This Land is Pure Land: The Buddhist Churches of America

Lindsay Kyte traces the history of the Buddhist Churches of America — and the Japanese immigrant experience in America — through four generations of one family.

Lindsay Kyte
30 July 2018
Akiko Rogers.

When Akiko Rogers sat down for our interview at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley, California, she placed a packet of tissues on the table between us. I thought maybe she had a cold. But Rogers knew she was about to tell a story that would bring her, and me, to tears.

Akiko Rogers knows what it feels like not to belong. Growing up in Cerritos, California, as a mixed white Japanese American, she didn’t feel like she fit in anywhere. Like so many young people, she turned away from the beliefs that had guided her family for generations. Little did she know that years later, she would find the sense of belonging she sought in her home temple of the Buddhist Churches of America.

When Rogers grew up, there were four generations of her family close by. “My great-grandmother used to have me doing Buddhist bowing and offering at home,” she remembers. “Buddhism was so engrained in their lives that it happened naturally, not just at church, but as an integral part of Japanese culture.”

Akiko Rogers

Rogers’ family were members of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). Today, the BCA has more than sixty temples and over 16,000 members throughout the U.S. The national headquarters of the BCA sits in the center of San Francisco, a building with pews, a pulpit, and services similar to a Christian church, yet featuring an altar with a golden statue of the Buddha. The building was deliberately designed to look Christian, except for a hidden feature on its rooftop—a stupa containing relics given to the BCA by the Royal Court of Siam in 1935.

The Buddhism practiced by the BCA is called Jodo Shinshu, popularly known in the West as Shin Buddhism. It was founded by Japanese monk Shinran Shonin in the thirteenth century and is a school of Pure Land Buddhism.

“Very briefly, it’s the path for the ordinary beings,” says Rev. Ronald Kobata, resident minister at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. “It is to be awakened to one’s foolish, ignorant self by virtue of taking refuge. We chant Namu Amida Butsu as an expression of gratitude. There’s a poem that captures this appreciation: The Pure I, which is not I, being in me, reveals to me, my defiled I. This could be interpreted as the Buddha’s deepest wish of metta, loving-kindness, for all beings to be happy and at peace.”

When she was a child, Akiko Rogers’ family life revolved around the BCA. She attended dharma school, worship services, and marked life events through the lens of Shin Buddhism. Generation by generation, her family story is the story of the BCA, and of the Japanese experience in America.

The BCA has seen generations of Japanese-American families worship, play, and find belonging in its churches. When Akiko Rogers (here as a baby with her Mom and grandmother) felt lost, she found herself back where she started, at her home temple.

Akiko’s Great-Grandparents: Immigrants to a Hostile Land

“Both sets of my great-grandparents, who came to the U.S. about 1919, found many aspects of being in the U.S. really difficult,” says Rogers. Her great-grandfathers were set up with fishing and farming jobs by friends, which required minimal English.

Japanese men working on the West Coast and Hawaii found themselves pressured to become Christian. In 1899, Buddhist priests sent from Japan founded an organization to help the Japanese immigrants preserve their culture and religion. After going through various iterations and titles, it eventually became known as the Buddhist Churches of America.

Many of the first Shin temples were built in segregated rural areas. “They actually had racial designations for where people could live, like the Exposition Park area of Los Angeles, which was for Japanese,” says Rogers. When they went outside a Japanese area, the racism was palpable. “Basically, they were all told to keep your head down and do your work. If you have to go out, go out with several others, and don’t go out by yourself.”

“By the 1920s,” writes scholar and BCA member Scott Mitchell in Buddhism in America, “ongoing debates both within the Japanese community and the wider culture regarding the assimilation of immigrants led to direct attacks against Buddhist Japanese schools. Editorials in local newspapers regarded the schools as thoroughly un-American, anti-Christian, and promoting worship not only of the Buddha but the Emperor of Japan.” Japanese immigration was legally banned by the Immigration Act of 1924.

The BCA became a refuge to help people navigate racism and social stigmas, and grounded them in a sense of their own culture and faith.

Japanese immigrants working in the U.S. as laborers faced language barriers, racism, and pressure to convert to Christianity. They requested Buddhist priests to be sent from Japan to establish Shin Buddhism in America.

“Shin Buddhism played a major role for that generation to have a spiritual means to endure all the various challenges they had to deal with,” says Rev. Kobata. BCA priests conducted funeral and worship services in Japanese and taught Buddhism and traditional Japanese culture. Japanese language and English language schools were common at many temples. Organizations such as the Young Buddhist Association and Buddhist Women’s Association created sangha and ethnic solidarity, while participation in groups such as the Boy Scouts demonstrated the ways in which BCA members were becoming more American.

Mitchell says many Japanese immigrants came to America with a plan to make money and then go back home. “But once you get settled and start raising a family, things change. Then comes this impulse to become more American.”

How assimilated the BCA should become was an issue that caused tension between generations. “A group within the Berkeley Buddhist Temple wanted to create a Japanese language school,” Scott Mitchell tells me. “That way, the temple would preserve Japanese identity and culture. It was hotly contested, to the point where people left and formed another temple. American political organizations charged the temples were places where heathens are doing un-American things. Why would you want to create a Japanese language school to reinforce that?

“So many of these temples evolved from places where a Japanese community could come together to be Japanese, into places where people could also work out what it meant to be Japanese American, which is a different thing.”

Some leaders of the BCA even wanted to reach beyond its Japanese membership. “Some of the priests were bilingual and there are records of public talks being given in English and publications from the early 1900s published in English,” says Rev. Kobata. “So, it wasn’t just a matter of providing spiritual support to the first-generation Japanese. There was also this international view of propagating the dharma beyond the ethnic community.”

Even though the next generation was born in the U.S., more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned during the Second World War. Buddhists from different traditions came together for services in the camps, which gave those interned strength and hope. Photo courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and The Shinjo Nagatomi Collection.

Grandparents’ Generation: Born in America, Yet Still Interned

Rogers’ grandparents were all born in the United States. They identified as Japanese Americans, not just Japanese, yet had a strong affinity for their ancestral culture. They spoke English at school and Japanese at home, often serving as translators for their parents.

By now, the BCA’s architecture and forms had evolved to reflected the desire to assimilate. Temples resembled Christian churches with pews and lecterns, and Western musical instruments such as the organ and piano were in services. It was in this period that the name was officially changed to the Buddhist Churches of America. Rogers’ great-grandparents had considered going back to Japan, but her grandfather put his foot down and said, “You and Mom might be fine going back to Japan, but the rest of us have grown up here and are too Americanized to go.”

Still, when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Rogers’ grandparents were among the many who feared that racism toward Japanese and Japanese Americans would escalate. Mitchell writes that “concerned about their future and knowing their loyalty would be in question, community and Buddhist leaders burned letters from Japan or destroyed religious objects that might be misunderstood by the authorities as supporting the Empire of Japan.”

Their fears were justified. In February 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, requiring all persons of Japanese descent to be removed from coastal areas along the West Coast as a matter of national security. The internment began.

While Japanese-American children were speaking English and becoming Americanized in school, the BCA offered Sunday school classes so they didn’t lose their language, culture, and religion.

“All persons of Japanese ancestry were told to vacate their homes and report to service centers,” writes Mitchell. “Each person could carry only one bag. As a result, families were forced to give away possessions or store them at local Buddhist churches.” 120,000 men, women, and children were forced from their homes and housed in internment camps for the duration of the war.

Rogers’ grandfather’s family was sent to Manzanar, one of ten internment camps where Japanese Americans were held for three years. Japanese Americans were forced to answer a questionnaire about their loyalty to the U.S. “It was a real conflict: Yes, I’m an American, but at the same time, this injustice is being done to my people,” says Rogers. “How do you reconcile that? I want to be American, but you refuse to let me be American.”

Buddhists managed to find a way to practice their faith while incarcerated at Manzanar. “People from the same church groups were sent to the same camps, so they were able to maintain some of their communities,” Rogers says her grandfather told her. “A lot of Buddhist schools combined their services into one, so it would be Shin and Zen and others in one service. It helped maintain a sense of strength and sangha.”

Upon their release from the internment camps, Mitchell writes, the resettlement of Japanese Americans was almost as disruptive as their internment. “Homes had been illegally sold or taken over. Buddhist temples became makeshift hostels. Thus, the Buddhist institutions that had served the larger Japanese community were called into service once more as a stabilizing force at the uncertain times immediately following the war.”

The BCA became a force to be reckoned with after the war, becoming the largest Japanese-American organization in the country. However, it was now experiencing a crisis of identity. “Having suffered the effects of overt discrimination and racism, having had their status as Americans challenged and called into question,” writes Mitchell, “many Japanese Americans in postwar years retreated into their communities and had a limited engagement with the broader culture.”

The leadership at BCA had changed hands by this time, with native-born Japanese Americans at the helm. But internment had interrupted any straightforward evolution of identity. “Just when they’re coming into positions of leadership, they have their Americanness openly, hostilely challenged,” says Mitchell. “That creates this gaping wound and this weird double bind of not being American enough and not being Buddhist enough because they’ve made all these adaptations ironically to be more American.”

But others in the BCA, especially the younger generations, wanted more engagement. The combining of different schools of Buddhism in the internment camps had changed opinions of how the BCA should conduct its services. “After internment, younger people argued that the BCA should not be a Jodo Shinshu organization, but should just be a Buddhist organization, nonsectarian, and have no connection to Japan,” says Mitchell. “But after the war, when things went back to the way they were, this caused tension between generations.” That continued in the decades to come.

While Japanese-American children were speaking English and becoming Americanized in school, the BCA offered Sunday school classes so they didn’t lose their language, culture, and religion.

Her Mother’s Generation: How Japanese? How American?

“Is it safe yet?” Well into the 1970s, that was the question the postwar generation asked themselves. Akiko Rogers’ mother married a Caucasian American man, Akiko’s father, and their family reflected the BCA’s trajectory of rebuilding itself while struggling with its identity: How Japanese? How American?

In the 1950s, Buddhism started to gain popularity in the U.S. The Beat poets were exploring Zen; thousands were reading D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. But while Zen did not have a large institutional presence in the U.S., Shin Buddhism did.

The Berkeley Buddhist temple was used as a dormitory for Japanese Americans studying at the University of California. Study groups started up there attracted the interest of Beat poet Gary Snyder. Enthralled, he invited his friends Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, and Philip Whalen to attend. All of them contributed poetry and other writing to the temple newsletter, years before they were nationally known literary celebrities.

At the same time, many newly converted American Buddhists were not drawn to the institutionalized religion of the BCA. After all, that was what they were rebelling against.

“Alan Watts drew a distinction between what he called ‘temple Buddhism’ and ‘ashram Buddhism,’” says Mitchell. “The former represented the Protestant church-like model of the BCA, and the latter were less organized groups of disciples and philosophers exemplified by the followers of the historical Buddha. According to Watts, temple Buddhism was acceptable so long as it does not supplant or overshadow ashram Buddhism.

“So here was this deep interest mostly on the part of young, white men from a largely philosophical point of view that was dismissive of the larger life of the temple, of which the sangha was an important part. The living community, the cultural aspect—that wasn’t Buddhism from their point of view.”

BCA ministers responded by championing the BCA model as a space for sharing teachings that reflected the everyday sense of Buddhist life, rather than an exoticized Buddhism set apart from the world. “How racism plays in here is that these white men become the voice of Buddhism in the postwar years, particularly in mainstream, white America,” says Mitchell. “The Beats want to rail against the machine, and they think that Buddhism is not normal. Then they come to the BCA and Buddhism looks very normal. The BCA gets invisibilized, because Buddhism then gets co-opted for this other agenda—of being the ‘exotic other’ that white folks can go to and have fun with. But it’s completely disconnected from the family community. The full life of Buddhism includes women and children and rituals and ceremonies, not just stoic male monks sitting in a monastery.”

Indeed, Rev. Kobata fondly remembers that his childhood at the BCA covered the spectrum of social, cultural, educational, and recreational activities, even featuring a Sunday school. “The temples were more than just religious institutions,” he says. “They were community centers.”

Today the BCA has more than sixty temples and more than 16,000 members across the U.S. “It’s the path for ordinary beings,” says Rev. Ronald Kobata. “We chant Namu Amida Butsu as an expression of gratitude.” Photo by Keith Kojimoto.

Akiko Rogers: Coming Home to the BCA

Akiko Rogers’ grandmother had been comatose and nonverbal for months. But when Rogers told her she was going to Japan to learn more about her culture and religion, her grandmother opened her eyes and said, “I’m happy.” It was then that Rogers knew she was choosing the right path.

The Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley houses the BCA Center for Education, the Institute for Buddhist Studies, and the BCA bookstore. Here, the church offers programs for ministers, dharma school teachers, and others. Students and ministers of all backgrounds, ages, and identities roam the building attending services and classes, sharing meals in the cafeteria, and hosting groups in the dormitory.

Akiko Rogers spends a lot time in this building. When Rogers felt lost as a teenager, she found herself studying Japanese, then enrolling in a Buddhism course at the temple she grew up attending in Orange County. Feeling the need to experience her ancestral culture and religion at a deeper level, she spent three years in Japan teaching English. She then decided to embark on a new life path—to study to become ordained as a minister in the BCA.

Rogers says her family’s connection to the BCA definitely influenced her choice. “The way that my grandparents and great-grandparents lived Buddhism in their daily life—clearly they found value in it. Even if they didn’t talk about it, you could tell that was their source of strength, making sense of the world, but also helping them get through whatever they were going through. They were clearly trying to pass it on to the next generations.”

Akiko Rogers will be part of a generation in which female ministers in the BCA are a more common occurrence. The modern-day BCA, points out Rev. Kobata, is becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse. “There’s a noticeable increase of nontraditional members—people who were raised in another or no particular tradition. And there’s a lot of what we call intermarriage—intercultural, interracial, even interfaith marriages. So that’s reflected in the membership.”

Even so, Kobata says the BCA, like many religious organizations, is facing decreasing interest among younger generations, and declining membership. “In order to ensure survival and growth, we’re trying to provide religious activities of interest and benefit to a broad, diverse community,” he says. “This includes formal sitting meditation and mindfulness, something that’s more common here, whereas in Japan, we do more ritual chanting and recitation of the Buddha Amida’s name.”

Akiko Rogers found a sense of herself when she returned to the BCA, where she is joining the growing number of women ministers. Here she receives her Minister’s Assistant certificate from Rev. Kodo Umezu. Photo by Yumi Hatta.

“There’s a consumerist approach toward religion in America,” says Scott Mitchell. “I can go to church on Sunday, but I can also go to yoga, meditate at a temple, whatever. This stands in contrast to previous BCA generations, where there was an obligation to help support your temple at an institutional level. There’s definitely a way to talk about Jodo Shinshu as an individual path, but that’s embedded in this hundred-year-old institution, which is organizationally quite different from, say, a Zen or meditation center.”

Yet many young Japanese Americans still turn to Shin Buddhism when it comes to navigating big life events. “The BCA’s strength is that it has a system of dharma schools where you can take your children and teach them in an age-appropriate way about Buddhism,” says Mitchell. “They have Buddhist weddings and funerals. Human beings need some sort of connection to a community. At some point on the individual quest for enlightenment, you gravitate back to a ritual or ceremonial community aspect that is often glossed over in other places.”

Akiko Rogers feels the BCA, which was part of her childhood, will provide an important framework as she ventures into adulthood. “I’m really grateful to my grandma and my great-grandma for teaching me about Buddhism. Somehow it did sink in, even though I got away for a while,” she says.

“There was something solid there when I was having my difficulties with life. Somehow the answer, or at least a way to get beyond where I was at, was calling to me. The way was in hearing the dharma and following their path. And when I went back to the temple that my grandmother and my Mom grew up attending, I knew I found the right path for me—because it felt like going home.”

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte works as a freelance journalist, playwright, and performer.