A Lotus in Mormon Land

In Utah, Buddhist scholar Charles Prebish is surprised to discover a Buddhist community thriving alongside its Mormon neighbors.

By Charles Prebish

Photo by Pedro Lastra

In more than forty-five years of investigating the Buddhist tradition from ancient India to modern America, I’ve been lucky enough to explore an exciting panoply of longstanding and emerging Buddhist groups in what I have long been calling “American” Buddhism: from the mammoth Hsi Lai Temple complex in Hacienda Heights, California, to tiny Zen communities in rural Pennsylvania; from the vast multiethnic sanghas of Toronto to cybersanghas on the Internet. None have been more interesting, and challenging to understand, though, than the Buddhist communities I have lately been studying from my new home outside Logan, Utah, where I recently assumed a teaching position at Utah State University.

Utah offers a uniquely religious environment, dominated by Mormon culture and populated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or “LDS” as they are routinely called here. The LDS church is so dominant in Utah that until the fall of 2006, no university in the state even housed a degree-granting religious studies program. That changed when Utah State launched its new religious studies program, with two endowed chairs: one in Buddhist studies, for which I was hired, and the other in Morman studies, which is held by Philip Barlow. Additional endowed chairs in Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism are hopeful additions on the horizon. It’s an ambitious plan, but one wonderfully supported by the university administration and the local community.

Upon arriving in Utah, I had no idea what to expect with respect to finding Buddhist compatriots. I had utilized the ample resources of BuddhaNet to identify as many Buddhist groups as possible in the state. Some of these had previously been known to me; others not. The Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City, for example, is the main community of Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi. Genpo Roshi has used his home base in Salt Lake City to develop a network of Buddhist sanghas worldwide and gained much acclaim for his “Big Mind” program. One of Genpo Roshi’s dharma-heirs, Michael Zimmerman, is a former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court.

But there are older Buddhist roots in this part of the world that most people are not aware of. Representatives from the Meiji government of Japan visited Salt Lake City in 1872, and by 1900 there were over four hundred Japanese living in Utah, a number that would rise to over two thousand by 1910 and almost three thousand by 1920. Early in the last century, the Intermountain Buddhist Church was established under Reverend Kenryo Kuwabara, who first operated in Ogden and later moved to Salt Lake City. In 1923 the Salt Lake Buddhist Church created a Young Buddhist Association because the children of church members were increasingly excluded from extracurricular activities in school.

Virtually all of the Japanese Buddhist churches in Utah were part of the Jodo Shinshu, or Pure Land, school of Buddhism, which at that point was under the umbrella of the Buddhist Mission of North America. By 1924 the Japanese Immigration Exclusion Act prohibited all Japanese immigration, and by 1944 many Japanese residents of Utah and other western states were forced to relocate to the famous Topaz Concentration Camp, in the dusty high desert 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. It was there, in 1944, that the Buddhist Mission of North America officially changed its name to Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) in the hopes of sounding more acceptable to the American people. After the war, with the repeal of the Alien Land Law, Japanese residents could once again buy land in Utah, and many did just that. Today there are thriving BCA temples in Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Honeyville.

Not long after my arrival on campus at Utah State, I was contacted by a woman named Jane Koerner who wanted to do a story on my arrival for Utah State Magazine. Little did I know that Jane was a longtime Zen practitioner and was intimately involved in a local group called the Cache Valley Sangha. This little Buddhist community is an eclectic group of Buddhists and Buddhist sympathizers that meets regularly to practice meditation, discuss Buddhist books, and share personal stories. They’re composed of faculty members at Utah State, students, and local residents from communities in and around Logan. It was through the Cache Valley Sangha that many of the twenty or so Utah Buddhist communities opened up to me.

A quick survey of the Buddhist communities in Utah yields roughly the same array of sectarian sanghas that one might find anywhere in North America. Of the twenty-two Buddhist groups I located, six were Zen, four Theravada, three Pure Land, three Tibetan, two Soka Gakkai, one Vipassana, and three non- or multi-denominational (or what Don Morreale called “Buddhayana” in his Complete Guide to Buddhist America, published in 1998). This latter category is particularly interesting because it reflects a growing change in the composition of Buddhist groups now populating the American Buddhist landscape.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when initial studies of the American Buddhist movement began to appear in the scholarly and popular literature, groups tended to be divided either by their ethnic or “convert” status—the “two Buddhisms” I wrote about in my early publications on this topic—or by the lines of transmission of a particular tradition, referred to first by Jan Nattier as “import,” “export,” and “ethnic” Buddhism. In the 1990s, Paul Numrich sought to harmonize some of these distinctions by using the terms “Asian immigrant Buddhists” and “American convert Buddhists” and pointing out that some of these groups existed in “parallel congregations” in which these two units occupied the same geographic temple space, but at different times and utilizing different practices. By the turn of the new century, when researchers such as Jeff Wilson, Shannon Hickey, and others began investigating more and newer American Buddhist communities, the buzzword became “hybridity.” That is to say, traditional sectarian lines, ethnic divisions, and lines of transmission began to blur in favor of useful cross-fertilization of Buddhist traditions, breeding a kind of Buddhist ecumenicism.

When I began exploring Buddhist communities in Utah, one of the very first respondents to my initial inquiry was Reverend Jerry Hirano, resident minister of the Salt Lake City Buddhist Churches of America temple. With a long history that dates back to 1912, the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple has outlined three major emphases for it efforts: education, community, and finance. This temple provides a vibrant religious life for the Japanese American community of Salt Lake City, hosting a staggering array of activities ranging from a dharma school for young members of the temple to a series of Young Buddhist Association programs. The temple produces a monthly newsletter, offers scholarships for attending religious retreats, holds seminars and classes, and conducts a wide variety of Buddhist rites and celebrations marking key events in members’ lives and the BCA calendar.

Although newer to Utah than Pure Land, Zen is by far the best-known and most represented Buddhist tradition in this state. The most prominent of the Zen communities is Genpo Roshi’s Kanzeon Sangha International, which is based in Salt Lake City, a dozen or so blocks down the street from the Mormon temple. Genpo Roshi is one of the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi’s dharma-heirs, and dharma-brother to John Daido Loori Roshi, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in New York. The Kanzeon Sangha is a member of the White Plum Sangha, a consortium of Zen centers established by Maezumi Roshi’s dharma-heirs.

Like many Zen teachers in the White Plum Sangha, Genpo Roshi has addressed the issue of how much traditional Zen practice to maintain and how much innovation to introduce. It is quite clear that meditation remains the core practice of the Kanzeon Sangha, with the Zen forms of private instruction, dokusan and daisan, available during scheduled meditation periods. Sunday is a special day for the community, combining morning meditation practice with a dharma talk by one of the teachers. Following the dharma talk, there’s a social hour in the adjoining sangha house, and there’s a children’s class on Sundays as well. As with all of Maezumi Roshi’s successors, Genpo Roshi’s community is profoundly committed to engaged Buddhism, working ardently with the Salt Lake County Juvenile Court, various soup kitchens, and other projects.

The Soka Gakkai tradition is also represented in Utah, primarily through centers in Salt Lake City and in Southern Utah (in La Verkin, Utah). But lest one think that the Buddhist landscape in Utah is dominated by sanghas of Japanese ancestry, Tibetan communities are thriving here as well, including those serving Tibetan refugees. Some of the first Tibetan refugees to reach Utah in the late 1980s established the Utah Tibetan Resettlement Project, which now has more than two hundred members. One source even noted that young Tibetan children have learned to speak English with a “Utah accent.”

My first contact with Tibetan Buddhism in Utah was through Geoffrey Kaessner, who houses the dharma center of Dozgchen Samye Ling in his Salt Lake City home. He describes this sangha, which numbers over two hundred people, as “a very simple center of Vajrayana Buddhism,” which is under the guidance of Khenpo Choga Rinpoche from the Dzogchen Monastery and Dzogchen Shri Shdra in Kham, Tibet. It is associated with the Nyingma lineage, though they welcome teachers from all the Vajrayana lineages.

Probably the largest Tibetan Buddhist sangha in Utah is that of Urgyen Samten Ling in Salt Lake City. It was established in 1994 by Lama Thupten Dorje Gyaltsen, with support from Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. The community has a center with a lovely, impressive shrine room, where it holds weekly Sunday puja ceremonies for its members. Evening classes are held as well, along with classes in meditation and an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.

I quickly discovered that Utah reflects precisely the same sort of microcosm of Buddhist communities that I have witnessed throughout North America. This diverse microcosm extends beyond Central and East Asia to also include a host of South Asian Buddhist communities. There are at least three Theravada sanghas in Utah. Serving the Cambodian ethnic community is Wat Buddhikaram in West Valley City. The temple serves a community of about one hundred families, housing several monks who are in the process of learning English as a second language.

The Thai community congregates at Wat Dhammagunaram in North Layton. It was started by Thai immigrants who came to Utah in the 1970s, many of whom were wives of American servicemen, some of whom were associated with the Hill Air Force Base in Clearfield. Originally incorporated in 1975, the temple was first located in Ogden; an existing church was purchased and remodeled to accommodate the needs of the sangha and was consecrated in 1995. Although predominantly Thai, the sangha also includes some Cambodian and Laotian members, with services in each of the languages, along with traditional Pali chanting. It also serves as a meditation center, led by its abbot, Phrakhru Phutthiyansophon. Finally, there is a Laotian temple, Wat Lao Munisriratnarams, in Sandy, served by resident monk Venerable Phouy Keovangmany.

Vipassana meditation can also be found in Utah, primarily at the Insight Meditation Vipassana center in Salt Lake City. It is run by the teacher, Shirley Ray, a former Peace Corps volunteer who has been practicing and studying Theravada Buddhism since 1978. She studied with Stephen Batchelor at Sharpham College in England and completed the Dharma Leader program in 2003 with various teachers from Spirit Rock, Gaia House, and the Insight Meditation Society. She runs weekly meditation and dharma teachings, as well as full-day retreats and six-week meditation courses.

Nobody knows precisely how many Buddhists there are in North America, but many informed estimates suggest that there are about six million Buddhists if one combines both Asian immigrant and American convert Buddhists. By 2005, most reliable data on the LDS church indicated that there are about the same number of Mormons in the United States. Most people would probably imagine Buddhists and Mormons to be at absolutely opposite poles of North America’s religious landscape. After all, the very first of the famous thirteen articles of faith often used to introduce Mormonism to interested parties says, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” Clearly, these are monumentally different traditions with regard to their respective theological perspectives. On the other hand, the thirteenth article of faith says, in part, “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men.” It goes on to conclude, “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” These words could easily be the writings of a Buddhist expressing faith in the five traditional vows of the laity and emphasizing non-harming, truthfulness, non-theft, sexual propriety, and avoidance of intoxicants. If you include a little cultivation of wisdom and compassion, these two traditions seem to have remarkably similar moral frameworks.

Most writers on North American Buddhism are quick to note that the Western development of Buddhism, while not ignoring the monastic tradition, is almost exclusively a lay organization. Some American Buddhists have tried to synthesize these two lifestyles by following a path that offers the full religious practice of a monastic while still maintaining traditional jobs in the workforce and having families. In fact, a recent international conference on Shin Buddhism, held at the University of Calgary, reflected this synthesizing approach in its theme “Neither Monk nor Layman.” This echoes similar statements made by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi during his tenure as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. Similarly, the Mormon Church has no clergy; it is exclusively a lay organization. On the local level, all interactions are between fellow members, not unlike a Buddhist lay sangha.

I find many more similarities between the Buddhist sangha and the LDS Church than most of my buddhological colleagues would be comfortable acknowledging. Throughout my writings, I have always placed a great emphasis on the role of the sangha in the development of a distinctly “American” form of Buddhism. We place too much emphasis on what specific meditation practice members of the convert community pursue, while ignoring a more important emphasis on “precepts as practice,” as Stephen Batchelor has so deftly suggested. In a recent interview with Tricycle, Robert Sharf, the director of the Buddhist studies program at the University of California at Berkeley, was asked, “What gets lost when primacy is given to individual spiritual experience?” His immediate response: “The sangha gets lost. The community gets lost.” My experience in exploring Buddhist communities in Utah—in Mormon Land—is that the sangha is thriving here and enjoying a profound mutual respect with its LDS neighbors.

Charles Prebish

Charles Prebish

Dr. Charles Prebish is the author of Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, and co-editor of The Faces of Buddhism in America. He held the Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies at Utah State University from 2007 until 2010.