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Japanese Buddhism in America

2009年03月29日 15:31:00 佛教在线 点击:0

 

Dr. Stephen G. Covell

Professor, Dept. of  Comparative Religion,

Western Michigan University

Abstract: The journey of Buddhism from Japan to America is one not easily told briefly.  Within Japan one hundred years ago, Buddhism was undergoing great changes in the face of declining state support and the onslaught of modern and western views on religion.  At the same time, Japanese were traveling to the United States to work in Hawai’i and California.  This was a moment of monumental change for Japanese Buddhism as well as for those Japanese Buddhists striking out to work thousands of miles from home.  But, that was only the beginning.  Japanese Buddhists both in Japan and in the US, each for their own reasons, sought to appeal to non-Japanese as well--both to so-called Convert Buddhists and to local communities and the nation at large. Next, the first wave of settlers gave way to a second generation of ethnic Japanese Buddhists who in their own time put new demands on the Buddhism of their parents. And finally, we cannot understand the spread of Buddhism from Japan to America, without considering diffuse Buddhism; the Buddhism of popular culture, poetry, music, and the martial arts.  I won’t try to cover all of this here in depth, but in order to introduce the complexity of this rich history I will briefly touch on each in turn.

The journey of Buddhism from Japan to America is one not easily told in eight minutes.  It is a story of Buddhism in flux.  Within Japan one hundred years ago, Buddhism was undergoing great changes in the face of declining state support and the onslaught of modern and western views on religion.  At the very same time, Japanese were traveling to the United States to work in Hawai’i and California.  This was a moment of monumental change for Japanese Buddhism as well as for those Japanese Buddhists striking out to work thousands of miles from home.  But, that was only the beginning.  Japanese Buddhists both in Japan and in the US, each for their own reasons, sought to appeal to non-Japanese as well--both to so-called Convert Buddhists and to local communities and the nation at large. Next, the first wave of settlers gave way to a second generation of ethnic Japanese Buddhists who in their own time put new demands on the Buddhism of their parents.[1] And finally, we cannot understand the spread of Buddhism from Japan to America, without considering diffuse Buddhism; the Buddhism of popular culture, poetry, music, and the martial arts.  I won’t try to cover all of this here in depth, but in order to introduce the complexity of this rich history I will touch on each in turn.

First, it is important to put the early movement of Japanese Buddhism to the US in the context of Buddhism in Japan at that time. Japanese Buddhism at the turn of the last century was undergoing wrenching change.  Buddhism lost its place of prominence within the government and came under attack from a number of quarters.  It was assailed as foreign, backward, and corrupt.  Buddhist leaders fought vigorously to address these critiques.  At the same time, Western scholarship on Buddhism and on religion more generally had an influence on Buddhist intellectuals.  From this mix of persecution, intellectual challenge, and creative response came new ideas about what Japanese Buddhism was supposed to be.  One part of this was “new Buddhism” or modern Buddhism. Which reflected, as McMahan notes, “an embrace of science combined with the promise of something beyond it, and a universal reality in which different religions and people participate, but which Buddhism embodies most perfectly.”[2]  Linked to this vein of thought were the writings of D.T. Suzuki, the great popularizer of Buddhism in the West.  Suzuki’s appeal to Westerners was in part his advocacy of Zen as a “pure experience of an unmediated encounter of reality”.[3]  This view of Zen placed it beyond the critiques of institutional corruption in Japan but also rang true to Westerner’s seeking alternatives to their own religious establishments.

It was also during the transwar period that we see the development of movements such as Sanb? Ky?dan which remains a relatively minor movement in Japan but which played an instrumental role in the formation of some forms of Buddhism in the US.  Sanb? Ky?dan is basically a Zen lay movement that was founded by an ordained Zen priest (Yasutani Hakuun).  The style of Zen practice developed in Sanb? Ky?dan in which the direct experience of one’s Buddha nature took precedent over ceremony and monastic lifestyle was of particular interest to early Western practitioners of Zen.[4]

With these changes in attitudes towards practice as well as with the turmoil that Japanese Buddhism experienced in the modern century in mind we can now turn to the experience of Japanese Buddhism as it enters the united states in two strands; so called-ethnic Japanese Buddhism (or old-line Japanese American Buddhism) and so-called Convert Buddhism (or Euro-American Buddhism).

The history of Japanese Buddhism in the US has been anything if not eventful and it has been the topic of scholarly interest of late. [5] Buddhism arrived with immigrants traveling to work in the US in the late 1800s. In understanding the fate of Japanese Buddhism at this time it is important to understand the social and legal context in which early immigrants and later Japanese Americans lived.  Laws and agreements between the US and Japan and within the US shaped the nature of Japanese immigration and thereby the manner in which Japanese communities formed in the US.  This in turn shaped the demands placed on Buddhism in the US.  Important laws to note are the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907[6], the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924[7], and the creation of Internment Camps under Executive Order 9066 in WWII. 

Despite hardships faced under these often draconian legal arrangements, communities survived and Buddhism played a role in seeing them through.  However, another hurdle faced by Japanese Buddhism in the US mirrored transitions taking place within the Japanese American community itself.  As the first generation (issei) gave way to the second generation (nissei) questions were raised about Buddhist practice and affiliation.  Issei had to alter Japanese Buddhism to fit their new environment.  The manner of alteration depended somewhat on the area.  For example, demands placed on Buddhism in Hawai’i were often different than those found in California.[8]  Some changes that took place included what has been called the Protestantization of Japanese Buddhism.  These changes included the adoption of Western-like hymns, pews in temples, and the use of terms like “church” or “minister”.

Buddhism was closely linked to identity and Buddhist temples played a role as community center.  Boy scout troupes, parades and all manner of community activities took place at temples and many, including those I just mentioned, served to simultaneously blend the community into the dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture while still maintaining a Japanese and a Buddhist identity.  As the first generation gave way to a second generation new demands were placed on Buddhism.  The training of priests remained a problem for sometime as licensure could only be had through training in Japan.  This restricted access to the priesthood and became an issue as the second and later third and fourth generation members sought to practice Buddhism.  Services in English, too, began to change how people related to Buddhism and the manner in which Buddhism served as a marker of Japanese identity.  Japanese Buddhism was becoming Japanese-American Buddhism.  Arguments were made by some in the second generation that Buddhism had to “serve as more than a marker for ethnic identity.”[9]  In other words, Buddhist affiliation came to be questioned as people moved from being Buddhist because they were Japanese to seeking to understand Buddhism as their personal religion.  Still others, especially among third and fourth generation Japanese Americans, turned to Buddhism in order to reaffirm their Japanese roots. 

The Buddhism of ethnic Japanese continues to undergo changes, just as the Buddhism in Japan on which early immigrants drew was a religion undergoing great change.  The story of Japanese Buddhism in America is not limited to ethnic Japanese though.  In order to understand Buddhism’s transmission to the US we must also examine the history of so-called Convert Buddhism.

Convert Buddhism is an unwieldy term given that many “convert” Buddhists are now second or third generation.  But, for expedience I will use the term here.[10]  Possibly the most famous form of Convert Buddhism is Zen.  Zen Buddhism took off in the US in part due to the Beat movement in the 1950s.  Jack Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums (1958) placed Beat Buddhism squarely on the social-religious landscape of America.   The Beats, as Seager, Masatsugu and others show reflected a desire on the part of some in the US to question the religious and social constructs of Cold War 1950s America.  It likewise sought identity in the mystique of the “Oriental” other.[11]

The Buddhism introduced by the Beats was one born of textual study, an interest in the writings of Zen popularizers such as Suzuki, and the search for a personal spiritual awakening beyond the confines of recognized institutions.  As Masatsugu notes, Beat Buddhism came to be characterized (sometimes unfairly) by Kerouac’s famous Dharma Bum figure; a white male searching for a mystic experience outside of the dominant American culture, someone able to “traverse racial, class and sexual borders.”[12]

Dharma Bum Buddhism, however, was not always welcome by Japanese Buddhist practitioners and many Convert Buddhists.  It was critiqued as overly simplistic or even as a complete misreading of the Buddhist life.  Yet, Japanese monks from the Zen traditions in particular, attracted a following from within the fertile fields of Beat inspired seekers.  Indeed, for much of its early history Convert Zen was marked by Japanese leadership and Convert lay members.[13]  Here is one area where we see the influence of Sanb? Ky?dan mentioned above.  Zen in the US developed around the offering of training for a primarily lay audience but, training, nonetheless, which often demanded a variety of levels of practice, from monastic retreats to regular meditation gatherings.

Inspired by movements within Asian Buddhism, Convert Buddhism in the US has also come to place an emphasis on the practices of Engaged Buddhism.  In this sense, Japanese Buddhism in the US has taken a much different direction that Japanese Buddhism in Japan.  In Japan, while there has been interest in and work on what has come to be called Engaged Buddhism from the early 1960s, it has never reach the level of importance that it has in the US, or indeed in the rest of Asia. 

Now in its third or later generation, Buddhism, both convert and ethnic-Japanese, has detached from its moorings in established Buddhist institutions—both those in Japan and in the US—and in some cases can now be found developing entirely new institutions.  In this sense, it is closer to what might be called diffuse Buddhism, that which Tweed calls “Sympathizer” Buddhism.  While I do not like the term symathizer, this is a category that cannot be overlooked.  It is an avenue by which Buddhism has made great inroads into American society.  While the number of those who declare themselves Buddhist in the United States is in a clear, albeit growing, minority, the number of people who are sympathetic to Buddhism is not insignificant.  Many have a least tried various forms of Buddhist meditation, books that begin with the title “Zen and …” appear on bookshelves regularly, and product advertisements make ample use of images of “Zen” to invoke a sense of serenity, detachment, or peace.  The hard fought battles of Japanese American Buddhists over the last century to gain acceptance as American and the practices and best selling poetry and novels of the Beat Generation laid the foundation for this wide spread acceptance of Buddhist ideals and practices. The Buddhism that arrived from Japan in waves over the last 100 years can not be understood as Japanese Buddhism at this point it must be understood within the larger context of American Buddhism.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Ama suggests a triad: (1) the Buddhist relationship with Japan, (2) the Buddhist relationship with the United States by reflecting the anti-Japanese activities, (3) how Caucasians viewed Buddhism that reflected a relationship between Japan and the United States. Ama, Michihiro. "Immigrants to the Pure Land: The Acculturation of Shin Buddhism in Hawaii and North America, 1898-1941." Ph.D., University of California, Irvine, 2007.

[2] McMahan 220. McMahan, David L. "Repacking Zen for the West." In Westward Dharma: Buddhism after Asia, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Martin Baumann, 218-29. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

[3] Ibid. 221

[4] Seager 93.  See also Sharf, Robert H. "Sanb? Ky?dan: Zen and the Way of the New Religions." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22, no. 3-4 (1995): 417-58.

[5] See recent dissertations such as Ama, Michihiro. "Immigrants to the Pure Land: The Acculturation of Shin Buddhism in Hawaii and North America, 1898-1941." Ph.D., University of California, Irvine, 2007; and Masatsugu, Micheal Kenji. "Reorienting the Pure Land: Japanese Amercans, the Beats, and the Making of American Buddhism, 1941-1966." Ph.D., University of California, Irvine, 2004.

[6] The Agreement restricted immigration to wives and children of men already living in the US.

[7] This law restricted citizenship to only those currently living within the US.  Basically, it halted Japanese immigration.

[8] For example J?do shinsh? in Hawaii promoted something much more similar to Japanese J?do shinsh? than it did on the US mainland where the emphasis was placed on promoting Shakyamuni and universal Buddhism.  This reflected the context in which these J?do shinsh? communities found themselves. Ama, 104.

[9] Masatsugu, 148.

[10] Tweed uses the terms “Cradle Buddhists”, “Convert Buddhists”, and “Sympathizers”, Seager (2 p. 106) argues against such terminology, (though he uses the terms “old-line Asian American”, “Euro-American or convert” and “ethnic Buddhism”).  Seager believes the terms serve to obscure more than they clarify. Tweed, Thomas A. "Who Is a Buddhist? Night-Stand Buddhists and Other Creatures." In Westward Dharma: Buddhism after Asia, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Martin Baumann. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Seager, Richard Hughes. "American Buddhism in the Making." In Westward Dharma: Buddhism after Asia, edited by Charles S. Prebish and Martin Baumann. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

[11] Masatsugu 120-122.

[12] Ibid. 130-133.

[13]  Seager 39

 

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