Well supported by primary correspondences and sources, Issei Buddhism in the Americas (in part edited by Duncan Ryuken Williams whose is an associate professor of Japanese Buddhism and the chair of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of California Berkeley also wrote “The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan“) spends much of its 191 pages documenting the Buddhist experience from the point of view of those that brought it over: Japanese American immigrants. Especially topical with the recent commentary concerning the place of Buddhism in the West, this book places the emphasis less on the western academic perspective of Buddhism and more on how the structure and understanding of the Dharma and Buddhist practice changed within the Japanese American community during the late 19th and early 20th century.
By examining the eastward transmission of Buddhism (rather than the Western transmission from Europe) alongside the diaspora of the Issei, the authors show how these early settlers negotiated a new multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious landscape by adapting the presentation and understanding of Buddhism. Far from static and stagnant, many of these early pioneers were progressive, proactive and reformist in their presentation.
While many western practitioners attempt to classify and create boundaries between Western and Asian Buddhism along traditional/progressive lines, “Issei Buddhism in the Americas” shows that those categories were already in major flux before any popular “Western” interest evolved. Most important (and surprising) to me were the drastic changes in Jodo shinshu when emigrating from Japan as well as the burgeoning agglomeration of Zen and Catholicism spiritual practices in Brazil (being a Zen practitioner as well as raised Catholic, I found particular interest in that essay). I was also disturbed to learn about extended work camps (basically businesses, that looking for cheap labor, found it in the form of recently released detainees) for many Japanese detainees that existed long after WWII ended and some were in my home-state of New Jersey.
The impetus for the movement of Buddhism to the West was not the occasional western interest in an Eastern philosophy (although I am certain that it played a significant role) by academics but a personal immigration of home-practice, societal bonds and emerging traditions from Asian Buddhists as well as trail-blazing clergy, priests and practitioners that, in a movement to make traditional Buddhism more applicable to a new environment, adapted traditional Buddhism to a new audience ~ Asian and non-Asian Buddhists living in the Americas.
Duncan Ryuken Williams did a wonderful job in presenting a series of academic essays based upon primary sources in a manner that was understandable to a lay-person like myself by organizing the book into four digestible chunks: 1) Nation and Identity 2) Education and Law 3) Race and Print Culture and 4) Patriotism and War. Each part contains two essays pertaining to the topic with a lengthy introduction written by the editor which provided the necessary backing information and historical foundation to make the essays approachable and understandable within context of the period.
From the Introduction:
…Asian immigrants were distinguished from their European counterparts by unequal treaties, low wages and hostility to “heathen religions,” and ineligibility for citizenship, voting rights and land ownership. It was in this context that pioneer Issei Buddhists started establishing temples in the Americas…These temples established for and by immigrants were more than just religious sites: like the Christian churches and Jewish synagogues of many European immigrants, they became centers of social and cultural life that addressed the practical needs of a growing and increasingly more settled community.
If for a moment you believe that the hostility to “heathen religions” and Asian immigrants is something in our country’s uninformed past, I ask that you read about the Vietnamese Quan Am Temple in Utica NY and how vehemently the white Christian community and neighbors oppose it. From stating that the statue is too tall for the neighborhood, stating that the monks are on welfare and lazy to racist comments about the Vietnamese community at large.
If so motivated, read the book and comment on the article. [Update! The Observer Dispatch has dumped the comments from the article. For the most part these comments came from members of the Christian Evangelical community and were a rather disturbing display of racism and bigotry in the US against refugee populations and other religious beliefs. Remember, it is much easier to swipe a problem under the rug rather than address it directly. From William P. Cannon, Multimedia Team Editor:
We seek to foster healthy community conversations. When a story has multiple violations of our terms of service, we will deactivate the comments. We make no judgement about how comments reflect on the community
So, there you go. ]