Issei Buddhism in the Americas and Racism in Utica

Issei Buddhism in the Americas

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. ]




8 thoughts on “Issei Buddhism in the Americas and Racism in Utica

  1. Eh? You say “how vehemently the white Christian community and neighbors oppose it”, and yet reading the article, I see that in fact the opposition (on the grounds of the statue being taller than local law allows) amounted to forty-five residents signing a petition!

    45 people out of thousands simply signed a petition. This is not vehemence. And nowhere in the article you linked to did I see any mention of the racist comments you talk about.

    As for the “white Christian community” being opposed to the statue, the article clearly suggests that the building of the statue was widely supported (“the issue is confined to the Zoning Board” etc)!

    And in another piece from the same newspaper, there is an article on just what it is that makes this area such a welcoming lace to other religions:

    I mean, local attorney Stephen Lockwood was active on getting a variance to the local law passed so that this staute could go up, – and it was passed.

    And in an interview with the neigbours of the temple, they said “It’s not any different than any other church. Different churches have different things.” Hardly the voice of vehement opposition!

    Perhaps you have other sources for the “hostility” you are talking about? But without showing them, your claim that the “white Christian community” is hostile does nothing but try to whip up controversy and antagonism for no reason at all.

    Our practice, is it not, is to look for agreement and wholeness. This temple and this statue is wonderful (you know I have a practice of devotion to the Boddhisattva), but I’d be doing Her a disservice if I used the occasion of this new statue to point out blame (45 people signed a petition shock horror) rather than look at the wonderful support from the thousands who welcomed this statue.


    • Oh Hi Marcus! I should qualify that I meant “Evangelical” Christian community. Also read the comments section in the post I linked to. The organizer of the petition lays it out pretty clearly. If you think that this is “just” about two feet, you are mistaken. It is thinly veiled racism towards the Vietnamese refugee community in Utica.

      Although, I will admit that the city council did the right thing in this case.

      I did just notice that the webpage has erased all comment on the post. A great way to ignore a problem (or by browser sucks) I wish I copied the comments for this post but alas.

  2. Hi,

    I’m sorry – but you are simply wrong on this one.

    The population of Utica is 60,000.

    45 signatures (out of a population of 60,000) on a petition, and a few on-line comments do not constitute any kind of “community” at all – let alone a vehement outpouring of hatred!

    In fact, the smooth community relations in this town are such that it prompted an article in the New York Times wondering how come there are so FEW problems here:

    Here’s a quote for you: “In Utica, there is a big harmony between different religions and different congregations.” – it’s from a local imam who has just overseen the building of a new mosque in the town.

    Here’s another quote for you: “Utica is a model for a small community in terms of integrating and acculturating emerging populations.” – this time from Peter D. Vogelaar, executive director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in the town.

    So, what, are you saying that the great community relations in Utica – praised by the NYTimes, by the mayor, by the refugee centre and by the local Mulsim community – is not actually true? On what basis? On the basis that 45 people signed a petition and some people (from goodness knows where in the world) made some comments on the Internet?

    Come on. The town changed it’s local laws in order to enable this lovely statue to be built. This town has welcomed new arrivals from around the world (Bosnians, Burmese, Somalis, Vietnamese, Iraqis and others make up about a quarter of the population), and this town has gained praise for the way it’s done it.

    Your suggestion that there is a “community” out there fostering “hatred” has no grounding and only serves to divide rather than unite the people of this town.

    Now, I know from years of reading your otherwise excellent blog that you dislike Christianity, but it can’t be denied that the Christian Community in Utica is overwhelmingly welcoming of other faiths in that community.


    • Its a good thing we have newspapers or we would never know what is going on in the world. Unfortunately, the editors at the Dispatch chose to remove the comments from all those wonderful Evangelical Christians welcoming the temple. Luckily we can now live under the illusion that Utica is a wonderful place with no racial or religious bigotry.

      I never said that Utica itself was racist or their governance (which I think is doing a wonderful thing by allowing the temple to be there and not bowing down to popular opinion) but a vocal evangelical community that openly (and hiding behind building ordinances) fought the temple and the statue along with the refugees.

      The fact that the comments are now removed, also removes the voices of those wonderful evagelicals.

      It only takes a small, vocal group to ruin those public relations you speak so highly of.

      Your suggestion that there is a “community” out there fostering “hatred” has no grounding and only serves to divide rather than unite the people of this town.

      Again, the comments are all removed so, no, I have no grounding any more. Lets all go dance on a rainbow. But it only takes a small vocal and bigoted group to spread this hatred.

      BTW, Marcus, that wonderful evangelical Christian that is local to me are still sending me hate mail, threatening me with hell, and stalking me at work. It only takes a few bigots to make you live in fear. The fact that the governance of Utica is trying to bridge this gap is wonderful but it is the grassroots racism/bigotry that will hamper these people and that is what I am addressing. But then again, I hope I am wrong. But if anyone is experiencing what I am then I am willing to make my statement.

      Again, it is unfortunate that the Dispatch has removed the comments from their loving community.

      I do not dislike Christianity, the practice is fine. But I am strongly opposed to Evangelical Christians and their bullying tactics.


  3. Oh, by the way, it wasn’t an issue of two feet.

    The city regulations limit the height of an accessory structure in a residential district to 10 feet. The statue is 13 feet tall and stands on a 3-foot platform – bringing the total height to 16 feet.

    So what the temple wanted was to erect a 16 foot statue, despite a law restricting statues to ten feet – and the local government agreed to this – in a unanimous note.

    Just one of the rasons why this town is so widely praised all over America for being one of the most opening and welcoming towns in the entire country.

    • Again, my issue is not with the town but those within that town that are vocally opposed to the refugees. As their comments have been removed we can all go back to pretending everything is wonderful.

      And only after a ruling by the state supreme court was the statue allowed. It was voted down by the zoning board several times largely due to one member that was also a neighbor and organized the protest to it. Again, it only takes the bigotry of a few.

      So I can assure you, this would not have happened without the foresight of the State Supreme Court of New York. Without with, the lovely community of Utica would have been without a temple statue.

  4. Hi John,

    I really don’t want to continue this but feel that I must, because what you are doing is using the opinions of a small minority (45 signatures on a petition and a few Internet comments) to make glaring derogatory comments about a whole group of people – in a way you would never do if that community weren’t Christian.

    I even tried to find the evidence of which you speak. Then I even I looked through the websites of evangelical churches in Utica trying to find it. But I found absolutely nothing promoting hatred or bigotry.

    Far from it, what I found was a group of churches made up of various different kinds of people of different backgrounds with a welcoming attiutude to all.

    What I also found was an article in a magazine called “Christianity Today”, subtitled “A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction”, called “The Town that Loves Refugees”.

    Here’s a taste of that evangelical article:

    “Utica’s diverse faith community forms another pillar of support for refugees. Mosques, temples, and churches address the physical and spiritual needs of refugees. Up to 10 percent of Utica may be Muslim, due to the influx of Bosnian refugees. The local mosque is one of the most ethnically varied in the nation.”

    Sorry, but where is the evangelical hatred in that? If anything, the article suggests, the evangelicals are beneffitting from the arrival of refugees, not least because they fill churches, and so are organising warm welcomes for them.

    A case in point, highlighted in the article, are the minority peoples of Burma, many traditionally Christian, who, suffering persecution in Burma and massive discrimination in Thailand (the horror stories I could tell you of official Thai discrimination against refugees!), are finding a welcome in places like Utica.

    You see. While you want to smear an entire community on the basis of 45 signatures and some Internet comments, going from calling the entire “white Christian community” and then just the “Evangelical” community racist, the facts, plain and simple, fly in the face of what you are attempting to do.

    I am perfectly sure that I could find 45 Muslims in Utica that would sign a petition against a Jewish synagogue and some Internet comments supporting them – would I then be correct to assume that the entire Muslim community of Utica is full of vehement hatred? That is what you’re doing in regard to the evangelicals of Utica.

    Of course I’m not suggesting that evangelical hatred and bullying does not exist at all in some individuals, and I feel very sorry for your own personal experiences. In fact, given the fact you’ve got hate mail and the like from crazy evangelicals, I can undestand why you dislike them enough to raise this issue and attempt to make a case that their entire community is actively racist. But it’s just not so.

    Anyway, no more comments from me on this one.

    Take care mate.

    Marcus _/\_

    PS – have you contacted the police about the hate mail and stalking? You really must.

  5. Pingback: Kansas Buddhists barred from building temple due to “Animal Sacrifices” | elephant journal

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