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Buddhadharma : Spring 2014
SPRING 2014 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 81 interested in becoming part of the Buddhist church,” says his daughter, Hoshina Seki. “My father was a very progressive thinker.” The academy bought a five-story townhouse on Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Streets that had once belonged to heiress Marion Davies, the longtime mistress of William Randolph Hearst. In 1955, Japanese business- man Seiichi Hirose donated the statue of Shinran Shonin, which had stood in a park in Hiroshima, a little over a mile from where the atomic bomb was dropped. “His wish,” says Hoshina Seki, “was that there be no more Hiroshima.” Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, who was a fre- quent visitor in those days, spoke at the statue’s dedication ceremony. In the early 1960s, the church moved into a newly constructed annex in the garden next to the townhouse. Rev. Seki retired in the 1980s and passed away in 1991. “I think he was very pleased at the teaching spreading,” says Hoshina Seki. “But I think he was also saddened that compared to all the other Buddhist religions, Shin Buddhism seemed to be the slowest to be understood and to catch up.” Hoshina Seki believes Shin Buddhism in America is less attractive to Western- ers than Zen because it is so straightfor- ward. “It doesn’t have that exotic Asian flair or mystery,” she says. “As a Shin Buddhist, it’s simple. We rely on Amida Buddha and say the sacred name—and that’s it.” Nancy Okada, whose parents helped found the temple and worked to keep it open when Rev. Seki was interned, says when first-time visitors arrive at the church, they bring expectations rooted in the religious traditions in which they were raised, particularly when it comes to reciting the Nem- butsu. “Some of them take it as a mantra. It’s not a mantra,” she says. “Some of them take it as a prayer. They try to put every- thing into little brackets so it fits their way of understanding.” Newcomers with precon- ceived ideas about Buddhism may be taken aback by hymns reminiscent of Christian wor- ship. “They say, ‘This is not what I expected,’” explains Okada. “I tell them, ‘No, what you’re looking at is Americanized Jodo-Shinshu.’ This came from the missionaries who decided to absorb what they thought a Judeo-Christian service looked like to make it familiar to the population.” The interplay of Japanese and Westernized forms contin- ues even as the New York Bud- dhist Church has become home to a racially and ethnically diverse cross- section of New Yorkers. That would have suited Rev. Hozen Seki, who in the 1970s ordained three Caucasians, incurring the wrath of the Japanese Jodo Shinshu hierarchy. “He was a maverick, a renegade in his own way,” Okada says. He would have been gratified to know that after seventy-five years, the congregation he founded still embodies that maverick spirit. with Nishi Hongwanji, the Jodo Shinshu home temple in Kyoto. A former Buddhist monk, Shinran (1173–1263) taught that the pursuit of enlightenment is a futile, ego-driven exercise, and that thanks to tariki, or “other power,” we come to understand that we are already enlightened. “We should chant the Nembutsu out of gratitude,” says Wise. “We don’t have to click our heels together three times to realize that we’re home. We’re home and we’re grateful.” This kind of abiding, optimistic faith is evident in the origins of the New York Buddhist Church. The Japanese-born founder, Rev. Hozen Seki, the son of a Jodo Shinshu minister, had plans to become a mission- ary in Taiwan when he learned of an opening with a congrega- tion in California and took that instead. He served at a temple in Los Angeles and founded another in Phoenix, Arizona, but decided to start a temple in New York after reading that a Zen teacher, Sokei-An Shigetsu Sasaki, had a sangha there. Rev. Seki made the cross-country trip in spectacular fashion, flying in an open-cockpit plane with a Japanese pilot and navigator, making frequent stops to refuel. Members of the Japanese community bought a building for $10,000 on West 94th Street and started holding services in 1938, even as relations between Japan and the U.S. were reach- ing the breaking point. Dur- ing the Second World War, the church remained open, but Rev. Seki was sent to an internment camp. He returned after the war ended, and the congregation soon saw its greatest period of growth and prosperity, adding a Sunday school, a Japanese school, and other activities. In 1951, Rev. Seki established the American Buddhist Academy. “He felt that there were a lot of people who would be interested in learning about Buddhism but were not particularly Rev. Hozen Seki performs a ground breaking ceremony for the new temple on Riverside Drive in Manhattan in 1963 PHOTOGRAPHERUNKNOWN