To attract newcomers, historic Buddhist church tries something new: meditation

Dec 13, 2016

San Francisco's Japantown is a historic relic of an earlier time when Japanese immigrants and their families clustered here and found homes. In 1899, they founded a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist congregation, the first of that tradition on the continent.

Today, far fewer Japanese families live in this part of town. During World War II the government incarcerated people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, forcing them to leave their homes. Redevelopment efforts in the 1960s caused more displacement. Even so, that first congregation — the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, or BCSF — has remained a haven for the the city’s Japanese American community.

Built in the 1930s, the building is grey and drab on the outside. But inside, past the sanctuary pews, is a dizzying sight. Gold leaf is everywhere. There’s an elaborate, large bowl for incense offerings. And five ornate altars pay tribute to the Buddha and other people instrumental to this tradition with roots in Japan.

The interior of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco.
Credit Tom Levy

In Japan, Jodo Shinshu is the most popular school of Buddhism, but here in the United States, it’s hardly known. The Japanese immigrants who came to work as laborers starting in the late 19th century encountered a lot of racism. Their religion — Buddhism — was a target of prejudice. So for a long time, the temple has served an exclusively Japanese American congregation. But now, among many members, there’s a sense that it’s time to open up and become a more multicultural community.

In the kitchen, preparing for the Eitaikyo, or annual Perpetual Memorial service for past members of the temple who have died, are Jean Fukanaga and Junko Nerio Low. Both are long-time members.

“I think we do need to expand and be more encompassing, and be involved in the whole city wide community,” says Fukanaga.

“I don’t think it will survive if we just keep the small Japanese community," says Nerio Low.

“More important to keep the church growing,” adds Fukanaga, “and expanding the membership if we can.”

At its peak in the 1950s, BCSF was a busy place with two resident ministers. Now there’s only one resident minister with about 250 members. There are lots of reasons for the decline. Intermarriage rates are up. A lot of young Japanese American people aren’t interested. To top it off, the city’s Japanese population has shrunk. If it’s going to survive, there’s a recognition that BCSF must look beyond its Japanese roots.

A painful history

One of the oldest congregants is Hiroshi Kashiwagi. He knows firsthand the struggles Japanese Americans have faced.

“There was a fence with guard towers and you couldn’t leave,” says Kashiwagi. “It was in Northern California, near the Oregon border.”

Kashiwagi was a young man when he was released from the World War II internment camp at Tule Lake. Today, after the Sunday service, he’s with about 50 people eating cookies and cake, and drinking tea in the social hall. Most are of Japanese heritage. In this crowd, the topic of the camps comes up easily.

“Yeah, it’s a shared experience,” says Kashiwagi. “It’s important. It’s really shaped my life, and I was about 25 when I came out.”

Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a member of the congregation who was interned at Tule Lake during World War II.
Credit Tom Levy

It is important. It impacted the members of this congregation, but also the path of the temple itself. For example, its name. Calling itself a church. During the war, leaders of the Jodo Shinshu community held a meeting at an internment camp in Utah.

“And during that time, I guess the leaders met and thought about what to do when the war ended,” says Reverend Ronald Kobata, the current resident minister of Buddhist Church of San Francisco. “They adopted the name Buddhist Churches of America, thinking that would make our community seem less alien or foreign.”

Temples in the network followed suit, using the church designation.

Kobata, who is a third generation Japanese American, attended the San Francisco temple as a kid in the 1950s. He remembers that instead of straw mats for sitting as you’d find in Japan, there were chairs, and later pews. As it still is today, the main service was on Sundays where an organ played just like in a church.

The popularization of Buddhism

The acculturation helped an insulated community on the defensive to blend in. But today, the Buddhist Church of San Francisco finds itself in different circumstances. Racism still exists in the U.S. But the Japanese American community is more assimilated. It’s less a target. And Buddhism has gained in popularity.

“You know, causes and conditions for how the community developed initially,” Kobata says. “Just a practical need of ethnic, cultural community to kind of insulate itself."

“But now the causes and conditions in the West are becoming such that Buddhism is beginning to open up beyond any ethnic, cultural borders. And so that’s really encouraging.”

Encouraging because it means BCSF has a chance to draw in a new crowd, by reaching beyond its current small Shin Japanese base.

Kobata has what’s kind of a radical plan: ride the wave of Buddhism’s current popularity. Introduce new customs not native to Shin, but with proven track records. Like meditation.

Reverend Ronald Kobata, resident minister of Buddhist Church of San Francisco.
Credit Tom Levy

In the sanctuary, assistant minister Leo Joslin is giving instructions to about 15 people seated in a circle, their eyes closed.

“Noticing your posture, sitting upright with dignity, body like a mountain, breath like the wind,” Joslin says. “We’re not trying to control the breath. We’re simply watching the breath as it flows in and out.”

The Buddhist Church of San Francisco is definitely Buddhist. But remember, this is the Jodo Shinshu tradition. Meditation isn’t really its thing.

Meditation’s sustained focus on the breath is a critical piece of Tibetan Buddhism and Zen, or the more secular type of Buddhism found at places like Spirit Rock in Marin. But it’s not for Shin.

Back in 13th century Japan, founder Shinran Shonin set out to simplify Buddhism’s so that its wisdom could be distributed to the peasant masses.

“It was kind of a reaction to the elite class that had a stronghold on Buddhism,” Joslin says. “The peasants and the farmers, they all had to give to the temples to support it. And those who could obtain enlightenment were the monks and priests. It was very unequal, very oppressive.”

Shin Buddhism centers around a practice called the Nembutsu, which is the chanting of one phrase: Namo Amida Butsu. It means to take refuge in the Buddha. In this case, the Buddha is thought of not as the person who achieved enlightenment, but almost as a Higher Power — a source of immeasurable wisdom and compassion. You don’t have to be in a monastery or temple to say the Nembutsu. You can say it anywhere, at any time.

“This is very metaphorical, but the Amidha Buddha, for me, represents the very deepest part of ourselves, the life force that pervades the entire universe,” says Joslin.

Joslin is half-white and half-Japanese. But when he came to the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, he wasn’t looking for a Japanese temple. Just a convenient place to meditate. When the meditation teacher moved on, Joslin took his place. He liked what he learned about Shin Buddhism. The Nembutsu is a type of meditation. But it’s very different from meditations that focus on the breath and are more well known in the U.S.

Transformation

Reverend Koshin Ogui is an 18th generation Shin priest. Yes, that’s right. Eighteen generations of priests. He spent about six years as the resident minister of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco during the 1960s and early 70s. It was he who somewhat stealthily introduced meditation. Then he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he tried to stick with teaching Shin. But he received too many phone calls asking about meditation.

“Six out of 10 phone calls are asking about actual practice of meditation,” says Ogui.

Ogui had studied at a Zen temple when he was a young boy growing up in Japan. After coming to the U.S., he met Suzuki Roshi, credited as one of the main people who popularized Zen. The relationship influenced him. Ogui felt uncomfortable breaking with his own tradition, but justified it with this supermarket analogy.

“If I lose six out of 10 customers, I thought my store had to be closed. Bankrupt,” Ogui says. “So I come from myself, why not? Just see it, do it and see what will happen.”

Ogui’s step beyond the confines of tradition made an impression on Kobata, a student at the time. But by the time Kobata became the resident minister in San Francisco seven years ago, meditation was no longer around. So about five years ago he started it again. Like his mentor, he had to move beyond feeling guilty.

“Getting beyond some sense of obligation or loyalty to the form, the notion that we don’t do that,” says Kobata. “And so, this is how I come to accept that I’m part of a tradition, a form, a religion. But the whole idea is to get beyond it, to see that it’s a way of bringing us — or connecting us — to the spirit, or I like to use the term 'heart.'”

The heart of the temple

This emphasis on heart is working. The temple isn’t overflowing, by any means. But these days, it’s a more mixed group. That includes people of Japanese heritage who either lost their connection to Shin, or did not grow up with it at all. It also includes people with no Japanese blood, like Elaine Donlin.

Donlin came to the temple for a friend’s funeral fifteen years ago. It had been her third funeral in a month.

Elaine Donlin, assistant minister of Buddhist Church of San Francisco
Credit Tom Levy

“And this one was such a celebration,” Donlin says. “There was just so much joy and laughter and beauty and it was so profound.”

She was touched and never left. She’s now a minister’s assistant and leads a once-a-month loving kindness meditation along with a growing LGBTQ members group.

“I love this temple. I just love the physicalness. It’s so beautiful, right? And so, I would like to see it be sustained,” Donlin says.

“Something interesting happens when a tradition, regardless of whether it’s a Buddhist tradition or whatever type of religious tradition, the teachings become codified and then institutionalized. And then they become very static. And so what I love about Buddhism is that everywhere Buddhism went, it impacted the culture and the culture impacted it.

“And so there is that idea of impermanence. Everything is changing. And so our tradition needs to change. That I do know. The tradition will change. It is changing.”

No doubt that the Buddhist Church of San Francisco will likely continue to evolve. So far it’s not clear how big of a difference the changes will make. Kobata says while temple membership is not growing, it’s also not shrinking.

That’s a strong step for an historic congregation with a practice of survival.