Buddhist Churches of America


Buddhist Churches of America

The Buddhist Churches of America is the United States branch of the Honpa Hongan-ji (also known as Nishi-Honganji) sub-sect of Jōdo Shinshū ("True Pure Land School") Buddhism. Jodo Shinshu is also popularly known as Shin Buddhism. The B.C.A. is one of several overseas "kyodan" ("districts") belonging to the Nishi ("Western") Hongwan-ji. The other "kyodan" are South America, Hawaiokinai, Canada, and Europe. Their headquarters is at 1710 Octavia Street, San Francisco, California, near San Francisco's Japantown. It is the oldest Buddhist organization in the United States.

Origins and development

The origins of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) began with the arrival of Japanese immigrants to the American mainland during the late 1800s. Devout Shin Buddhists who had expressed concern over the lack of religious services, and the activities of Christian missionaries among the newly-arrived immigrant population, petitioned the "monshu" (head abbot) of the Nishi Hongwan-ji to send priests to the United States. The first Jodo Shinshu priests arrived in San Francisco in 1893, and the first American temple constructed in 1899. The priests' arrival in San Francisco was a source of concern to the Japanese consul to the U.S. who believed it would strain U.S.-Japan relations: for example, a hostile article by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper on the arrival of the priests alleged that the priests' intent was to convert white Americans and proclaim that Buddhism was superior to Christianity. In the decades prior to World War II, the mainland American branch of the Nishi Hongwan-ji tradition was named the "Buddhist Missions of North America" (BMNA), and many temples were established throughout the West Coast of the United States, the first being in San Francisco, followed by temples in the Bay Area, the Central Valley, and Northern and Southern California. There were also temples established in the Northwest states, in Seattle, Washington and Oregon. Since the majority of early Japanese immigrants or issei ("First Generation") were farmers or laborers, many of these temples were built in then-rural, and segregated, areas such as Dinuba, Guadalupe, and Sacramento, California.

An earlier separate branch of the Nishi Hongwanji-ha was established on the Hawaiian Islands in the 1880s, known today as the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii. Many Japanese had also immigrated to Hawaii to work on the plantations there.

The activities of the BMNA focused solely on the Japanese immigrant community and their families. Priests were expected to conduct funeral and memorial services, teach Buddhism together with traditional Japanese culture, and also to serve as role models for young Japanese men, as at the time they were often considered the most educated Japanese immigrants. Many of these priests only stayed temporarily in the United States, then returned to Japan after serving for a period of a few years; others stayed on in the U.S. temples (a trend that continues today among many priests who are Japanese nationals). Worship services were in the Japanese language, and Japanese-language and English-language schools were common at many temples. Auxiliary temple organizations such as the Young Buddhist Association (YBA) and Buddhist Women's Association (BWA), common in Japan, were also established in America to enhance the feeling of "sangha" and ethnic solidarity. Many temples also emphasized American civic principles: Boy Scout chapters were active in temples before and after World War II. The desire to assimilate into mainstream American society created changes in traditional Japanese Buddhist religious architecture and ritual and culture in order to conform to the predeominant Protestant Christian religion: temples resembled Christian churches in their interior style and design (replacing "tatami" mats with pews and introducing lecterns), and supplemented traditional Shinshu liturgy with introduction of Western musical instruments (organs and pianos) in services, singing of "gathas" modeled after Christian hymns, and male and female choirs. These changes remain today and are considered the norm for American Jodo Shinshu temples.

Although the focus of temple life emphasized Japanese Buddhism and Japanese culture, there was a very limited outreach to non-Japanese Americans who were interested in Buddhism. A few Caucasian ("hakujin") members were admitted into BMNA temples, and a notable few, such as the Rev. Sunya Pratt of Tacoma, Washington, and Rev. Julius Goldwater (a relative of Senator Barry Goldwater) from Los Angeles, even became ordained in the Shin tradition in the U.S. prior to World War II. In 2006, Dr. Gordon Bermant, from Ekoji Buddhist Temple, became the President of the Buddhist Churches of America, the first non-Japanese-American to hold this position.

World War II and Japanese-American internment

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of America into World War II had a devastating impact on the Jodo Shinshu temples in America, which lingers to the present day. War hysteria, economic jealousies, and racism led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066 which called for the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and placement into internment camps. Temples were closed and many Japanese-American Buddhist families hid or destroyed their "butsudans" (home altars), and other religious items. Jodo Shinshu priests were arrested by the FBI, since they were viewed as community leaders, and imprisoned separate from their "sanghas". However, Buddhist services were conducted within the internment camps.

The term 'Churches' in the name of the sect derives historically from the desire of Japanese immigrant Buddhists to be accepted into North American society and to avoid attracting hostility and discrimination, especially after many Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. The name was changed from the BMNA to Buddhist Churches of America in 1944 at the Topaz War Relocation Center. During the internment period, many Japanese-Americans enlisted in the U.S. Army to prove their loyalty to America and in the belief that it would end the internment of their families. The BCA also petitioned the War Department to have a Buddhist military chaplain assigned to the segregated Japanese-American units, such as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, but this request was denied as Buddhism was not a recognized religion (at the time only Protestant Christian, Catholic Christian and Jewish chaplains were endorsed). Buddhist chaplains would not be accepted until 1987 when the BCA re-applied for and was granted official endorser status. Following the end of internment in 1946, Japanese-Americans returned to the West Coast and what was left of their former homes, and most temples were re-opened. Relations with the Nishi Hongwan-ji in Japan were also reestablished.

Post-war developments

After World War II, the newly reorganized Buddhist Churches of America temples resumed traditional Jodo Shinshu rituals and services, and served as a refuge from continuing racial discrimination in wider American society. For this reason, there was little or no desire by many Japanese-American "sanghas" in propagating Jodo Shinshu, with few exceptions. The internment legacy also created a stronger desire to assimilate into mainstream American society by many nisei ("Second Generation"). The nisei soon replaced the issei in BCA ministry and leadership positions, and English was used more frequently in services and meetings. During the next several decades, as Buddhism became more widely known and accepted in American society, particularly in its Zen and Tibetan Buddhist forms, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism continued to remain unknown, or misunderstood as an ethnic or "Christianized" form of Buddhism. This view is gradually changing as the organization's membership is becoming more ethnically diverse due to the growing American interest in Buddhism and intermarriage among the sansei ("Third Generation") and yonsei ("Fourth Generation") families, who continue to constitute the majority of "sangha" membership. English is the predominant language spoken at BCA temples, although some Japanese-language-only services and classes are still held. Sutra chanting (or "shomyo") is still in the Japanese-language; some temples have attempted to create an English-language "shomyo".

The BCA continues to struggle with the legacy of the internment and the effects of assimilation, as it confronts many serious issues: temples which are in isolated rural or deteriorating urban areas (which were formerly Japanese-American enclaves), a dwindling membership, lack of interest by young Japanese-Americans in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, and misconceptions of their doctrine within American Buddhism. There are also ongoing debates regarding the adaptation and change of traditional Shin doctrine to Western ideas of Buddhism, such as whether or not temples should offer more diverse forms of meditation in addition to chanting meditation, in order to attract new members, who would not be ethnic Japanese. However, it is hoped that ongoing American interest in the Dharma will lead to a new interest in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and a revival of Jodo Shinshu in the United States. The BCA has attempted to accomplish this goal chiefly through academia, "minister's assistant" training, and through cultural events open to the public, such as the Obon Festival, taiko drumming, and Japanese food bazaars.

The majority of BCA temples are in California, although there are other temples and "howakai" ("Jodo Shinshu Dharma Associations") in Washington, Idaho/Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia. The BCA is administratively and regionally divided into six districts: Northern, Coast, Southern, Central, Eastern, and Northwest. Each district may sponsor its own yearly conferences, lectures, and social and religious events. The BCA also publishes a bilingual monthly newspaper, "Wheel of Dharma".

In the United States, BCA priests may be addressed as either "sensei" ("teacher"), "Minister," or "Reverend." BCA ministers have historically been all male and ethnically Japanese, but there is now a substantial number of female, and non-Japanese, ministers. BCA minister's dress or "koromo" includes the full-length black "fuho", which is the everyday priest's robe, and "wagesa", a type of stole which is said to symbolize the original Buddhist robe worn by the historical Buddha. Additional, more formal robes include the "kokue", a heavier black robe with longer sleeves and pleated skirt, "hakama", and "gojo-gesa", a colorful five-paneled apron which is draped over the "kokue". These are worn for major services such as Obon or Hoonko. In Japan, Jodo Shinshu priests typically wear a white "hakue," or undershirt, under their robes, and "tabi", a traditional split-toe sock, but this is usually not worn in America. BCA ministers also carry an "ojuzu", a string of beads with tassels said to symbolize a person's "bonno" or "evil passions" which one must be mindful of. They are similar to the "mala" in other Buddhist traditions. Jodo Shinshu Buddhism does not have monastic vows ("vinaya")so priests may marry: priests' spouses are called "bomori," an archaic Japanese word which may mean "temple helper." "Bomori" are very active in temple activities, and may also be ordained and assist in rituals and services.

Seminary and education

The BCA's American seminary, the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS), is located in Berkeley, California and is affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union. This seminary and graduate school offers a Master of Arts in Buddhist Studies and offers on-line courses. BCA priests graduate from the IBS after three years and are ordained at the Nishi Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto, Japan in an evening ceremony called "tokudo". Most BCA priests receive additional ordination called "kyoshi" (which permits them to teach doctrine) and "kaikyoshi", literally "overseas teacher" which permits them to teach outside mainland Japan. A typical course of instruction for priesthood includes study of Jodo Shinshu doctrine, history, and liturgy, courses in comparative religions, general overview of Buddhism, and some Japanese-language instruction. Recently the IBS introduced Buddhist-based courses for chaplaincy training in partnership with the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies.

On October 20, 2006, the Jodo Shinshu Center, located in downtown Berkeley, was opened, to function as a training center for ministerial candidates and assistants in the U.S., sponsor continuing education programs for priests and laymembers, and as a major site for the propagation of Shin Buddhism in North America. The Center is also the US headquarters of Ryukoku University based in Kyoto, Japan.

Currently, the Buddhist Churches of America is the only Buddhist organization which can endorse chaplains of Buddhist faith for U.S Armed Forces, as recognized by the National Council on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF). The BCA may also endorse Buddhist chaplains for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

External links

* [http://www.buddhistchurchesofamerica.com/ Buddhist Churches of America website]


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