Rev. Taitetsu Unno (1929-2014)

This weekend I received the sad news of the passing of Rev. Taitetsu Unno. I am at a loss of words to describe the great impact that he has had on me and people around me. There are many wonderful stories I’ve heard of him, but before sharing any of them, I encourage you to read a short biography by his son, Rev. Mark Unno.

Rev. Dr. Taitetsu Unno completed his life journey on Saturday, Dec 13, 2014. To the very end, he was fully aware and at peace, saying, “Thank you for everything, Namu Amida Butsu,” and when he could no longer speak, simply putting his palms together in gassho. His family and close friends who came to visit in his last days and hours experienced the deep joy of being with him and chanting together, immersed in the rhythms of boundless compassion. He received the remarkably good fortune, the great gift of the Dharma, of the life of Namu Amida Butsu, which he was able to share with so many.

You can read his full biography here.

Namu Amida Butsu

American Gatha

This is about music and the Shin Buddhist community. If you are a current or past member of a Shin Buddhist community who currently lives in North America or Hawai‘i, please consider participat日本藤素 ing in this survey. A lot of people are taking this survey, but it won’t be the same without your voice. It’s also available in Japanese.

My friend Scott Mitchell, a core faculty member at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, is doing some incredible research on Shin Buddhism and music. As he explains:

For more than a century, Shin Buddhists in the United States have sung gatha (hymns) set to Western-style music, often accompanied by piano or organ, during weekly Dharma Family Services. These songs have a long and colorful history in the US, a history that is not often discussed in the academic literature on American or Western Buddhism. Songs sung include updated versions of traditional Japanese folk songs, Shinran Shonin’s devotional poems (wasan), and modern compositions by life-long and convert Buddhists alike.

In a very general sense, I’m interested in the types of music being composed, performed, and played within US Shin Buddhist communities today, who’s making this music, and why. My long-term goal is to write a book on the subject which will focus primarily (though not exclusively) on music performed as practice during Shin Buddhist rituals, services, and celebrations. I am curious about the place of music-as-practice within the borader context of Shin Buddhist ritual/practice life. How does music making compare to, say, reciting the nembutsu, reading a book about Buddhism, mediation, or hearing a Dharma talk? Furthermore, are US Shin Buddhist musical practices local in nature or do they travel across the country? In what ways has the music of Jane Imamura, for example, helped shape a shared sense of belonging among Shin Buddhists across North America?

These are some of the big questions I’ll be asking over the coming year as I research this topic, interview music makers, and survey members of Shin Buddhist communities about their musical and practice lives. This site will chronicle this work as well as act as a repository for information I pick up along the way.

You can help by either taking the survey or, if you don’t necessarily identify as Shin Buddhist, then help publicize this project. In either case, thank you for reading this far and I hope you’ll also help spread the word of this exciting project.

Photo credit: American Gatha.

Stereotypes of Asian Buddhists in Canada

I knew the article was going to be bad when I saw the first word misspelled: A-mi-tha-ba. Google could have helped on that one.

This careless misrendering of an Asian name of the Pure Land Buddha is but one of the myriad problems in Douglas Todd’s Vancouver Sun piece on Canadian Buddhism (“As Buddhism grows, two ‘solitudes’ emerge”). Todd attempts to stuff Metro Vancouver’s Buddhist diversity into a Two Buddhisms framework, and in so doing he misrepresents both Asian Buddhists and Pure Land Buddhist traditions by perpetuating common racist stereotypes and sectarian aspersions.

Todd’s Two Buddhisms are dubbed “ethnic Buddhism” and “Westernized Buddhism,” and he describes each group by their usual stereotypes. Ethnic Buddhism, for example, is “practised mostly by Asian immigrants, most of whom cannot speak English.” This assertion is incredible. According to the Canadian Census, the vast majority of Asians in British Columbia speak English, so why does Todd propose that Asian Buddhists are so much more unlikely to speak English than their non-Buddhist counterparts?

Of course, these überforeign ethnic Buddhists “generally meet in large extravagant-looking temples throughout the city.” Another cavalier assertion that can be inspected a little more closely. I went to British Columbia’s listing on the BuddhaNet World Buddhist Directory and ran Google Street View on the addresses of “ethnic” temples listed in Metro Vancouver. Mostly residential and office buildings turned up. I have a hunch that most Asian Buddhist congregants in Vancouver regularly attend services in buildings on the same order of “ordinary-looking” as the Gold Buddha Monastery that Todd described visiting.

Let’s not forget the claim that “‘ethnic Buddhists’ have a more supernatural bent.” I can’t imagine how many Asian Buddhists Todd must have interviewed to find that out, but as I demonstrated previously based on Pew Forum research, non-Asian Buddhists are more likely to believe in Nirvana than Asian Buddhists are. (The Pew Forum surveyed the United States, but Todd has separately stated that his “experience covering diversity issues suggests its findings can be comfortably extrapolated to Canada and Metro Vancouver.”) So perhaps Asian Buddhists are more likely than non-Asian Buddhists to believe in the supernatural, while being less likely to believe in Nirvana. I find that hard to believe, especially when Todd has no surveys to back him up.

Last, but not least offensive, is Todd’s depiction of Pure Land Buddhism in Vancouver as basically a bunch of Asians praying to get to Buddha heaven. The forms of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Vancouver involve much more than just Pure Land practice. They even include meditation—just like those white Buddhists! Even congregations which identify primarily as Pure Land, such as the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada, would probably surprise Todd with their approach to Pure Land philosophy. That’s worth a whole post on its own.

If by chance Todd cares to amend any of the numerous errors in his article, it may be best to start with a spell check. For example, the largest Buddhist school is called Mahayana—not Mayahana. Wow. My iPad’s autocorrect just tried to fix that one.

Jane Michiko Imamura, 1920-2011

The Rafu Shimpo today remembers the contributions of the late Jane Imamura to American Buddhism.

Jane Michiko Imamura is remembered for her warm and compassionate spirit as well as for her numerous contributions to the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, the Buddhist Churches of America, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i and the Hawai‘i Kyodan.

In addition, she was recognized for her active role in advancing and promoting the study of Shin Buddhism to Westerners.


“Jane Imamura made everyone, regardless of background or age, feel welcome and wanted,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, who along with other Beat Generation iconic figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, studied Buddhism at the temple during the 1950s. “She was also a wonderful, personal friend and advisor, with a deep knowledge of Buddhist thought and values, and a great spirit of compassion and service…. Jane Imamura was kind of a beacon in my mind, a light to steer by all those years, and I know this was true for many others — not just me. My great thanks to her big spirit and extraordinary life.”

Jane Imamura was also the mother of Rev. Ryo Imamura, a founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. A year ago, I reprinted his response to Tricyclefounder Helen Tworkov’s assertion that “Asian-American Buddhists … have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.” I hope you will recognize that Jane Imamura’s life was one immersed in the creation and development of the very institutions of American Buddhism that we take for granted today.

You can read more at the Rafu Shimpo online. Also check out Jon Kawamoto’s tribute to Jane Imamura, who passed away on December 26, 2011.

Taste of Chicago Buddhism

When I began blogging about Buddhism on Dharma Folk, there weren’t many Asian American Buddhists in the blogosphere. Now it seems as though every month I’m encountering a new blog written by an Asian American Buddhist. Taste of Chicago Buddhism is one such blog, written by Rev. Patti Nakai of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago.

The blog discusses topical issues on everything from Buddhism to Rev. Nakai’s community in ways that make me ever so slightly nostalgic for the Windy City. I particularly enjoyed her recent opinions on what students read about Buddhism. Her blog also paints another picture of “Chicago Buddhism” that’s quite a bit different from Stephen Asma’s red meat and whiskey version.

I hope you’ll have the chance to check out Taste of Chicago Buddhism and even enjoy it enough to add it to your blog list.

Lessons from Our Elders

Here’s another piece that’s been sitting in my draft box, waiting to be published. I was happy to see an interview by Jeff Wilson with Rev. Patti Usuki in this summer’s issue of Tricycle.

Rev. Usuki is a well-known Shin writer, and I was personally impressed by her book Currents of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu, which documents the attitudes of Shin Buddhist women who don’t quite fit the stereotypes of “insular ethnic Buddhists.” You can get a taste of her writing with this excerpt from the Tricycle interview.

Converts and newcomers to Buddhism outside of Asia sometimes have a tendency to dismiss Asian-Americans as “ethnic Buddhists” or “baggage Buddhists”—as people who do not seriously practice Buddhism. However, we have much to learn from many of these women who still reflect a generations-long internalization of the buddhadharma through their thoughts, words, and deeds. They themselves are often the first to humbly profess that they know nothing about the dharma, and yet many of them display an innate understanding of such tenets as dana [the practice of cultivating generosity] and interdependence in all that they do—and many show, through their outlook, a profound grasp of the spirit of the nembutsu. They have often made huge sacrifices so that the temples will prosper, enabling others to experience the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And yet they have embraced change without stridency. We have to remember that through their life experiences—such as racial and religious discrimination and being put into internment camps during World War II—they understand suffering and impermanence, and they know the value of finding joy in whatever life dishes out. They keep moving forward, and their positive perspectives alone are a lesson to us all. Certainly, they know what it is to be marginalized by those with dualistic minds, but they know that the light of immeasurable wisdom and compassion shines on all without discrimination.

If you have a copy of the summer issue, you can find this paragraph tucked away in the back, across pages 105–106. I am a big fan of Rev. Patti’s writing, and I hope to be able to post more from her here in the future.

Happy Ohigan!

Today marks the start of Ohigan (or Higan-e), a Japanese Buddhist holiday. To learn more about this holiday, I had the honor of interviewing Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge, resident minister at the Buddhist Church of Oakland. On the blogosphere, you may be more familiar with Rev. Harry’s podcast, the DharmaRealm, a Shin Buddhist podcast, which he produces with Dr. Scott Mitchell. Rev. Harry can also occasionally be found teaching at the Institute for Buddhist Studies.

Who are you?

A half-Asian Jodo Shinshu Buddhist minister. Also a musician and cat lover.

What is the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

I think several explanations are possible. “Higan” means “Other Shore” – in other words, the Other Shore of enlightenment. At the spring and autumn equinoxes, when night and day are the same length, the Japanese considered the Other Shore to be at its closest point, and thus an important time to practice, especially the paramitas. In fact, the term “paramita” can be interpreted as “reaching the Other Shore.”

Having lived in Kyoto, which is bone-chillingly cold in winter and unbearably hot and humid in summer, I wonder if monks found the mild weather of spring and fall to be more conducive to extended practice and lectures?

What does this holiday mean to you?

I usually view Ohigan in terms of balance. With night and day of equal length and mild weather neither too hot nor cold, I see the Middle Way in action.

What do you plan to do on/for Ohigan? 

My temple held its Ohigan celebration a week early. Not for any particular reason, things just worked out that way. One interesting result was that our service was on the first day of daylight savings time, so that things were kind of thrown out of balance. This was reflected in the world, since our service was a couple of days after the earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan. But although part of my Dharma Message was about the sadness we feel for those suffering, I also went ahead with my initial plan for a call-and-response funk version of the Golden Chain, calling on everyone to aspire to be the best Buddhists we can be, to try and be kind and gentle to every living thing, with the wish that all beings attain perfect peace. 

You can follow Rev. Harry on his blog, The Nenju, and also on Twitter (@gyokyo). Last year, Rev. Harry participated in an all-Asian American interview about Buddhism in America, which I blogged about. If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of Rev. Harry and his work in the Buddhist community.

All my best wishes for your practice this Ohigan.

TechnoBuddha 2011

Everyone seems to be talking about the $300 $400 Buddhist Geeks Conference, but the conference that I’d really like to attend is the Techno Buddha Conference 2011 (“The Journey”). The conference is being held March 4–6 at the Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley, California. Here’s the description from their Facebook page:

TechnoBuddha was the theme of the first year’s conference for people who are “grown but not necessarily grown-up” and are interested in Buddhism. We targeted the age range of 21–39 with flexibility on the upper limit (but unfortunately not on the lower limit, since the weekend involved a happy hour).

The theme was TechnoBuddha because we wanted to focus in on how our generation’s experience with technology may affect our experience with Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

Expect to get involved in workshops on tai-chi/hip hop, personal finance and buying a home, communication and interpersonal relationships, local involvement and—of course—what in the world it means to practice Jodo Shinshu in 2011! The keynote speaker is Rev. Bob Oshita, rinban for North America’s largest Jodo Shinshu congregation. If you’re curious about how to raise kids in a temple community, he’s a great person to talk to.

I know these topics have nothing to do with Buddhism in the West, but I figured some readers might be interested. I unfortunately have a drop-dead project deadline the following week, so I’m still on the fence over whether or not to make the trip up north.

Thanks to an anonymous follower for the tip!

Asian Buddhists Support Gay Rights

I’ve been AWOL from blogging for a bit, but I got this email in my inbox, which I couldn’t resist reposting. The United States’ oldest Buddhist mission affirms its support for gay rights.

The Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, consisting of 36 Buddhist temples statewide, unanimously passed a resolution in February supporting gay rights and are planning related public forums.

“We wanted to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, too.’ We had never taken a stance before,” said Blayne Higa, chairman of the Honpa’s Social Concerns Committee. The group wants to add an Asian and Buddhist perspective to GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons) issues through its forums, Higa said.

In a March news release, Honpa Hongwanji President Alton Miyamoto said, “We want to share our Buddhist values of universal compassion, equality and interdependence with the larger community. We believe this issue is a matter of civil rights. We affirm the human dignity and worth of all people and that everyone deserves equal treatment within our society.”

I am so proud to have such a large organization with such deep history—in America’s most Asian state—affirm its support for gay rights. This support isn’t just limited to Buddhists in Hawai‘i. If you dip into the online database of contributors both supporting and opposing Proposition 8, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese Americans (well, at least of people with Vietnamese surnames like NguyenTran and Pham) donated to organizations that support gay rights. And this support spans generations. As the Honolulu Star-Advertiser goes on to note

“It’s funny, our older members were some of the biggest champions (of the resolution). The really older members remembered a time when Japanese-Americans were discriminated against or interned during the war. For them it really was a no-brainer, it was really just common sense,” Higa said.

To be fair—not every Asian Buddhist feels this way. There is discrimination and bigotry within the Asian American community, and I wouldn’t want this post to suggest that gay Asian Americans don’t face serious issues in the community. They do. But even so, there are also organizations like the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i who are happy to open their doors and affirm their support for equality.

Update: See in the comments, the Buddhist Churches of America’s 2004 same-sex resolution, where they “affirm the worthiness of all persons independent of sexual orientation” and “oppose any governmental prohibition of same-sex marriage.”