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It's an all too typical Sunday service. The oak pews are mostly empty. Nearly all of the 40 congregants who have come are seated in the rear rows, conspicuously distant from the pulpit. Pale light filters through the stained glass at the sides of the nave. A fastidious young man in a herringbone tweed blazer, who has been sitting in the front pew off to the left, rises and seats himself at the organ.
Standing in the pulpit just to the right of the altar, wearing a gold-embroidered stole over a minister's traditional black robe, is the Rev. LaVerne Sasaki. As the organ plays, Sasaki thumbs through the service book. The song he calls for is metered in four-four time. Its diction is rectilinear, rhythmically flat, its lyrics bereft of all poetic feeling. It will anesthetize like a good church hymn.
Though Sasaki has sung from the pulpit as a minister for three decades, he takes up this tune with an infectious feebleness that strays the entire congregation off the D-major key the organ vainly attempts to hold.
When life is fair
And sun - light gilds the day,
When for - tune smiles
And flow'rs a - dorn our way,
Oft let us pause
With grate - ful hearts to say:
Na - mu Amida But - su.
Namu Amida Butsu literally means: "I bow my head before Amida (the compassionate, supremely awakened) Buddha."
Obviously, this is not Christianity. Yet this service, a typical one for the Buddhist Temple of San Francisco, doesn't feel much like Buddhism, either.
Sasaki's wobbly voice gains authority after he concludes the hymn and begins chanting a sutra -- a scripture of the Buddha's teaching -- in Japanese.
From the first monosyllables, Sasaki's rich baritone lays down a steady drone, occasionally sliding a minor third, then a perfect fourth, below his root position in E-natural. His chant bathes the four corners of the temple sanctuary in an ego-melting aural balm that draws the bowed minds of the congregants -- even the emotionally remote journalist visiting the temple -- into that rarefied state of concentration that Buddhists call samadhi. If many paths lead to enlightenment, surely Sasaki's power to induce serenity through chanting must be one.
But if this is Buddhism, what kind of Buddhism has congregants sitting in pews, singing hymnified sutras to organ accompaniment, and then listening to a "minister" give a soporific dharma talk from a pulpit? That question lies at the tip of a cultural cold war that has been simmering beneath the surface of the San Francisco-based Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), the denomination to which Sasaki's temple belongs.
The BCA is the parent organization of 60 American temples that descend from a Japanese strain of Buddhism called Jodo Shinshu. Headquartered at the corner of Pine and Octavia streets -- next door to Sasaki's San Francisco Buddhist Temple -- the BCA has long been a bedrock of San Francisco's Japanese-American community.
Besides providing a spiritual center, the BCA all but monopolized the cultural life of two generations of Japanese-Americans, sponsoring boys' basketball teams, scouting troops, ladies auxiliaries, and weekend mixers for teen-agers. The temples helped issei (first-generation Japanese-American) and nissei (second-generation Japanese-American) maintain a common identity and fend off the corrosive effects of racism, while their progeny scrambled up the socio-economic ladder.
But today the assimilation of Japanese into American life has disrupted the passing of the cultural flame from dying elders to the younger generations. Most of the latter are happily unwinding into the cosmopolitan, monied, multimedia diaspora, the citified individualism and manifold distractions of Greater America. They leave behind the BCA -- a starchy, old-time religion three years shy of its centennial -- ensnared in a vicious circle of eroding membership, evaporating finances, and deep conflicts over how to position the organization for the future.
The numbers tell of lean times.
Between 1977 and 1995, BCA membership slid 22 percent to 17,755 families. The BCA today employs about half the 130 ministers it employed in the '30s.
The organization's budget, which in 1994 stood at about $1.1 million, ran a modest deficit of $41,418 between 1991 and 1994. Because of financial troubles at individual temples, the BCA in 1994 was able to collect only about two-thirds of the monies it levies on the temples as membership dues. The dues -- which are also called apportionments -- normally account for up to 90 percent of the BCA's revenue. Since 1990, BCA temples in Bakersfield and Detroit were forced to close their doors.
But there's more than a cash-flow shortage to the BCA's troubles. Currently roiling the faithful is the sexual harassment suit filed in 1994 against the church by one of its most senior officers, the Rev. Carol Himaka. Her suit was dismissed in November, but the litigation cost the BCA more than $150,000 to defend. Moreover, it laid bare the spiritual sclerosis that has seized the organization.
For many in the BCA, Himaka transgressed a taboo when she took her harassment complaint public.
"It got blown out of proportion," says Marge Oishi, a BCA board member. "I really don't believe that [the harassment complaint] belonged in a court of law."
But for others, the matter had to go public after the BCA obstinately refused to do justice within its four walls.