Buddhist Churches of America

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Buddhist Churches of America (abbreviated as BCA in English, 米国仏教団 or Beikoku Bukkyōdan in Japanese) is the United States branch of the Nishi Honganji subsect of Jōdo Shinshū ("True Pure Land School") Buddhism. Jōdo Shinshū is also popularly known as "Shin Buddhism". The BCA is one of several overseas kyōdan ("districts") belonging to the Nishi ("Western") Honganji. The other kyōdan are Hawaiʻi, Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada, and South America.

The BCA's headquarters is at 1710 Octavia Street, San Francisco, near Japantown. It is the oldest Buddhist organization in the mainland United States.

Origins and development[edit]

The origins of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) or American Buddhist Churches (ABC) began with the arrival of Japanese immigrants to the American mainland during the late 1800s. Devout Shin Buddhists who had expressed concern over the lack of religious services, and the activities of Christian missionaries among the newly-arrived immigrant population, petitioned the monshu (head abbot) of the Nishi Honganji to send priests to the US. The first Jōdo Shinshū priests arrived in San Francisco in 1893, and the first American temple constructed in 1899. The priests' arrival was a source of concern to the Japanese consul to the U.S. who believed it would strain U.S.-Japan relations: for example, a hostile article by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper on their arrival alleged that the priests' intent was to convert white Americans and proclaim that Buddhism was superior to Christianity.[citation needed] In the decades prior to World War II, the mainland American branch of the Nishi Honganji tradition was named the "Buddhist Missions of North America" (BMNA), and many temples were established throughout the West Coast, the first being in San Francisco, followed by temples in the Bay Area, the Central Valley, and Northern and Southern California. There were also temples established in the Northwest states, in Seattle, Washington and Oregon. Since the majority of early Japanese immigrants or issei ("First Generation") were farmers or laborers, many of these temples were built in then-rural, and segregated, areas such as Dinuba, Guadalupe, and Sacramento.

An earlier separate branch of the Nishi Hongwanji-ha was established on the Hawaiian Islands in the 1880s when it was the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii. Many Japanese had also immigrated to Hawaii to work on the plantations there.[1]

The activities of the BMNA focused solely on the Japanese immigrant community and their families. Priests were expected to conduct funeral and memorial services, teach Buddhism together with traditional Japanese culture, and also to serve as role models for young Japanese men, as at the time they were often considered the most educated Japanese immigrants. Many of these priests only stayed temporarily in the US, then returned to Japan after serving for a period of a few years; others stayed on in the US temples (a trend that continues today among many priests who are Japanese nationals). Worship services were in the Japanese language, and Japanese-language and English-language schools were common at many temples. Auxiliary temple organizations such as the Young Buddhist Association (YBA) and Buddhist Women's Association (BWA), common in Japan, were also established in America to enhance the feeling of sangha and ethnic solidarity. Many temples also emphasized American civic principles: Boy Scout chapters were active in temples before and after World War II.

The desire to assimilate into mainstream American society created changes in traditional Japanese Buddhist religious architecture and ritual and culture in order to conform to the predominant Protestant Christian religion: temples resembled Christian churches in their interior style and design (replacing tatami mats with pews and introducing lecterns), and supplemented traditional Shinshu liturgy with introduction of Western musical instruments (organs and pianos) in services, singing of gathas modeled after Christian hymns and male and female choirs. These changes remain today and are considered the norm for American Jōdo Shinshū temples.

Although the focus of temple life emphasized Japanese religious practices and culture, there was a very limited outreach to non-Japanese Americans interested in Buddhism. A few white (hakujin) members were admitted into BMNA temples, and a notable few, such as the Rev. Sunya Pratt of Tacoma, Washington, and Rev. Julius Goldwater (a relative of Senator Barry Goldwater) from Los Angeles, even became ordained in the Shin tradition in the U.S. prior to World War II. In 2006, Dr. Gordon Bermant, from Ekoji Buddhist Temple, became the president of the Buddhist Churches of America, the first non-Japanese-American to hold this position.

World War II and Japanese-American internment[edit]

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of America into World War II had a devastating impact on the US Jōdo Shinshū temples, which lingers to the present day. War hysteria, economic jealousies, and racism led to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066 which called for the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and placement into "internment" camps. Temples were closed and many Japanese-American Buddhist families hid or destroyed their butsudans (home altars), and other religious items. Jōdo Shinshū priests were arrested by the FBI since they were viewed as community leaders, and were imprisoned separate from their sanghas. However, Buddhist services were allowed to be conducted within the internment camps.

The term "churches" in the name of the sect derives historically from the desire of Japanese immigrant Buddhists to be accepted into North American society and to avoid attracting hostility and discrimination, especially after the internment of Japanese Americans. The name was changed from the BMNA to Buddhist Churches of America in 1944 at the Topaz War Relocation Center. During the internment period, many Japanese-Americans enlisted in the United States Army to prove their loyalty and in the belief that it would end the incarceration of their families. The BCA also petitioned the War Department to have a Buddhist military chaplain assigned to the segregated Japanese-American units, such as the 442nd Infantry Regiment, but this request was denied since Buddhism was not recognized as a religion (at the time only Protestant Christian, Catholic Christian and Jewish chaplains were endorsed). Buddhist chaplains would not be accepted until 1987, when the BCA reapplied for and was granted official endorser status.

Following the end of internment in 1946, Japanese-Americans returned to the West Coast and what was left of their former homes, and most temples were reopened. Relations with the Nishi Honganji in Japan were also reestablished.

Postwar developments[edit]

After World War II, the newly reorganized Buddhist Churches of America temples resumed traditional Jōdo Shinshū rituals and services, and served as a refuge from continuing racial discrimination in wider American society. For this reason, there was little or no desire by many Japanese-American ‘’sanghas’’ in propagating Jōdo Shinshū, with few exceptions. The internment legacy also created a stronger desire to assimilate into mainstream American society by many nisei ("second generation"). The nisei soon replaced the issei in BCA ministry and leadership positions, and English was used more frequently in services and meetings. During the next several decades, as Buddhism became more widely known and accepted in American society, particularly Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism continued to remain unknown, or misunderstood as an ethnic or "Christianized" form of Buddhism. This view is gradually changing as the organization's membership is becoming more ethnically diverse due to the growing American interest in Buddhism and intermarriage among the sansei ("Third Generation") and yonsei ("Fourth Generation") families, who continue to constitute the majority of sangha membership. English is the predominant language spoken at BCA temples, although some Japanese-language-only services and classes are still held. Shōmyō (the chanting of sutras) is still in the Japanese language; some temples have attempted to create English-language shōmyō.

The BCA continues to struggle with the legacy of internment and the effects of cultural assimilation as it confronts many serious issues: temples which are in isolated rural or deteriorating urban areas (which were formerly Japanese-American enclaves), a dwindling membership, lack of interest by young Japanese-Americans in Jōdo Shinshū and misconceptions of their doctrine within American Buddhism. There are also ongoing debates regarding the adaptation and change of traditional Shin doctrine to Western ideas of Buddhism, such as whether or not temples should offer more diverse forms of meditation in addition to chanting meditation, in order to attract new members, who would not be ethnic Japanese.[citation needed] However, it is hoped that ongoing American interest in the Dharma will lead to a new interest in Jōdo Shinshū and its revival in the United States. The BCA has attempted to accomplish this goal chiefly through academia, "minister's assistant" training, and through cultural events open to the public, such as the Bon Festival, taiko, and Japanese food bazaars. BCA was among the first American Buddhist communities to sanction same-sex marriage.[2]

The majority of BCA temples are in California, although there are other temples and howakai ("Jodo Shinshu Dharma Associations") in Washington, Idaho/Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia. The BCA is administratively and regionally divided into eight districts: San Francisco Bay, Northern California, Coast, Southern, Central California, Mountain States, Eastern, and Northwest. Each district may sponsor its own yearly conferences, lectures, and social and religious events. The BCA also publishes a bilingual monthly newspaper, Wheel of Dharma.

In the United States, BCA priests may be addressed as either sensei ("teacher"), "Minister," or "Reverend." BCA ministers have historically been all male and ethnically Japanese, but there is now a substantial number of female, and non-Japanese, ministers. BCA minister's dress or koromo includes the full-length black fuho, which is the everyday priest's robe, and wagesa, a type of stole which is said to symbolize the original Buddhist robe worn by Gautama Buddha. More formal robes include the kokue, a heavier black robe with longer sleeves and pleated skirt, hakama, and gojo-gesa, a colorful five-paneled apron which is draped over the kokue. These are worn for major services such as the Bon Festival or Hōonkō. In Japan, Jōdo Shinshū priests typically wear a white hakue, or undershirt, under their robes, and tabi, a traditional split-toe sock, but this is usually not worn in the United States. BCA ministers also carry Buddhist prayer beads with tassels said to symbolize a person's bonno or "evil passions" which one must be mindful of. They are similar to the mala in other Buddhist traditions. Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism does not have monastic vows (vinaya), so priests may marry: priests' spouses are called bomori, an archaic Japanese word which may mean "temple helper." Bomori are very active in temple activities, and may also be ordained and assist in rituals and services.


The following is a list of Buddhist churches affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America.

Bay District[edit]

The Bay District centers around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Central California District[edit]

The Central District centers around the Southern San Joaquin Valley.

Coast District[edit]

The Coast District covers the Santa Clara Valley and the central coast areas of California.

Eastern District[edit]

The Eastern District covers the states east of the Mississippi River.

Mountain States District[edit]

The Mountain States District covers the Rocky Mountain states and the area between the Rockies and the Mississippi River.

Northern California District[edit]

The Northern California District centers in the Sacramento Valley and Northern California area.

Northwest District[edit]

The Northwest District includes Washington, Oregon, and Western Idaho.

Southern District[edit]

The Southern District which includes Southern California, Arizona and Nevada.

Seminary and education[edit]

The BCA's American seminary, the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS), is located in Berkeley, California and is affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union. This seminary and graduate school offers a Master of Arts in Buddhist Studies and offers on-line courses. BCA priests graduate from the IBS after three years and are ordained at the Nishi Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto, Japan in an evening ceremony called tokudo. Most BCA priests receive additional ordination called kyoshi (which permits them to teach doctrine) and kaikyoshi, literally "overseas teacher" which permits them to teach outside mainland Japan. A typical course of instruction for priesthood includes study of Jōdo Shinshū doctrine, history, and liturgy, courses in comparative religions, general overview of Buddhism, and some Japanese-language instruction. Recently the IBS introduced Buddhist-based courses for chaplaincy training in partnership with the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies.[citation needed]

On October 20, 2006, the Jōdo Shinshū Center located in downtown Berkeley was opened to function as a training center for ministerial candidates and assistants in the U.S., sponsor continuing education programs for priests and laymembers, and as a major site for the propagation of Shin Buddhism in North America. The Center is also the US headquarters of Ryukoku University, which is based in Kyoto.

Currently, the Buddhist Churches of America is the only Buddhist organization which can endorse chaplains of Buddhist faith for U.S Armed Forces, as recognized by the National Council on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF). The BCA may also endorse Buddhist chaplains for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).


  1. ^ "Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaiʻi". official web site. 2005. Retrieved 2010-04-20.
  2. ^ Wilson, Jeff, "'All Beings Are Equally Embraced by Amida Buddha':Jodo Shins Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States," Journal of Global Buddhism 13 (2014):31-59
  3. ^ "Berkeley Buddhist Temple". www.berkeleysangha.org. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  4. ^ "ENMANJI BUDDHIST TEMPLE". www.sonic.net. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  5. ^ "Buddhist Church of San Francisco". Buddhist Church of San Francisco. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  6. ^ "Transitions". Preservation. National Trust for Historic Preservation. 64 (1): 9. 2012.
  7. ^ "Home". Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-02-04. Retrieved 2018-01-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ "Ekoji Buddhist Temple". Ekoji Buddhist Temple. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  10. ^ "Midwest Buddhist Temple - a Shin Buddhist Temple". Midwest Buddhist Temple. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  11. ^ "New York Buddhist Church". Archived from the original on 2010-04-18. Retrieved 2010-03-17.
  12. ^ "SLBTHome". www.slbuddhist.org. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  13. ^ "Home | Oregon Buddhist Temple". Home | Oregon Buddhist Temple. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  14. ^ "Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple - Practicing in the Jodo Shinshu Tradition". Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  15. ^ "Spokane Buddhist Temple | Namo Amida Butsu". www.spokanebuddhisttemple.org. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  16. ^ "Tacoma Buddhist Temple – Welcome to the Tacoma Buddhist Temple". Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  17. ^ "Welcome". Arizona Buddhist Temple. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  18. ^ "BTSD Online". www.btsd.net. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  19. ^ "San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple". San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  20. ^ "VHBT Home Montezuma". Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. Retrieved Jun 3, 2019.
  21. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2018-01-26. Retrieved 2018-01-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

External links[edit]