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Buddhadharma : Fall 2005
buddhadharma| 77 |fall 2005 The oldest Buddhist community in the United States recently celebrated its first century – and launched into a period of great change. The Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) aims to expand beyond its Japanese origins and make its practice more relevant to main- stream Americans. Change is needed, BCA leader Bishop Koshin Ogui says, to reverse a decline in membership and return to the tradition’s original teachings. “When people see the practices and format of the temples or churches,” Bishop Ogui says, “they may ask, ‘Wow, what is this? Is this Buddhist? A very fundamental Buddhist? Or a copycat of centuries of Christianity?’” He laughs saying this, but in his laugh there’s sadness, too. The Buddhist Churches of America, the U.S. branch of Jodo Shinshu, also known as Shin Buddhism, has long resembled some Changing Times in the BuddhisT ChurChes of ameriCa By DaviD Swick American Protestant churches. And the reason for this is not funny. Following Pearl Harbor, 111,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps. Most of them were Buddhists, and the greatest number of these, Shin Buddhists. In a Topaz, Utah, camp in 1944, Shin leaders decided to make their organization as nonthreatening to American society as possible. They chose a new name: the Buddhist Churches of America, and also changed many terms: “sangha” became “brotherhood,” and their national leader the “Bishop.” Services from then on would feature hymns, readings from Scripture, and a sermon – with everyone sitting in pews. The BCA’s outward trappings are some- times mistaken for its essence. This is unfortunate, because the practice is sub- tle, and its profundities can be missed. Jodo Shinshu, which means True Essence of the Pure Land Way, is an offshoot of the Pure Land branch of Mahayana Buddhism. It emerged in thir- teenth-century Japan, revolutionizing that society by opening Buddhist teachings to people who had been excluded, includ- ing women, peasants, and merchants. It did so partly by putting at the core of the practice something easy but profound: the recitation of a name. Mahayana scriptures feature many bud- dhas. In East Asia, two of these, represent- ing Immeasurable Light (Amitabha) and Immeasurable Life (Amitayus), are com- bined in the name Amida. For centuries, Shin practitioners have recited the name of Amida Buddha: Namu Amida Butsu. Known as nembutsu, it is a call not only to Amida Buddha but to the essence of his enlightenment. Only by surrending the ego can one come to realize the compas- sion and transformative power of Amida Buddha. Koshin Ogui became known as a reformer while heading churches in Cleveland and Chicago, and last year was elected to a five-year term as Bishop of the BCA. An eighteenth-generation priest of Jodo Shinshu, Ogui has ex- tensive experience in Zen practices and studied at Yale Divinity School. He says that Jodo Shinshu has not always been practiced with subtlety, and the BCA is now realigning itself with the teachings of Shinran Shonin (1173–1263), the founder of the tradition. The leaders who came after Shinran, Ogui says, interpreted his teachings for the audience of their time: uneducated people focused on surviving day to day. “So they offered a simple approach. They said, ‘If you simply recite Namu Amida Butsu, you’ll be sure to be reborn in the Pure Land,’ ” Ogui says. “In Japan, Amida Buddha is understood to be out- side oneself and people pray for it. But here the idea is that each person has the ability to discover within themselves infinite wisdom and compassion – and therefore can find Amida Buddha inside themselves. Life itself is the light of Amida Buddha. “You create understanding of one- ness with yourself and Amida Buddha, Profile