Dharma Bummed

As it approaches its centennial, the San Francisco-based Buddhist Churches of America finds itself weakened by Japanese-American assimilation, spiritual decline, and a nasty sexual...

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.

Berkeley Buddhist Temple board member Lucy Hamai complains that the BCA leadership “minimized the incident. They expected [Himaka] to take it and not say anything — even if it's wrong. They made Carol out to be such a touchy person. … Our organization needs to face — and also to adjust their way of looking at — the way women are treated.”

Conservative ministers have recently gained the upper hand in BCA politics, responding to the crisis with a sweeping reorganization — slashing departments and transferring personnel in a bid to make the organization more sectarian. They have elected a bishop with strong ties to the BCA's mother temple in Kyoto, Japan, which has reciprocated with increased pledges of financial support. [page]

But while closer ties to Kyoto might bring more money, bringing in new members will not be easy.

“The church isn't the hub that it used to be for the first and second generation,” says Teresa Ono, a sansei (third-generation Japanese-American) who was appointed co-chair of a committee set up to plan the San Francisco temple's centennial celebration. “When I was growing up, the church was full and there were children in all of the classes. Right now when I go, it's empty.”

Emptiness is supposed to be a virtue in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, a religion that regards the nonessentialness — the ephemerality — of things as the basic truth about reality. Jodo Shinshu shares a common ancestry with the Zen Buddhism popularized by D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Both are branches of Mahayana (or “great vehicle”) Buddhism that has flourished in China, Vietnam, and Tibet, as well as Japan.

Buddhism is the East's salvation strategy. Except that the aim of Buddhist salvation is not a heavenly paradise, but a cosmic break in this life out of the cycle of suffering into which all sentient beings are born.

The “Four Noble Truths” of Sakyamuni Buddha profess that suffering arises from one's attachment to the ephemera of reality, clinging to “things” as though they were perduring, only to suffer the loss of their passing. For all the hanging on we do — whether to hopes, to wealth, to loves, or to bodily life itself — we will suffer.

Buddhism teaches that suffering can be transcended by meditation, a process of mental concentration in which the arising and disappearance of things is acutely observed in the body, in the mind, and in feelings. When concentration is highly cultivated, one eventually experiences a breakthrough — enlightenment, or Satori — in which one's reified ideas about the nature of reality are shattered and the unitariness and interdependence of all things is revealed.

Jodo Shinshu, founded by the Japanese Buddhist priest Shinran Shonin (1173-1263), is rooted in the same doctrinal ground as classical Mahayana Buddhism. But it spins on a vastly different mythological and doctrinal axis.

Shinran professed that enlightened beings find their final rest in the “Western Pure Land,” a parallel universe reminiscent of the heaven of Christianity. The Pure Land had been a figment of Buddhism in disparate sutras and commentaries for centuries before Shinran. But Shinran systematized his own Pure Land doctrine, and on its foundations his followers established the Jodo Shinshu religion in Japan.

Just as heaven is the metaphysical province of God's ubiquitous personality, the Pure Land was “constructed” eons before the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha through the personage of Amida Buddha. In a sutra attributed to Sakyamuni, Amida Buddha began his many-lived career in the person of a king who abandoned his throne to become a mendicant monk upon hearing the dharma.

Taking the name Dharmakara, he proclaimed 48 vows, which would become the blueprint of his transformation into an enlightened being. Five of Dharmakara's vows deal with the nature of the enlightenment he would gestate through millennia of deaths and rebirths. The remainder deal with the collateral benefits other sentient beings would enjoy through his efforts. (Buddhism always refers to “sentient beings” rather than “people” because all creatures have “Buddha-nature,” or the capacity for attaining enlightenment.) After his final rebirth, Dharmakara left this world and is said to dwell in the Pure Land as Amida Buddha — a name which means “immeasurable light” or “immeasurable life.”

Pure Land doctrine also resonates with Christianity in its teaching that people do not attain enlightenment under their own power, but only by relying selflessly on the saving grace of Amida Buddha. One need not be morally perfected to attain enlightenment (though it wouldn't hurt). Instead, one progresses by surrendering to the grace of Amida Buddha, calling upon his name — with the words “Namu Amida Butsu” — in a meditation process called nembutsu. It sounds a lot like St. Paul's doctrine that by faith in Jesus Christ alone, rather than by performing the deeds of a good Christian, the believer will be resurrected.

Like all true religions, Jodo Shinshu provides the framework for a far subtler experience than thumbnail sketches of its beliefs can convey. It consists more in the cumulative wisdom of a lifetime of attentive practice than in the rote recitation of doctrines or the venal prerogatives of a religious institution. And Jodo Shinshu is as capable as any religious institution of harboring dysfunctional pathologies under its banner.

“I really believe that Jodo Shinshu as a religion has a lot to offer,” says Carol Himaka, who sued the BCA for sexual harassment. “The organization unfortunately is so encrusted over it that it makes it very difficult to converse with the nembutsu.”

The harassment controversy was sparked by a conversation of a different type in a San Jose hotel room, in the first hour of Feb. 25, 1993. Dead asleep after a busy day at the BCA's annual national ministers' meeting, Himaka was awakened by the fanfare of a ringing telephone. Picking up, all Himaka could hear for several seconds was heavy breathing, then came the words, “I want you.” Repeatedly she asked the caller to identify himself. Each time a rasp-breathed response came back: “I want you.”

Himaka panicked. For two years she says she and her roommate had been receiving heavy-breathing phone calls at their home. Although they changed their unlisted telephone number several times, the calls continued. There was only one place her phone number was listed: the telephone directory for the Buddhist Churches of America. That a heavy-breather had rung her up in a hotel room in San Jose, in the middle of the ministers' conference, clinched her suspicion that she was being stalked by someone in the church. [page]

Himaka called the front desk and asked if the call could be traced. The next morning the day manager told her that the call had been traced, but he could not disclose the name of the caller. After she pressed him, he offered to get the caller on the line and patch him in to her room so they could talk.

Fifteen minutes later when the phone rang, Himaka found herself voice to voice with the Rev. Jay Shinseki, the minister of the White River Buddhist Temple in Auburn, Wash., who was also attending the BCA meeting. Himaka had known Shinseki since the two were classmates at the Institute for Buddhist Studies (IBS), the BCA's seminary in Berkeley. Himaka says that even in her student days, her relationship with Shinseki was troubled.

Shinseki said he was sorry Himaka had received a nasty phone call. But he explained that he had not been the caller. Rather, there had been 10 other people in his room the night before and he could not be sure who had placed the call. Himaka demanded to know the names of the others who might have placed the call. But Shinseki demurred, offering to take responsibility himself.

Later that morning, Himaka tracked down BCA Bishop Seigen Yamaoka; she explained what had happened and demanded an investigation. At a meeting in the hotel later that day, Shinseki told Yamaoka the same story: that the call could have come from one of several other people who had been in his room. But after Yamaoka ordered Shinseki to name the others, Shinseki reversed ground and “apologiz[ed] to Rev. Himaka, and admitted that he had made the call,” according to a church report on Himaka's complaint. “[Shinseki] said it was a stupid thing to do and that he would do anything to rectify the situation.”

A week later Yamaoka wrote to Shinseki, instructing him to enter a counseling program and make a formal written apology to Himaka. “[I]f there is no compliance to the above, and if this incident continues and is made public, the end result will be the loss of your ministerial status within our tradition.”

Four days later, Yamaoka wrote Himaka to say that Shinseki had promised to comply with the sanctions and that the BCA was assembling an internal policy for formally investigating and disciplining sexual harassment claims in the future.

But within days, the discipline — which had seemed to put the alleged harassment incident to rest — began to unravel.

On March 9, Shinseki returned to his earlier denials, disputing — in a reply to Yamaoka's sanctions letter — “that his conduct was sexual harassment in nature.” An investigative panel, made up of Bishop Yamaoka and former BCA President Sei Shohara, was convened. They flew to Seattle to reinterview Shinseki.

According to their report, Shinseki described his Feb. 25 phone call with Himaka as “a short discussion about [his] frustration with the Department of Buddhist Education,” which she headed. The conversation “ended with his remark, out of sheer frustration, 'Go fuck yourself.' ” He insisted that no harassment had taken place: Foul language had been mistaken for a come-on.

The panel decided that Shinseki's explanation was “not credible.” For one thing, if the two ministers had been talking shop, Himaka would have known who the caller was. Even if Shinseki had been rude, there would have been no reason for her to have the call traced.

Moreover, Bishop Yamaoka recalled that at his Feb. 25 meeting with Himaka and Shinseki, Shinseki had admitted making the call — an admission that would not have been necessary had Himaka known the caller's identity all along. Also, Shinseki had made an apology at the meeting. If he wasn't apologizing to Himaka for harassment, what was he apologizing for? It seemed unlikely that he would have been unaware that Himaka had complained about Shinseki's sexual harassment — not his foul mouth.

Yet even with those contradictions, the panel concluded it could not make a finding that sexual harassment had taken place.

“While [Shinseki's] lack of candor and contradictory explanations could be construed as an effort to conceal a sexually harassing call, it could also be construed as an effort to conceal a call in which he uttered words amounting to unprofessional conduct, but not sexual harassment.

“There are no other witnesses to the phone call, and therefore, no corroboration of what Rev. Shinseki said, or the words that he used.” Thus, the investigative panel found Himaka's harassment claim to be “inconclusive.”

On July 14, five days after the investigative panel's report, Himaka filed discrimination charges against the BCA with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A year later, Himaka filed her lawsuit in San Francisco federal court.

The courts have long found that churches must prevent sexual harassment of clergy and laypeople. But the circumstances behind Himaka's claim made her case more complicated.

First, a harassed employee must show that the harasser made his work life a misery, not merely that some crude conduct had taken place. Not only must the employee feel that the harassment was serious, but a judge or jury must also find that any reasonable victim of that harassment would have found the conduct objectionable. Those are tough standards — especially in cases where only one incident, such as a phone call, took place.

Himaka's case was also complicated by the First Amendment, which affords churches greater leeway than secular institutions in making personnel decisions. Besides the harassment charge, her lawsuit alleged that the BCA illegally paid her a lower salary than male ministers earned. And last year, Himaka added a claim that the BCA was illegally retaliating against her by deleting funding — ostensibly on fiscal grounds — for the Department of Buddhist Education, which she heads.

Plaintiffs attorneys who specialize in employment discrimination often take strong cases on contingency. But the First Amendment complications, and the limited nature of her harassment, required Himaka to hire an attorney at an hourly rate. To fund the suit, which Himaka says cost her and her family close to $100,000, she and her supporters held public forums at the Japanese American Citizens League and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. [page]

The church yielded no ground in its defense, bringing a series of motions to dismiss beginning in late 1994. After rulings that trimmed several individual defendants and a host of state and federal claims from the suit, U.S. District Judge D. Lowell Jensen entered summary judgment for the BCA on Nov. 22, 1995.

After dismissing the wage discrimination and retaliation claims on First Amendment grounds, Jensen wrote:

“In this case, plaintiff complains of one isolated instance of offensive conduct in the workplace,” Jensen wrote. “This one incident, the offensive telephone call, was not physically threatening or humiliating. It was not repeated at plaintiff's place of employment and was not accompanied by any other sexual conduct in the workplace.

“Moreover, [Shinseki] was not a person who plaintiff was forced to work with on a daily basis,” Jensen wrote. “This single, isolated incident does not rise to the level of seriousness required to establish an abusive working environment.”

Himaka plans to appeal Jensen's ruling. In the meantime, she has been working part time at BCA's Department of Buddhist Education and part time at the Enmanji Buddhist Temple in Sebastopol. She hopes the Enmanji congregation will hire her full time after her BCA position is eliminated in March.

Inside the BCA, however, the lawsuit has left lingering ill feelings, especially among women members.

“I am angry!” wrote BCA board member Marge Oishi in a letter distributed to all the ministers in December. “I could hardly contain my anger and frustration at the incredibly ridiculous situation that BCA has been put into because of the childish and foolish antics of your peers.

“As a dues-paying member of the BCA, I protest the spending of over $150,000 on this case and I place the heaviest blame on the BCA Ministers Association for allowing this to come about in the first place due to your apathy.”

If Himaka feels any anger or bitterness in the aftermath of the lawsuit, they are emotions that seem muted, perhaps as a byproduct of her religious practice. Himaka says she is at peace with herself and the course of action she took.

“The first thing I've had to come to terms with is that this organization does not equal the religion,” Himaka says. “Once that was clear … my feeling is that I'm capable, and it's possible, to practice my religion outside of this organization.”

And though her practice has always centered firmly in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, Himaka says she has also sought far and wide for correlates to spiritual wisdom in secular culture, other religions, and science. Her postmodern approach to spirituality marks her as a child of her generation.

“I've read a lot of mystics, astrology, occult,” she says. Her wide reading includes the works of Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist Rimpoche; the Japanese physicist Michio Kaku, who writes about the dimensions of space-time beyond our mundane three-dimensional perception; and Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi.

Himaka says such works deepen, rather than distract, from her discernment of the dharma, showing “what kind of yogic powers must have been available to a person like Sakyamuni Buddha. … These miraculous things [recounted in the sutras] were not just metaphors. They must have actually happened physically. Maybe we really don't see these things because we get caught in this time-space perception and it locks the way that we see things.”

While few in her generation take metaphysical speculation that far, she says, “most sanseis are looking for spiritual truth, if they're looking for something at all. Then you come to the church and you get this 'this-is-how-we-do-it' kind of air about it. 'Don't ask any questions.'

“I never became a churchgoer,” Himaka says. “If I wasn't paid, I don't think I would [go to temple]. There is no spiritual satisfaction in the way the services are run.”

She is not alone. More and more third-generation Japanese-Americans are considering leaving — or have left — the BCA, the traditional American vessel of Jodo Shinshu, in search of more fertile spiritual fields, or simply in pursuit of more pleasurable venues, religious or otherwise.

One can kick about the sociological reasons. Demographic trends have moved many Japanese-Americans to the suburbs from central urban areas — like San Francisco, Cleveland, and Detroit — where temples originally took root. Acculturation has opened these sansei to cultural options and civic opportunities their parents and grandparents only dreamed of.

But perhaps the most visceral reason for the exodus is the spiritual lassitude that has seized the limbs of the church — a failure of the ministry to invigorate the basic religious ideas of Jodo Shinshu by connecting them directly and personally to the passions and pains of the ordinary templegoer.

Indeed, to watch Sasaki work the lectern during a service is to witness a capable and amiable minister — exasperated by the fragmentation of his congregation's cultural frame of reference — trying to hold the congregants' attention by dumbing down the dharma.

“To be able to say nembutsu really spontaneously is a very, very difficult thing,” Sasaki says to his congregants. “Namu Amida Butsu is a spontaneous thing. It's a spontaneous expression of joy, a spontaneous expression of gratitude. It's not 'Namu Amida Butsu because the reverend said Namu Amida Butsu.' ”

Sasaki's voice suddenly assumes a mock flatness. His face contorts into a mask of tragedy, imitating a lethargic worshiper: “Namu Amida, Namu … Namu Am … Namu …”

“The actor George Sanders, before he committed suicide, wrote a note simply saying: 'I am bored.' So he took his life. … If you come to this level and this awareness and stop there, you might as well commit suicide,” Sasaki tells the congregation. “But Buddhism says no, there's much more to life and you can learn to cope with it. … It's an unhappy life. But you will be able to cope with it — not take your life and try to end the pain.” [page]

“We have to be not just bored, we have to, [as we say] in Japanese: eyani naru. Eyani naru means 'I'm very displeased, I hate this life. I hate the kind of life I'm living.' This is a preliminary way to understand nembutsu.”

The moral: Ennui can lead to suicide or to an awakening of dormant energies that inspire the reintegration of a person's life. But the talk — the heart of which you've just sampled — doesn't cohere well. The remainder rambles from Sasaki's failed Christmas-shopping junket to his growing stamina in the USF lap pool to a minisurvey of the aspirations his congregants hold in their hearts — aspirations Sasaki will show to be vain attachments in the eyes of the Buddhist dharma.

Nonetheless, the congregation follows along with the obedience of children listening to a bedtime story, tittering at a funny line, nodding their heads, or raising their hands. They are a mix of old-timers and middle-aged Caucasians come to get their exposure to Eastern religion.

“There's a little burnout from some of the older members,” says Teresa Ono, the co-chair of the San Francisco temple's centennial planning committee. “That's why we're trying to rally as many new people” as possible to participate in the church.

Ono says she was named to the committee “because — I hate to say this — a lot of the board members and past presidents feel they won't be around in three years and they wanted somebody younger.

“It's kind of like the changing of the guard,” she says. “What we're trying to do with the hundredth anniversary is get the younger families back, get the young singles back in.”

Perhaps her own ambivalence about the BCA — which runs like a thread through the sansei cultural Zeitgeist — will equip her with insights on how to draw those of her generation back.

Ono, who works as a government relations executive for AT&T, grew up in the BCA. The youngest of 10 children, she lives five blocks from the San Francisco temple. Her mother and grandmother were both involved in the temple's Fujinkai group, the BCA's equivalent of a women's auxiliary. For generations her family has donated cash, furniture, and clothing to support temple activities. Ono has been involved in every major committee and organization in the temple. When she was 23, Ono was one of the first sansei to serve on the board of the temple. Her niece is in the temple's youth group and her sisters are involved in organizing sports activities at the temple.

But Ono has spent more of her adult energies on extraecclesial commitments. Besides her work with AT&T, she has been involved with the Kimochi, a Japanese-American lay organization that helps feed elderly shut-ins; the Japanese Cultural and Community Center; and the politically powerful Japanese American Citizens League, where Ono is a board member.

And like many of her generation, Jodo Shinshu has not inspired much religious passion for Ono.

“I like the philosophy of Jodo Shinshu,” Ono says. “It's not something I think about every day. When my mother passed away, it made me think about being reborn — you know, birth, death, all this.”

But when she needs meditative silence — the soul-centering restorative calm a Jodo Shinshu temple is supposed to provide — Ono stays home and disconnects the phone. She describes her religious solipsism as a byproduct of upbringing during the me-generation.

“You're looking out for number one. That's what we were raised to do in the '70s: Be yourself; don't worry about everybody else, not be part of a family,” she says. “I told the ad hoc committee [on the BCA centennial]: 'It's very nice that you guys selected me. But you realize I haven't been to church in a long time.' They said: 'Well, hopefully this will bring you back.' ”

Let's hope. Meanwhile other sansei are finding spiritual homes in other faiths. One such home is Japantown's Pine United Methodist Church, a 110-year-old mission to the Japanese-American community. Pastor Gary Barbaree says Pine was once 100 percent Japanese. But since the late '60s, “the Japanese community is becoming more diffuse,” says Barbaree. “Over time [they] have had broader contacts with people who are not of Japanese descent. So what it means to be Japanese-American includes people who may not have all four grandparents who were born in Japan.”

Depending on whom you talk to, half to three-quarters of the sansei are marrying non-Japanese spouses. Because of the “outmarriage” phenomenon, many ex-Buddhists are moving into Christianity or Judaism — or defaulting into agnosticism — from traditional Japanese religious settings like the BCA.

“About half of the members who start coming to Pine Church had a Buddhist background growing up,” Barbaree says.

Meanwhile, the BCA has not sought non-Japanese members with equal vigor.
“It's a real challenge for them I think,” Barbaree says. “The number-one reason why they're not doing it is that they don't want to do it,” he says. “Even if they did want to do it, it would be hard to do.”

Alfred Bloom, retired dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, links the BCA's resistance to recruiting Caucasians to the humiliating memory older members carry of their internment during World War II. If the BCA recruited non-Japanese members — an option favored by BCA temples in the East and the Midwest — the nissei would fear losing control of their religious establishment.

Such reluctance doomed the ambitious 1984 plan to recruit 200,000 new members, says Bloom. Though a resolution was adopted, the plan died the death of the proverbial tree that topples anonymously in the remote, old-growth forest. [page]

“They're really ambivalent about wanting members from other ethnic backgrounds,” Bloom says. “It comes down to a matter of control.”

Control is at the heart of recent sweeping changes that a conservative phalanx of sansei ministers has undertaken.

In the last year, they have elected as bishop the Rev. Hirofumi Watanabe, minister of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple, who takes office next summer. Though Watanabe has been a BCA minister for nearly 30 years, both in California and in Utah, he struggles to speak English.

“This is after two bishops who are very articulate in English and actually are both bilingual,” says a Northern California minister.

That could make it difficult for Watanabe to provide leadership in a church that needs to broaden its appeal to highly assimilated Japanese-Americans. But several ministers say Watanabe's administration will benefit from his wife's close family ties to the Kyoto temple's leadership. Together, they will bring the BCA more squarely into the orbit of its Japanese mother temple.

According to a BCA official in San Francisco who spoke on condition of anonymity, conservatives “find Rev. Watanabe to be willing to go along with their plans. [His wife's] family relationships in the Hongwanji organization in Japan provide a smooth way of going around and getting accomplished what you need getting accomplished.”

But liberals criticize Watanabe's election as the product of a “rigged” vote during last year's annual church meeting.

Says another Northern California minister: “We are beginning to play power politics. … We are putting authority in the hands of a gang of ministers” rather than developing “a religious institution that's well-considered and well-reflected. … It's kind of a microversion of playing the Vatican game.”

Bishop-elect Watanabe outlines a straight-laced agenda.
He says he will support moves by ministers to bring more traditional ritual practices to their temples.

“Third-generation ministers want to [bring] Japanese old tradition for ritual to United States,” Watanabe says. Under traditional “Americanizing, Westernizing” tendencies, “Buddhist churches become just like Christian church, you know. Even the hymns or songs — we call gatha — Christianity call hymn, right. From now on, they want change to our old, old style, you know, tradition.”

Watanabe says he plans to step up youth outreach by sponsoring Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs. As for drawing adult members, Watanabe says he will promote efforts to attract the curious to Buddhism by using temples for popular Japanese cultural activities, like taiko drumming performances.

Already the Nishi Hongwanji has made commitments to endow a ministerial training program — tentatively named the Jodo Shinshu Center on Contemporary Shin Studies — alongside the Institute for Buddhist Studies.

“There's a strong direction to [make the IBS] more sectarian,” says Sasaki, “more traditional Jodo Shinshu.”

To that end, conservatives in the BCA have taken steps to sever the IBS's membership in Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, the nation's most successful interfaith graduate educational institution. They have also engineered the departure of ecumenically minded Buddhists Ronald Nakasone and Kenneth Tanaka from faculty positions at the IBS. Conservatives also led the move to abolish, as of March, the BCA's Department of Buddhist Education, the office Carol Himaka has run since 1989.

Religious institutions are not immune to losing agencies in lean budget times. But religious education is arguably the most important function for any national religious organization. A Bay Area minister says that when the BCA terminated the education department, they said that ministers could serve that function.

“But I think that's impossible,” the minister says. “Ministers have their own church commitments.” In fact, “they wanted to get rid of her … for political and personal reasons.”

If the aim is to recover the lost sansei generation — with its postmodern sen-sibility, its cultural perks, and its as-pirations for a more authentic spiritual experience — the sectarian turn toward Japan seems counterintuitive. Even before Watanabe and his supporters gained con-trol of the BCA, the Buddhism of the BCA represented “the most conservative element of Japanese-American society,” says ousted IBS Professor Nakasone. “The dharma that is being taught was a dharma developed in the past. There is quite a bit of tension here between keeping Buddhism Japanese and [making] it more universal, more palatable to Americans.”

And while estranged third-generation Japanese-Americans may come to expose their children to the traditional religion, such allegiances may not take for long.

“That's still a vision that is possible,” says William Masuda, sansei minister of the Buddhist Temple of Marin in Mill Valley. “But it takes teamwork to do it, and our energies are scattered. We need to get refocused. But we haven't had a real good forum and a real good discussion of our mission.”

Sasaki — the San Francisco minister who can chant open the gates to the Pure Land, but doesn't do hymns — puts it this way:

“It's very difficult to be a Dalai Lama or a Thich Nhat Hanh. But in a lot of ways Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, they don't do what I do. All they do is meditate, study, and lecture. That's easy!

“In order for us to teach Buddhism, we have to get the people to be here. That's very difficult. … Our Buddhist people are no different from Methodist people or Catholic people or Greek Orthodox people. They come from 1995, and they are all kinds of people. How are you going to reach all these different people?

Tags: , , ,

Related Stories