the 1920s and 1930s, the number of churches and members kept growing, due mostly to the increased discrimination against the Japanese by the general American public. The crescendo of anti-Japanese sentiments culminated in the 1924 Alien Land Laws and the Oriental Exclusion Act. According to the new law, Japanese nationals could no longer own property, and new immigration from Japan was terminated. The Exclusion Act ironically turned out to be a windfall for the Buddhist temples.

The Japanese community interpreted the law as extremely unjust. Many of them, including those who were undecided, became members of Buddhist temples. The Buddhist temples came to be perceived as an ethnic refuge and bastion for Japanese culture amidst the sea of hostile society. This is reflected in an observation made during that period about the Gardena Buddhist Church:

After the passage of the Immigration Law of 1924 discriminating against the Japanese, the number of Buddhists increased rapidly, and so did that of the Buddhist Churches. Before that event, some of them had been hesitant in declaring themselves Buddhists, considering such an act impudent in a Christian country. But the immigration law made them more defiant and bold in asserting what they believed to be their rights; it made them realize the necessity of cooperation for the sake of their own security and welfare, and naturally they sought centers of their communal activity in their Buddhist churches.47

The Buddhist Churches of America (B.C.A) has designated September 1st as Founding Day, and it is observed by its affiliated temples.

9. Year 1944: Regrouping of Jodo-Shinshu During World War II.

May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never emerge again.

These sad and hopeful words are etched on a plaque at Manzanar, California, one of the ten concentration caps set up by the United States Government during World War II. The camps were both home and prison to 110,000 Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents, after they were forced out of their own homes in states on the west coast. These American citizens and legal residents were locked up without due process of law. This happened because the war made some people afraid of them. Others hated them because of their race, and still others wanted to make money by stealing their property. It took almost half century for the government to finally issue a formal apology to the internees, and to agree that the internment was one of the most shameful chapters in American history.

Among the first to be rounded up in the early days of the war were the Buddhist priests. Mrs. Shinobu Matsuura’s husband was the Rev. Issei Matsuura. He was the minister of a temple in Guadalupe, a small farming community in central coastal California. Mrs. Matsuura, a highly respected spiritual and community leader in her own right, later recalled those terrifying events in her book, Higan (Compassionate Vow).48

February 18, 1942, early morning, still in our night clothes and huddled by the heater, we listened grimly to the news over the radio. There was a loud rapping on the back door. Three men stood there. They were the FBI.

“We came to arrest Rev. Matsuura,” said one, as they came through the door. I had a foreboding that something like this would happen. But when the time actually came, I felt crushed. I was instructed to pack a change of clothing for my husband. Hurriedly, I put his underwear and toiletries in a bag. Separately, I wrapped his koromo (priest robes) and kesa (a miniature version of the original monastic robe that is worn around the neck), seiten (book of sacred writings) and Kanmuryojukyo sutra (the Contemplation Sutra).

“Only bare necessities,” they said, but he being a minister, the extra religious articles were allowed. My husband walked the long corridor to the hondo (Buddha hall), lit the candle and incense and quietly read the Tanbutsuge (sutra). Our youngest daughter, Kiyo, and I bowed in gassho (placing the palms together as an expression of reverence), realizing this may be our last parting. The FBI stood at attention through the sutra chanting.

In April 1942, Mrs. Matsuura was evacuated to the camps, along with the entire Japanese American community. She would later write:

Whatever land and property were acquired in the almost fifty years of immigrant history leading up to that day were to be sold at any price or just abandoned. We were told to leave with only what we could carry. Bearing numbered tags identifying us as “enemy aliens,” and steeped in uncertainty, we tearfully left our home.

The camps had been hastily built in desolate areas across the western states. Once there, the internees found they were surrounded by bared wire fences and armed guards. Sixty percent of the internees were Buddhists, mostly of the Jodo-Shinshu school. Though they were locked up, they still practiced their religion. Sunday morning services were well attended. For many, the services helped them to deal with their deep feelings of betrayal and the uncertainties about their own well-being.

Ironically, the most critical step in the Americanization of Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism took place in the concentration camps located in Topaz, Utah. The organization had been controlled by priests who were almost all missionaries from Japan and lay leaders who were first generation immigrants. Japanese was the primary language used in all organization business.

During the internment, the American-born second generation began to exercise more influence. The great change started with a series of meetings at the Topaz camp in early 1944, and climaxed with a conference in Salt Lake City (east of the quarantined zone) in July that year. A new constitution was adopted that called for a shift to English as the primary language and a new name: The Buddhist Churches of America. The conference also marked another important change ― the growing power of the lay members in relation to the priests, whose authority and influence had been enormous in the prewar years.

The change in the name from North American Buddhist Mission to Buddhist Churches of America was the direct result of the 1944 meeting. This move was part of a serious effort to plant the roots of Jodo-Shinshu in the new American soil.

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the Jodo-Shinshu institutions in North America?

 The temples need to become fully Dharma-centered. In the past, Dharma has had to share its position with the cultural (ethnicity, arts, social, etc.) needs of the Japanese American members for the historical reasons discussed above. If the cultural elements continue to dominate the center, the temple will exclude people who are interested in Buddhism but do not share the same strong interests in cultural matters. The universal nature of the Dharma, in contrast, has the ability to include diverse groups and to give spiritual meaning to their interests. Dharma can then function as the “hub” of the many cultural activities of the temple. The cultural activities will not disappear any time soon, nor do we want them to, but they need to “step down” to take their secondary place in the life of a temple.

Do you think the challenge will be met successfully?

I am optimistic. I believe that we are in an ideal environment for the teaching to stand on its own. As we discussed above, Jodo-Shinshu suffered a great deal to persecution and control by the government throughout much of its history in Japan. This suppression, however, is unlikely to happen in North America with its ideals of the separation of state and religion. Further, North Americans generally turn to teachings as the foundation of their personal values and action to a greater degree than their modern counterparts in Japan. With this religious environment, Buddhism has already attracted the serious interest of many seekers, particularly those who feel disillusioned by organized Western religions. I believe that when the Jodo-Shinshu teachings are correctly understood, they have all the potential to successfully meet the needs of many North Americans.


35  This dating and its association with the historical Buddha would be difficult to substantiate (as with all other Mahayana sutras) from a strict historical point of view, but we are following the Jodo-Shinshu traditional understanding.

36  Mahayana Buddhism has stressed an earlier doctrine that the positive results of one’s karma are transferable (parinama) to others. The idea of the Bodhisattvas directing their stock of positive karmic merit to liberate all sentient beings make up the motivation of their vows and their very existence. Thus, karma should not be seen as confined just to the individual. For an excellent modern discussion of “transcendental” spiritual forces, see Malcom David Eckel. To See the Buddha: A Philosophical Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness (Harper: San Francisco, 1992).

38  I have taken a different reading of this passage than that of Prof. Inagaki (“... and call my Name even ten times ...”) since I believe it reflects the original intent.

39  This quote appears in the “Chapter on Easy Practice” of a commentary in Chinese on the Dashabhumika-sutra attributed to Nagarjuna. This translation (with slight modification to fit our needs) appears in Shinei Shigejuji. Nembutsu in Shinran and His Teachers: A Comparison (Toronto: Toronto Buddhist Church, 1980), pp. 4-5.

40  For example, pride (mana) is so subtle and deep-seated that Buddhist practitioners regarded it as one of the last mental obstacles to be eliminated. Now, the “easy path” did not claim to reach in this life the same goal (Buddhahood) as the difficult path. Its goal was to reach a level of enlightenment called “the non-retrogressive state” which assured the practitioners of full Buddhahood once they were born in the Pure Land.

41  For further discussion of the Seven Masters, see Inagaki’s Pure Land Sutras and Bloom’s Shoshinge: The Heart of Shin Buddhism. For Shinran’s appreciation of them, see Hymns of the Pure Land Masters of the Shin Buddhist Translation Series (see Bibliography section).

42  It may seem odd that any Buddhist group would be offended by another Buddhist group’s rejection of the gods of a non-Buddhist religion. But, acceptance of the Shinto gods helped Buddhist sects to prosper and maintain harmony with the civil authorities.

43  See Appendix IV for explanation of these two and other eight branches of Jodo-Shinshu.

44  This, in my view, has contributed to the practice even today of regarding religious participation in terms of family and not of individuals. For example, adults with their own households tend not to become temple members as long as their parents are members, and family memorial services continue to be the primary form of contact with the temple for many Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists.

45  Tetsuden Kashima. Buddhism in America: The Social Organization of an Ethnic Institution (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977), p. 14. Much of this section is based on this book.

46  Ibid., p. 15.

47  Kosei Ogura, “A Sociological Study of the Buddhist Churches in North America, With a Case Study of Gardena, California, Congregation.” Master’s Thesis, Univ. of Southern California,: 1932, pp. 85-86.

48  I find Mrs. Matsuura’s contribution to the development of Jodo-Shinshu in North America to be enormous. Not only did she run a children’s home in the central coastal California town of Guadalupe for many years prior to World War II, but also nurtured the start of Buddhist Study Center in Berkeley which in the 1950s attracted numerous scholars and intellectuals to study Buddhism. The Center developed into what is presently the Institute of Buddhist Studies. I recall with distinct memory her utter dedication and a profound personal appreciation and understanding of the Nembutsu teaching. She had given Dharma talks at every one of the 60 or so B.C.A temples and in many other Jodo-Shinshu temples in Canada, Hawaii and Japan.