The Propagation and Adaption of Shin Buddhism in Chicago
Author: Wuxing Shi
Program of Study: Divinity Religious Studies
The Propagation and Adaption of Shin Buddhism in Chicago
The Midwest Buddhist Temple (MBT), located at 435W Menomonee Street in the Old Town neighborhood, is a Japanese Jodo Shinshu (淨土真宗) temple. My two classmates and I set out our journey on Saturday morning Sep 7. The present minister in charge, Rev. Ron Miyamura, kindly opened the gate and led us into the temple. The main building of MBT is two stories and surrounded by a lovely Japanese garden. While the first floor serves as the assembly hall, the second floor represents the most significant spiritual center of a Buddhist temple: the Buddha hall. After guiding us into the hall, Rev. Miyamura burned some incense, paid his respects to the Buddha, sat on a seat in a dignified manner, and started to talk with us.
The Buddha hall of MBT
Our conversation mainly focused on the propagation and adaption of Shin Buddhism which has taken place in Chicago. Back in the 1940s, there was a wave of Japanese migrants from relocation camps in the eastern part of America, and it was these resettlers, led by Rev. Gyodo Kono, who founded this temple (MBT, 2019). Although originally, this temple was meant to serve a Japanese community, according to Rev. Miyaruma, currently there are only 5 Japanese families in this neighborhood, and Caucasian American members have outnumbered Japanese Americans (Rev. Ron Miyamura, personal communication, Sep 7, 2019). Consequently, I was eager to find out how Shin Buddhists have spread Shin Buddhism, a Buddhist sect emphasizing “entrusting” which may be confused with “faith” in Christianity (Hongwanji, 2006). I also wanted to learn if Shin Buddhism is gradually gaining popularity or facing some difficulties in Chicago. In addition, have some new elements been combined with traditional Japanese Buddhism in order to adapt to Caucasian Americans?
According to our interview (Rev. Ron Miyamura, personal communication, Sep 7, 2019) and the MBT Website (2019), there are normally two times of so-called Zen Shin (禪淨) Meditation during the week on Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, and a family service is also held every Sunday morning after the Zen Shin Meditation. Surprisingly, these two regular events seem to break with the convention of Shin Buddhism as it functions in Japan. First, basically speaking, Shin Buddhists in Japan do not practice meditation, not to mention a method combined with another Buddhist sect, Zen Buddhism. One should know that Japanese Buddhist sects are extremely sectarian and even incompatible with each other. According to Amstutz (2002), Shin has long been criticized by many people as inauthentic Buddhism because it lacks the teaching of meditation which is an essential element in Buddhism. Secondly, Rev. Miyamura reports that Buddhists in Japan only go to temples several times a year, mainly on two occasions: festivals and funerals. However, here in America, not only the Midwest Buddhist Temple but also other Shin Buddhist temples hold activities every week (Rev. Ron Miyamura, personal communication, Sep 7, 2019).
Group picture with the present minister in MBT
The striking differences between Shin Buddhism in Japan and America, according to Rev. Miyamura, are in fact, an adaption to Caucasian Americans (Rev. Ron Miyamura, personal communication, Sep 7, 2019). Why is that? To start with, Seager (2012) remarks that Zen prospered in America during the last half of the 20thcentury. As a consequence, based on the principle of supply and demand, Zen meditation was in high demand, and that is exactly why MBT has incorporated Zen and Shin into a new kind of meditation, in an effort to attract people interested in practicing Zen. Shin practice is really about attaining shinjin (信心), the entrusting mind in Amida Buddha. In the Zen Shin Meditation, Zen serves only as a skillful means to lead people who are interested in meditation to the factual gate of Shin. As for the weekly family service, it is really due to the fact that many American people are already accustomed to going to church at least once a week, usually on Sundays. Consequently, MBT and many other Buddhist temples also follow this mode. (Rev. Ron Miyamura, personal communication, Sep 7, 2019)
We have learned by far that the Zen Shin Meditation and family service, these two features in MBT serve as adjustments to Caucasian Americans in an effort to propagate Shin Buddhism, and time and statistics have proven that they work well. Rev. Miyamura reports that, commonly, there are about 75 people participating in the family service every week, with only one-third Japanese Americans (JAs) and two-thirds Caucasian Americans (CAs). As mentioned above, it is very rare for Buddhists in Japan to go to temple every week, and that phenomenon could also be seen in America. Currently, MBT has 150 JA members, and 200 CA members; that is to say, the attendance rate of family service for JAs and CAs are roughly 16.7% and 25% respectively. More surprisingly, “while the membership of CAs is rising, that of JAs is facing a decline,” said Rev. Miyamura (Rev. Ron Miyamura, personal communication, Sep 7, 2019). For one reason, many JAs have moved out of the Old Town neighborhood because of the expensive cost of living there. Secondly, MBT has made a successful effort to gain its popularity among CAs.
As Christian priests promote faith in God, Shin Buddhists also propagate entrusting in Amida Buddha, and both of them have their ideal vision of Paradise, or Pure Land, both promising immortality. Shin practice, reported by Ama (2011), aims to attain the arising faith or entrusting mind, shinjinin Amida Buddha, and for Shin Buddhists, even the recitation, nembutsu(念佛), is no longer an essential means to attain Buddhahood. If so, what are the differences between them and why do some CAs convert to Shin Buddhism from Christianity? After our visit, I wrote an email to Rev. Miyamura to ask about these confounding questions. On the next day, he kindly replied that on the surface Shin may seem too “Christian”, and to be honest, he “does not know what causes one to question and seek alternatives.” However, there are many differences between Christianity and Shin Buddhism. Shin has a very different world view, and ”what appeals is that Amida is not a God….no punishment, no judgement, not a creator, etc.” These characteristics attract people who are searching for something different from their upbringing (Rev. Ron Miyamura, personal communication, Sep 11, 2019).
MBT, a Buddhist temple once served a Japanese community in Old Town, but has successfully gained its popularity among CAs by incorporating meditation into Shin practice, and creating a friendly and warm ambience for family. While some people think that Shin is too Christian in some way when it comes to the doctrine of shinjin, Hongwanji (2006) insists that shinjinis not something we can manufacture through self-centered efforts or concepts, but directly through the power of Amida. As a consequence, the word “shinjin”should never be mistranslated as “faith”. Rev. Miyamura reports that Shin Buddhism is the “middle ground” between other Buddhisms and Christianity, and MBT is always open to anyone who is seeking something different and significant in his or her life (Rev. Ron Miyamura, personal communication, Sep 11, 2019). It is possible that the similarity between Amida and God also makes it easier for some CAs to acclimate themselves to Shin Buddhism.
Amstutz, G. (2010). Kiyozawa in concord: A historian looks again at Shin Buddhism in America. The Eastern Buddhist, 41(1), 101-150.
Ama, M. (2011). Shin Buddhist women in America. Religion Compass, 5(5), 180-191.
Hongwanji. (2006). Jodo Shinshu: A guide. Berkeley, CA: Buddhist Churches of America.
Midwest Buddhist Temple. (2019). History of our temple. Retrieved from https://mbtchicago.org/about-the-temple/history-of-our-temple/
Rev. Ron Miyamura. (Sep 7, 2019). personal communication (interview).
Rev. Ron Miyamura. (Sep. 11, 2019). personal communication (email).
Seager, R. H. (2012). Buddhism in America. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.