Shin Buddhism Is American Buddhism

It’s a late summer afternoon, and strings of lanterns run from the Buddhist Church of Oakland’s substantial facade to the trees in Madison Park. Inside, the minister is giving tours of the hondo, where services are held. He explains the meaning and symbolism of the altarpieces—the statue of Amida Buddha, or Buddha of Infinite Light…

By Scott Mitchell

Members of the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple during the 95th Obon Festival (2018). Photo by Robert Hanashiro.

It’s a late summer afternoon, and strings of lanterns run from the Buddhist Church of Oakland’s substantial facade to the trees in Madison Park. Inside, the minister is giving tours of the hondo, where services are held. He explains the meaning and symbolism of the altarpieces—the statue of Amida Buddha, or Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, and the portraits of the tradition’s founder, Shinran, and his successor, Rennyo. The social hall and kitchen below bustle with activity; people wearing kimono practice traditional dance steps, while others hurry from the kitchen to the back parking lot, where about a dozen booths peddle games, souvenirs, and food—teriyaki, ramen, and sushi, as well as hot dogs and cotton candy. A sea of revelers fills the blocked-off street out front, where a jazz ensemble begins playing an old standard. Middle-aged couples dance in the street while their teenage children watch and laugh. The crowd grows as a taiko group takes the stage, followed by a demonstration of traditional Hawaiian dance. People—young and old, babes-in-arms, grandparents—mill about, enjoying the music, the food, the community.

This celebration marks obon, the Japanese summer festival to honor one’s ancestors. According to tradition, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples, Mokuren (or Maudglyayana in Sanskrit), became distressed after learning that his deceased mother had fallen to the realm of hungry ghosts and asked the Buddha for guidance. The Buddha advised Mokuren to make offerings to the monks as they ended their summer retreat and offer the merit to his mother in order to release her. Realizing all the ways his mother had given selflessly to support him throughout his life, Mokuren did as advised. Once she was liberated from her torment, he danced with great joy and gratitude. The multiday obon celebration includes visitation to family gravesites and a festival at the local Buddhist temple. Central to the festivities is the bon odori, or bon dance, which members of the Buddhist Church of Oakland rehearse for weeks.

The Double Bind

Since its arrival in North America more than a century ago, Jodo Shinshu (or Shin) Buddhism has been caught in a double bind. On the one hand, the community is perpetually described in terms of its Japanese heritage, and thus suffers the fate familiar to many Asian Americans of being dismissed as perpetually foreign—not really American. Buddhist communities composed mainly of Asian Americans tend to be described, backhandedly, as merely “traditional” or “cultural,” a straw man held up against the supposedly more “modern” and “progressive” (and predominately white) convert Buddhist communities. On the other hand, because the community has unapologetically and self-consciously adapted its practices to meet American expectations, for instance, replacing tatami mats for pews, it is often dismissed as “too Christian,” and therefore not authentically Buddhist. Dismissing Shin Buddhists’ American adaptations as inauthentic not only overlooks the wide-ranging and overt racial pressure that compelled these changes but also speaks to the assumption that Asian American Buddhisms are, in general, more concerned with preserving cultural practices than with some essential and pure experience of the dharma. The irony, of course, is that these adaptations were made in response to the very same question asked today by Buddhists of all stripes: How do we adapt these 2,600-year-old teachings to make them relevant here and now for an American audience?

We have yet to fully relinquish the idea that ‘true Buddhism’ exists somewhere in a static, traditional past.

This double bind is symptomatic of what scholar Natalie Quli calls “salvage studies.” About three decades ago, Quli notes in her article “Western Self, Asian Other,” anthropologists began to jettison the long-held notion that the proper subject of ethnographic study was the “good savage,” existing in a pure, premodern state, unsullied by the corrosive influences of modernity or Western culture (think of the archetypal “lost tribe” living in a remote tropical jungle). We have yet to fully relinquish the idea that “true Buddhism” exists somewhere in a static, traditional past. Scholars remain preoccupied with ancient Asian history as the ideal field for research, and practitioners assume that true Buddhism is only what the historical Buddha taught. In this schema, however, Asian American Buddhisms such as Jodo Shinshu are rendered, as Quli notes, unsuitable objects of study “because not only do they reside in ‘unnatural’ places (i.e. the West), they have appropriated some Western ideas, rendering their Buddhisms (and themselves) inauthentic ‘distortions.’”

What these dismissals fail to take into account is that, as Quli reminds us, all Buddhism is cultural Buddhism. While there may be some aspect of Buddhism that is essential, beyond the pall of culture, Buddhism always necessarily manifests in everyday life—as a lived religion—through cultural practices. Even language is an expression of culture. To translate dukkha, for instance, as “suffering” rather than “unsatisfactoriness” is to engage in a cultural interpretation of Buddhism. One could remove the Asian customs from Shin (or Zen, or Tibetan, or Theravada) Buddhism in the United States, but those cultural practices would invariably be replaced by others. The question, then, becomes which cultural values are lost and which are added, intentionally or otherwise, in their place? When we think of American cultural values—optimism, self-determination, individualism, consumerism—which would we add to the Buddhist mix, and which would we rather leave at the door as our own cultural baggage?

Beyond that, though, to assert that North American Shin Buddhism is merely an Asian American Buddhism is to imply that all Shin Buddhists are Japanese, which is factually incorrect. This claim reveals the limits of such polarizing dichotomies as the “two Buddhisms” trope, which posits two broad categories of Buddhism in North America—Asian American and immigrant traditions on the one hand and convert traditions on the other. Shin Buddhism doesn’t fit neatly into either category.

In an extensive national survey in 2014 of the Buddhist Churches of America, the largest Shin Buddhist community in North America, Anne Spencer, a professor of religion at the College of Idaho, found that roughly a quarter of the denomination’s members have no Asian ancestry. This is not necessarily a recent development, either. Michihiro Ama, Tetsuden Kashima, Stephen Prothero, Jeff Wilson, and other scholars have long noted not only the presence of white Shin Buddhists since the beginning of the twentieth century but also their active involvement in the community as religious leaders and priests.

Today, the North American Shin Buddhist community includes both fifth-generation Japanese Americans as well as second- and third-generation white Americans. This internally diverse population of both Asian and white Americans, converts and cradle Buddhists, defies fast and easy racial dichotomies. This is not to deny the Japanese roots of the tradition, nor is it to say we should be inattentive to the specific historical and cultural circumstances within which Shin Buddhism developed on American shores. The decision to adopt the name Buddhist Churches of America, for example, was made inside an incarceration camp in Utah during World War II; we cannot extricate this history from the community, nor should we. Like obon, Japanese American history is an indelible part of the community’s character. But more than just Japanese American history, this is American history, our history, regardless of our ethnicity, or even whether or not we are Buddhist. World War II incarceration did not happen to Japanese people—it happened to Americans. It is one of the darker chapters of our collective history, but we cannot move past it through willful ignorance. To truly understand American Buddhism in the fullness of its past and present, we must confront those parts that make us uncomfortable.

Similarly, we shouldn’t deny the Japanese (or Chinese, or Thai, or Tibetan) roots of other American Buddhist traditions. Shin Buddhism was established by Japanese immigrants and, as a result, many of the community’s practices and customs are indebted to a particularly Japanese way of approaching Buddhism. But the same could be said of Zen Buddhism, which was established in Hawaii and on the mainland at the same time as Shin Buddhism. It’s important to recall that Shunryu Suzuki did not come to the United States in 1959 to build the San Francisco Zen Center; he came to be the resident priest of a Japanese American Zen temple that had been established in San Francisco’s Japantown in the 1930s. If we claim that Shin Buddhism is merely Japanese Buddhism by virtue of the fact that its founders were Japanese, why do we not say the same about American Zen, which has a parallel history and a similar pedigree? Is it because of the assumptions implicit in dichotomies of “ethnic” and “convert” Buddhism? Is Shin Buddhism not American enough or not Buddhist enough?

An overreliance on ethnicity as the frame for understanding North American Shin Buddhism is limiting. While raising questions about ethnicity and adaptation is important to understanding North American Shin Buddhism, we must do so with the awareness that our questions always shape our answers. When we start our inquiry into American Buddhism with the assumption that there are two traditions—“Asian” and “convert”—we risk seeing only the evidence that backs up that assumption. As the saying goes, “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” A more open inquiry into North American Shin Buddhism—one in which we drop our attachment to the distinction between adaptation and authenticity—reveals different sides of the community, different points of tension or challenges.

Learning from the Experiences of Shin Buddhists

By framing North American Shin Buddhism as merely a type of Asian American Buddhism, or a Japanese cultural institution, we perpetuate the “otherness” of the community. This “othering” not only does harm to the Shin Buddhist community, it also deprives other Buddhists of an opportunity for mutual learning and growth. In a recent issue of Buddhadharma, Ann Gleig recalled the 2011 Maha Teacher’s Council, which met in New York to discuss the state of Buddhism in the West and “the challenges of adapting the dharma to new contexts.” What may have been lost on participants in that council is that Shin Buddhists were already having the exact same conversation a full one hundred years before this council. If, rather than dismissing North American Shin Buddhism as merely a Japanese cultural tradition, we could approach it as a legitimate form of American or Western Buddhism, non-Shin Buddhists might be able to learn and glean inspiration from it.

Chances are, whatever problem your Zen Center or vipassana sitting group is facing, Shin Buddhists have grappled with the exact same problem, and long before you did. How do we translate the Buddhist tradition to make sense to American audiences? What is essential, the heartwood, and what is merely on the surface? How do we build a community? How do we make this practice relevant for others? There is no single answer to these questions, and Shin Buddhists themselves have not been uniform in their responses. Moreover, the questions and answers naturally shift and change over time and place. Sometimes, adaptations are big and obvious—as evidenced by “churches” with pews. At other times, they are subtle and barely perceptible.

Shin Buddhism is a community that has thrived and persisted in an often-antagonistic American religious landscape for more than a century.

Consider the Oakland obon celebration, with its hot dogs and jazz ensemble. Such events are wildly popular, not only for temple members but also for the general public, making them an important part of the church’s financial health. While many Buddhists find it gauche to talk about money in connection with the dharma, the fact is that Buddhist communities don’t exist in some ideal universe but rather in the real world. And this real world requires money. Temples, Zen centers, dharma groups, and even secular mindfulness workshops need to pay the rent, and dharma teachers need food and health care. Whereas some Buddhist communities survive entirely on donations, and others have created innovative funding structures to maintain themselves, the Buddhist Churches of America exists on a family-based membership model. Membership dues are used not only to fund general upkeep of the temple but also for educational programs, salaries, and special events. Still, at a time when membership in Shin Buddhist communities (and religious communities in general) is in sharp decline, temple presidents look for new ways pay the bills so they can keep their temple doors open.

Hosting events with popular public appeal represents a different economic model for the community, an innovative strategy to help support a temple. The carnival games and the taiko drumming may be merely cultural expressions with little direct relationship to Buddhist practice, but they will enable this community to keep the lights on so that future generations of Shin Buddhists can return again and again to the hondo above the social hall. We can write off these innovations as cultural, or they can serve as points of inspiration for Shin and non-Shin Buddhists alike, pointing the way to long-term stability.

Shin Buddhism is a community that has thrived and persisted in an often-antagonistic American religious landscape for more than a century. Rather than reject the cultural aspects as inessential, we can learn from these adaptations. However, we can only draw inspiration from this community if we view it as genuinely American and not as a perpetually racialized “other.” Such assumptions reveal more about those who dismiss Shin Buddhism than about the community itself. Shin Buddhism is not an “other,” different from some homogenized “American Buddhism,” but one type among the many that constitute American Buddhism in its fullness.

Scott Mitchell

Scott Mitchell

Scott Mitchell is the Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai Professor of Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley and the author of Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Context.